colin f lane

Tuchman: A Distant Mirror

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Alfred P. Knopf, 1978.

'For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered.' — John Dryden, 'On the Characters in the Canterbury Tales', in Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern

Foreword; The Period, the Protagonist, the Hazards

'The genesis of [Tuchman's book] was a desire to find out what were the effects on society ... of the Black Death of 1348-50', 'given the possibilities of [her own] time' ie M.A.D., or nuclear holocaust.

Not Four, but Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Comparing the aftermaths of the Black Death and of World War I [and Spanish flu], James Westfall Thompsonfound all the same complaints: economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, industrial insolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners.


The interval of 600 years permits what is significant in human character to stand out. People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization. As a result, qualities of conduct that we recognize as familiar amid these alien surroundings are revealed as permanent in human nature. If one insists upon a lesson from history, it lies here, as discovered by French medievalist Edouard Perroy when he was writing a book on the Hundred Years' War while dodging the Gestapo during World War II. 'Certain ways of behavior,' he wrote, 'certain reactions against fate, throw mutual light upon each other.'

Historiographic Shift

During the three centuries following the 14th, history was virtually a genealogy of nobility, devoted to tracing dynastic lines and family connections and infused by the idea of the noble as a superior person.

The French Revolution marks the great reversal, following which historians saw the common man as hero, the poor as ipso facto virtuous, nobles and kings as monsters of iniquity.

Their work is now supplemented and balanced by modern medievalists ... who have taken a more sociological approach and turned up detailed hard facts about daily life.

Tuchman's Law: The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold.

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic, both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of disturbance.

Chapter 1; "I Am the Sire de Coucy": The Dynasty

Household organized under the same officers as the King's: a constable, a grand butler, a master of the falconry and the hunt, a master of the stables, a master of forests and waters, and masters or grand stewards of kitchen, bakery, cellar, fruit (which included spices, and torches and candles for lighting), and furnishings (including tapestry and lodgings during travel). A grand seigneur of this rank also usually employed one or more resident physicians, barbers, priests, painters, musicians, minstrels, secretaries and copyists, an astrologer, a jester, and a dwarf, besides pages and squires.

Everything that had formed the fief since the tree trunks at Codiciacum (In the earliest Latin documents, Coucy was called Codiciacum or Codiacum, supposedly derived from Codex, codicis, meaning a tree trunk stripped of its branches...) was symbolized in the great lion platform of stone in front of the castle gate where vassals came to present rents and homage. The platform rested on three lions, couchant, one devouring a child, one a dog, and in between them, a third, quiescent. On top was a fourth lion seated in all the majesty the sculptor could evoke. Three times a year - at Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas - the Abbot of Cogent or his agent came to pay homage for the land originally granted to the monks by Aubry de Coucy. The rituals of the ceremony were as elaborate and abstruse as any in the royal crownings at Reims.

Mounted on a bay horse (or, according to some accounts, a palomino) with clipped tail and ears and a plow-horse's harness, the abbot's representative carried a whip, a seed bag of wheat, and a basket filled with 120 rissoles. These were crescent-shaped pastries made of rye flour, stuffed with minced veal cooked in oil. A dog followed, also with clipped ears and tail, and with a rissole tied around his neck. The agent circled a stone cross at the entrance to the court three times, cracking his whip on each tour, dismounted and knelt at the lion platform, and, if each detail of equipment and performance was exactly right so far, was allowed to proceed. He then mounted the platform, kissed the lion, and deposited the rissoles plus twelve loaves of bread and three portions of wine as homage. The Sire de Coucy took a third of the offerings, distributed the rest among the assembled bailiffs and town magistrates, and stamped the document of homage with a seal representing a mitered abbot with the feet of a goat.

Pagan, barbarian, feudal, Christian, accumulated out of the shrouded past, here was medieval society — and the many-layered elements of Western man.

Chapter 3; Youth and Chivalry

Energy depended on human and animal muscle and on the gear and shaft turned by wind or water. Their power drove mills for tanning and laundering, sawing wood, pressing olive oil, casting iron, mashing hops for beer and pulp for paper and pigment for paints, operating fullers' vats for finishing woolen cloth, bellows for blast furnaces, hydraulic hammers for foundries, and wheels for grindstones used by armorers. The mills had so augmented the use of iron that timberland was already being deforested to supply fuel for the forge. They had so extended human capacity that Pope Celestine III in the 1190s ruled that windmills must pay tithes. Unpowered tools - the lathe, brace and bit, spinning wheel, and wheeled plow - had also in the last century increased skills and powers of production.

Fortune's Wheel, plunging down the mighty and (more rarely) raising the lowly, was the prevailing image of the instability of life in an uncertain world. Progress, moral or material, in man or society, was not expected during this life on earth, of which the conditions were fixed. The individual might through his own efforts increase in virtue, but betterment of the whole world would have to await the Second Coming and the beginning of a new age.

History was finite and contained within comprehensible limits. It began with the Creation and was scheduled to end in a not indefinitely remote future with the Second Coming, which was the hope of afflicted mankind, followed by the Day of Judgment. Within that span, man was not subject to social or moral progress because his goal was the next world, not betterment in this. In this world he was assigned to ceaseless struggle against himself in which he might attain individual progress and even victory, but collective betterment would only come in the final union with God.

Chapter 4; War

While desirable in any epoch, a "just war" in the 14th century was virtually a legal necessity as the basis for requisitioning feudal aids in men and money. It was equally essential for securing God on one's side, for war was considered fundamentally an appeal to the arbitrament of God. A "just war" had to be one of public policy declared by the sovereign, and it had to be in a "just" cause -- that is, directed against some "injustice" in the form of crime or fault on the part of the enemy. As formulated by the inescapable Thomas Aquinas, it required a third criterion: right intention on the part of the participants, but how this could be tested, the great expounder did not say. Even more convenient than the help of God was the "right of spoil" -- in practice, pillage -- that accompanied a just war. It rested on the theory that the enemy, being "unjust", had no right to property, and that booty was the due reward for risk of life in a just cause.

Chapter 7; Decapitated France: The Bourgeois Rising and the Jacquerie

The upper level of the Third Estate, made up of merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, office-holders, and purveyors to the crown, had nothing left in common with its working-class base except the fact of being non-noble. To overcome that barrier was every bourgeois magnate's aim. While climbing toward ennoblement and a country estate, he emulated the clothes, customs, and values of the nobles and on arriving shared their tax exemption -- no small benefit. Etienne Marcel had an uncle who had paid the highest tax in Paris in 1313 and whose son bought a patent of nobility for 500 lives. Marcel's father- and brother-in-law, Pierre and Martin des Essars, starting from bourgeois origins in Rouen, had become enriched and and ennobled in the service of Philip the Fair and Philip VI. As the crown's agents, they and their kind provisioned the royal households, commissioned their tapestries and books, purchased their jewels, fabrics, and works of art, served as confidants and moneylenders, and held lucrative office as treasurers and tax-collectors. Pierre was able to give his daughter Marguerite, when she married Marcel, a princely dowry of 3,000 écus.

Nobles and clergy resented the royal favor shown and the opulence allowed to officials chosen from outside their ranks. Especially they hated the finance officers, "who travel in pomp and make fortunes greater than the dukes and marry their daughters to nobles and buy up the lands of poor knights whom they have cheated and impoverished ... and appoint their own kind to offices whose numbers grow from day to day and whose salaries keep pace."

Between the official class and the mercantile bourgeois like Marcel, no love was lost, though they shared the enterprises of capitalism. When capitalism became feasible through the techniques of banking and credit, it became respectable. The theory of a non-acquisitive society faded, and accumulation of surplus wealth lost its odium -- indeed, became enviable. In Renart le Contrefait, a satire of the time, the wealthy bourgeois enjoy the best estate of all: "They live in a noble manner, wear lordly garments, have falcons and sparrow hawks, fine palfreys and fine chargers. When the vassals must go to join the host, the bourgeois rest in their beds; when the vassals go to be massacred in battle, the bourgeois picnic by the river."

Chosen by the leading citizens, the Provost of Merchants and his fellow magistrates administered all the usual municipal functions and assigned daily duty to the police force, which was manned by the obligatory service of citizens in units of ten, forty, and fifty. Assisted by four deputies and a council of 24 clerics and laymen, the Provost was supposed to be on duty from seven A.M. every day except holy days. His seat was the Châtelet, which was also the city prison and was located on the right bank at the entrance to the Grand Pont, the only bridge leading over to the Ile de la Cité. Nearby the Châtelet was the City Hall on a large open square called the Place de Grève, where the unemployed came to be hired.

The city Marcel governed covered an area, by present landmarks, from approximately the Grands Boulevards on the right bank to the Luxembourg Gardens on the left, and east to west from the Bastille to the Tuileries. Everything beyond these boundaries was the faubourg or countryside. The center of Paris was the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, on which stood the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Hotel Dieu or public hospital, and the royal palace built by St. Louis. The right bank, which had expanded beyond the old walls, was the side of commerce, industry, public markets, luxury trades, and wealthy residences, while the left bank, much smaller in populated area, was dominated by the University. According to a tax survey of the year 1292, the city at that time had 352 streets, eleven crossroads, ten squares, fifteen churches, and 15,000 taxpayers. Fifty years later, in Marcel's day, its total population after the Black Death was probably around 75,000.

Main streets were paved and wide enough to accommodate two carts or carriages, while the rest of the streets were narrow, muddy, and malodorous with a gutter running down the middle. For the average citizen the rule for elimination was "all in the street", and in lower-class quarters a pile of ordure usually lay at every doorway. Householders were supposed to carry the deposits to disposal pits and were reminded by repeated ordinances to pave and sweep their doorsteps.

Traffic jams blocked the narrow streets when pack mules with baskets hanging on either side met street vendors with their trays or porters bent under loads of wood and charcoal. Tavern signs on long iron poles further crowded the streets. Shop signs were gargantuan, the better to overwhelm customers, since shopkeepers were forbidden to call to buyers until after they had left the neighboring shop. A tooth-puller was represented by a tooth the size of an armchair, a glover by a glove with each finger big enough to hold a baby.

The noise of signs rattling in the wind competed with the cries of street vendors, the shouts of muleteers, the clatter of horses, and the announcements of public criers. Paris had six Master Criers appointed by the Provost, each with a number of assistants who were sound out to the crossroads and squares of the various quarters to announce official decrees, taxes, fairs and ceremonies, houses for sale, missing children, marriages, funerals, births, and baptisms. When the King's vintage was ready for sale, all the taverns had to close while public criers twice a day cried the royal wine. When deaths were announced, the criers rang bells as they moved along, calling in solemn tones, "Wake, you sleepers, pray God to forgive your trespasses; the dead cannot cry; pray for their souls as the bell sounds in these streets." Stray dogs howled to hear them.

Each trade occupied its own quarter -- butchers and tanners around the Châtelet, money-changers, goldsmiths, and drapers on the Grand Pont, scribes, illuminators, and parchment- and ink-sellers on the left bank around the University. In the open shops worked bakers, soap-makers, fishmongers, hatters, cabinet-makers, potters, embroiderers, launderers, furriers, blacksmiths, barbers, apothecaries, and the myriad sub-specialties of the clothing and metal trades. Below the artisan class were day laborers, porters, and domestics. Named for their job or place of origin or some personal trait, they might be called Robert le Gros (the Fat), Raoul le Picard (of Picardy), Isabeau d'Outre-mer (from overseas), and Gautier Hors-du-sens (Crazy Walter).

In each quarter were public baths, providing either steam or hot water. A total of 26 were listed in the survey of 1292. Though considered dangerous to morality, especially of women, they were recognized as a contribution to cleanliness which the city took pains to keep from closing during a bad winter when fuel was costly. They were forbidden to admit prostitutes, vagabonds, lepers, or men of bad repute, or to open before dawn because of perils in the streets at night, but at daybreak the crier's voice was heard,

Calling to you to bathe, Messire,
And steam yourself without delay.
Our water's hot and that's no lie.

As a capital city with a great university, Paris was host to a turbulent horde of students from all over Europe. They had privileged status not subject to local justice but only to the King, with the result that their crimes and disorders were largely unpunished. They lived miserably, overcharged for dirty rooms in dark neighborhoods. They sat on stools in cold lecture halls lit only by two candles and were perennially complained of for debauchery, rape, robbery, and "all other enormities hateful to God."

Though Oxford was a growing center of intellectual interest, the University of Paris was still the theological arbiter of Europe, and the libraries of its separate faculties, some numbering up to a thousand volumes, augmented its glory. Added to these were the fine library of Notre Dame and no less than 28 booksellers, not counting open-air bookstalls. Here were "abundant orchards of all manner of books," wrote an enraptured English visitor; "what a mighty stream of pleasure made glad our hearts when we visited Paris, the paradise of the world!"

Water was supplied to the city at public fountains fed be aqueducts leading from the hills northeast of Paris. Windmills filled the faubourgs, where houses had room for gardens and vineyards, and abbeys stood amid cultivated fields. Produce entered the city mainly by riverboat to be laid out on market tables or sold from the trays of vendors. Beggars sat by church doors asking for alms, mendicant friars begged bread for their orders or for the poor in prison, jongleurs performed stunts and magic in the plazas and recited satiric tales and narrative ballads of adventure in Saracen lands. Streets were bright with colored cloth. Crimson, green, and particolored, being the most expensive, were reserved for nobles, prelates, and magnates. The clergy could wear color as long as their gowns were long and buttoned. At sundown the curfew bell rang for closing time, work ceased, shops were shuttered, silence succeeded bustle. At eight o'clock, when the Angelus bell signaled bedtime, the city was in darkness. Only the crossroads were lit by flickering candle or lamp placed in a niche holding a statue of Notre Dame or the patron saint of the quarter.

On Sundays all business was closed, everyone went to church, and afterward working people gathered in the taverns while the bourgeois promenaded in the faubourgs. On holidays it was a Paris custom to dine at a table set outside the front door. Houses were the characteristic high narrow urban type built side by side, sometimes with a courtyard between the front half and the back. They were half-timbered, with the spaces filled by clay or stone and each story cantilevered over the one below. The hôtels of nobles and magnates kept some elements of the fortified castle with conical towers and high walls. As a concession to urban life they had large glass-paned windows opening onto courtyards, and belvederes with many ornamental pinnacles on the roofs from which a watch could be maintained on all sides. The owner was made known by his coat-of-arms sculpted over the doorway. Streets had no inscribed names, so that people had to search for hours to find the place they wanted.

Indoors the noble residences were decorated with murals and tapestries, but furniture was meager. Beds, which served for sitting as well as sleeping, were the most important item. Chairs were few; even kings and popes received ambassadors sitting on beds furnished with elaborate curtains and spreads; otherwise, people sat on benches. Torches in wall sconces lit the rooms, and massive fireplaces were built into the walls. These wall chimneys "in the French fashion," as they were called in Italy, were the greatest luxury of middle-class homes. TAHe only other warmth came from the oven and cooking fire and warming pans in bed at night. Like sanitation, heating was an arrangement that the age seems technologically equipped to have handled better than it did, were it not that man is as irrational about his comfort as about other activities. Fur coverlets, fur-lined clothes, or separate fur linings worn under tunics and robes substituted for active sources of heat. The furs of otter, cat, miniver, squirrel, and fox were less expensive than heavy wool cloth; ermine and marten adorned the rich.

Floors were strewn in summer with fragrant herbs and grasses and at other times by rushes or straw changed four times a year, or once a year in poorer homes, by which time it was filled with fleas and rank with dog droppings and refuse. A well-off merchant scattered violets and other flowers on his floor before a dinner party and decorated his walls and table with fresh greens bought in the market at early morning.

Rooms were few, servants slept where they could, privacy was non-existent, which may have increased irritability. Whether it hampered or facilitated seduction is an open question. The two Cambridge students in Chaucer's Reeve's Tale were conveniently enabled to enjoy the favors of the Miller's wife and daughter because they were put to bed in the same room with the family. Even in greater homes guests slept in the same room with host and hostess.

For defense against the companies, villages made forts of their stone churches, surrounding them with trenches, manning the bell towers with sentinels, and piling up stones to throw down upon the attackers. "The sound of church bells no longer summoned people to praise the Lord but to take shelter from the enemy."

Chapter 8; Hostage in England

In due time Coucy was to meet and know Chaucer and to become a friend and patron of Froissart

Chapter 12; Double Allegiance

In the Rhineland, unconnected with the plague, a new hysteria appeared in the form of a dancing mania. Whether it sprang from misery and homelessness caused by heavy spring floods of the Rhine that year, or whether it was the spontaneous symptom of a disturbed time, history does not know, but the participants were in no doubt. They were convinced that they were possessed by demons. Forming circles in streets and churches, they danced for hours with leaps and screams, calling on demons by name to cease tormenting them or crying that they saw visions of Christ or the Virgin or the heavens opening. When exhausted they fell to the ground rolling and groaning as if in the grip of agonies. As the mania spread to Holland and Flanders, the dancers appeared with garlands in their hair and moved in groups from place to place like the flagellants. They were chiefly the poor -- peasants, artisans, servants, and beggars, with a large proportion of women, especially the unmarried. Sexual revels often followed the dancing, but the dominant preoccupation was exorcism of the devils. In the agony of the times, people felt a demonic presence, and in their minds nothing pointed more surely to Satan's handiwork in society than the fashion for wearing pointed shoes, which they had so often heard denounced in sermons. Something slightly insane about this crippling frivolity made it in the common mind the mark of the Devil.

Hostility to the clergy marked the dancers as it had the flagellants. In their anxiety to suppress a craze which menaced them, priests performed as many exorcisms as they could while the public watched, sharing in the presence of demons. Processions and masses were held to pray for the sufferers. The frenzy died out within a year, although it was to reappear on and off over the next two centuries. Whatever its cause, it testified to a growing submission to the supernatural, of which the Pope took notice. In August 1374 he announced the right of the Inquisition to intervene in trials for sorcery, heretofore considered a civil crime. Because sorcery was made to work by the aid of demons, Gregory claimed it lay within Church jurisdiction.

Chapter 16; The Papal Schism

Words poured from her in a torrent unhindered by need of pen. Even her devoted confessor, Raymond of Capua, a cultivated nobleman and future General of the Dominican Order, sometimes fell asleep under the redundant flow. That so much of Catherine's talk was preserved was owed to the astonishing capacity of medieval scribes to record verbatim the prolix speech of the period. Speech was customarily filled with repetition to allow time for the listener to absorb what was being said. Information and learning were still largely acquired through listening to heralds, sermons, orations, and reading aloud, and for that very reason, scribes, before the age of printing, were far better trained to take down the spoken word than at any time since.

Alienated and dismayed, prominent doctors of theology fled to Rome to join Urban. Others too were leaving. Student and faculty of Urbanist countries, unable to remain under Clementist obedience, departed for universities in Italy, the Empire, and Oxford. "The sun of knowledge" in France, said a departing master, "has suffered an eclipse." At this time the decline of the University of Paris as a great cosmopolitan center began.

Chapter 18; The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions

In addition to oppressive taxes, a rising rancor of the poor against the rich and a conscious demand by the lowest class for greater rights in the system supplied the impulse. Concentration of wealth was moving upward in the 14th century and enlarging the proportion of the poor, while the catastrophes of the century reduced large numbers to misery and want. The poor had remained manageable as long as their minimum subsistence could be maintained by charity, but the situation changed when urban populations were swelled by the flotsam of war and plague and infused by a new aggressiveness in the plague's wake.

As the masters became richer, the workers sank to the level of day labor, with little prospect of advancement. Membership in the guilds was shut off to the ordinary journeyman and reserved under complicated requirements and fees for sons and relatives of the master class. In many trades, work was farmed out to workers in their homes, often at lower wages to their wives and children, whose employment was forbidden in the guilds. Obligatory religious holidays, which numbered 120 to 150 a year, kept earnings down. Although forbidden to strike and, in some towns, to assemble, workers formed associations of their own to press for higher wages. They had their own dues and treasuries and connections across frontiers through which jobs and lodgings could be secured for members, and which doubtless served as channels of agitation.

Self-consciousness as a class -- the "people" -- was growing. Christ was often portrayed as a man of the people shown in frescoes and carvings surrounded by an artisan's or peasant's tools -- hammer, knife, ax, and wool-carder's comb -- instead of the instruments of the Crucifixion. In Florence, the workers called themselves il popolo di Dio. "Viva li popolo!" was the cry of the revolt of the Ciompi in 1378. As the greatest industrial center of the day, Florence was the natural starting place of insurrection.

The Ciompi were the lowest class of workers unaffiliated with any guild, but while the revolt came to be called after them, artisans of all levels and degrees below the major craft guilds were involved in the rising. They worked at fixed wages, often below subsistence level, for sixteen to eighteen hours a day, and their wages might be withheld to cover waste or damage to raw materials. The alliance of the Church with the great was plain enough in a bishop's pastoral letter declaring that spinners could be excommunicated for wasting their wool. Workers could be flogged or imprisoned or suffer removal from the list of employables or have a hand cut off for resistance to employers. Agitators for the right to organize could be hung, and in 1345 ten wool-carders had been put to death on this charge.

Chapter 20; A Second Norman Conquest

Information about each other's movements was known through French and English fishermen, who, ignoring hostilities, came to each other's aid at sea and exchanged catches, keeping trans-Channel communication open.

Chapter 21; The Fiction Cracks

Picardy, his native region, so often in the path of invasion, was "beaten and chastised," wrote Mézières, himself a Picard, "and today no longer flourishes." From places reduced to misery, the last peasants fled to other regions to that "at present," according to a complaint of 1388, "laborers cannot be found to work or cultivate the land." The marks of a century of woe -- lowered population, dwindling commerce, deserted villages, ruined abbeys -- were everywhere in France, and cause enough for the climate of pessimism. Certain communes in Normandy were reduced to two or three hearths; in the diocese of Bayeux several towns had been abandoned since 1370, likewise several parishes of Brittany. The commerce of Châlons on the Marne was reduced from 30,000 pieces of cloth a year to 800. In the region of Paris, according to an ordinance of 1388, "many notable and ancient highways, bridges, lanes, and roads" had been left to decay -- gutted by streams, overgrown by hedges, brambles, and trees, and some, having become impassable, abandoned altogether. The same examples could be multiplied for the south.

Deschamps was concerned with men as they are, not as they should be. Pimps, sorcerers, monks, scolds, lawyers, tax-collectors, prostitutes, prelates, rascals, female procurers, and a variety of repugnant hags populate his verses.

Government expenditure continued to mount through the year 1389 to an excess as extravagant as the uncles', although its purpose was civil rather than military. Its climax was the ceremonial entry into Paris of Isabeau of Bavaria, for her coronation as Queen, an event of spectacular splendor and unparalleled marvels of public entertainment. Though its cost contradicted the good intentions of the new government, the performance was in itself a form of government in the same sense as a Roman circus. What is government but an arrangement by which the many accept the authority of the few? Circuses and ceremonies are meant to encourage the acceptance; they either succeed or, by costing too much, accomplish the opposite.

Chapter 24; Danse Macabre

On the Tuesday before Candlemas Day (January 28, 1393), four days after Couch had left Paris, the Queen gave a masquerade to celebrate the wedding of a favorite lady-in-waiting who, twice widowed, was now being married for the third time. A woman's re-marriage, according to certain traditions, was considered an occasion for mockery and often celebrated by charivari for the newlyweds with all sorts of license, disguises, disorders, and loud blaring of discordant music and clanging of cymbals outside the bridal chamber. Although this was a usage "contrary to all decency," says the censorious Monk of St. Denis, King Charles had let himself be persuaded by dissolute friends to join in such a charade.

Six young men including the King and Yvain, bastard son of the Count of Foix, disguised themselves as "wood savages," in costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in reins wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, "so that they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot." Face masks entirely concealed their identity. Aware of the risk they ran in torch-filled halls, they forbade anyone carrying a torch to enter during the dance. Plainly, an element of Russian roulette was involved, the tempting of death that has repeatedly been the excitement of highborn and decadent youth. Certain ways of behavior vary little across the centuries. Plainly, too, there was an element of cruelty in involving as one of the actors a man thinly separated from madness.

The deviser of the affair, "the cruelest and most insolent of men," was one Huguet de Guisay, favored in the royal circle for his outrageous schemes. He was a man of "wicked life" who "corrupted and schooled the youth in debaucheries," and held commoners and the poor in hatred and contempt. He called them dogs, and with blows of sword and whip took pleasure in forcing them to imitate barking. If a servant displeased him, he would force the man to ie on the ground and, standing on his back, would kick him with spurs, crying, "Bark, dog!" in response to his cries of pain.

In their Dance of the Savages, the masqueraders capered before the revelers, imitating the howls of wolves and making obscene gestures while the guests tried to discover their identity. Charles was teasing and gesticulating before the fifteen-year-old Duchesse de Berry when Louis d'Orléans and Philippe de Bar, arriving from dissipations elsewhere, entered the hall accompanied by torches despite the ban. Whether to discover who the dancers were, or deliberately courting danger -- accounts of the episode differ -- Louis held up a torch over the capering monsters. A spark fell, a flame flickered up a leg, first one dancer was afire, then another. The Queen, who alone knew that Charles was among the group, shrieked and fainted. The Duchesse de berry, who had recognized the King, threw her skirt over him to protect him from the sparks, thus saving his life. The room filled with the guests' sobs and cries of horror and the tortured screams of the burning men. Guests who tried to stifle the flames and tear the costumes from the writhing victims were badly burned. Except for the King, only the Sire de Nantouillet, who flung himself into a large wine-cooler filled with water, escaped. The Count de Joigny was burned to death on the spot, Yvain and Aimery Poitiers died after two days of painful suffering. Huguet de Guisay lived for three days in agony, cursing and insulting his fellow dancers, the dead and the living, until his last hour. When his coffin was carried through the streets, the common people greeted it with cries of "Bark, dog!"

Chapter 27; Hung Be the Heavens with Black

Vainglory, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable than sex. As long as combat was desirable as the source of honor and glory, the knight had no wish to share it with the commoner, even for the sake of success.


The fall of Byzantium has supplied a conventional date for the close of the Middle Ages, but an event more pregnant with change took place at the same time.
In 1453-54 the first document printed from movable type was produced by Gutenberg at Mainz, followed in 1456 by the first printed book, the Vulgate Bible.