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A Distant Mirror

4.12  ·  Rating Details  ·  20,070 Ratings  ·  870 Reviews
Barbara W. Tuchman--the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning classic The Guns of August--once again marshals her gift for character, history, and sparkling prose to compose an astonishing portrait of medieval Europe.

The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering age of crusades, cathedrals, and chivalry; on the other, a wo
Hardcover, 677 pages
Published 1980 by Macmillan (first published September 21st 1978)
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What an extraordinary read it is when one book is as action packed as thirty riveting novels. And if it also contains rich and erudite disquisitions and is narrated in a language as clear and flowing as water from a spring, then the volume must be given a preferential place in one’s library.

I am not too keen of including quotes in my reviews. But given the amount of material that marshals in front of one’s eyes, as colorful as overwhelming pageants and breathtaking jousts, and as dense as the ti
Nov 20, 2014 William1 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: us, 20-ce, history, 14-ce
A vivid and detailed look into a lost world. The major players are The Black Death, The Hundred Years War, the sick, uproarious joke of chivalric valor, The Papal Schism, ruinous taxation, serfdom, petty feudal institutions, the utter absence of reason among the so-called ruling classes, murderous vengeance, horrendous peculation, brigandry, the subjection of women, the sheer endless cruelty of mankind, crusade against the "infidel," and so on. A GR friend said that he was disappointed in this b ...more
I was a little worried at the start that 600 pages of 14th century history might be, shall we say, a bit too much. There is no denying the book is long and very detailed and at times it was a struggle, but every time I was about to give up after yet another pointless battle Tuchman would come up with a telling detail or surprising insight.

Example: the invention of chimneys in the 14th century made separate bedrooms possible and introduced notions of privacy that had never before been possible
Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant. I’ve read Ken Follett’s two Kingsbridge novels, and I’ve been to a few Renaissance Fairs in my time (and eaten more than my share of child-sized turkey legs), but beyond that, I’ve never cared much about the Middle Ages.

I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century not for its subject matter, but because Tuchman wrote it.
Oct 25, 2008 Aaron rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: medieval history buffs
I'm not quite sure how I came to read this strange and unwieldy book. It just kept popping up in my sights. For a while now, I've had a boyish fascination with the Middle Ages, intensified by a couple of years spent studying Old English in grad school, and nursed along since then with occasional books about the Black Death, the Crusades, castle building, and whatever else seemed interesting to me. Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to ...more
Glenn Russell
Mar 23, 2014 Glenn Russell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman is, on one level, a 700 page encyclopedia of the 14th century’s political, military, religious, social, cultural and economic history. Since Ms. Tuchman is a first-rate writer, on still another level the book is a compelling, personalized account of individual men and women living through these turbulent, disastrous times, especially Enguerrand de Coucy V11 (1340-1397), a high-ranking noble, heralded as “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights ...more
Matt Brady
The Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the Black Death, peasant uprisings, the death of chivalry, crusades, assassinations, tournaments, all these things and more Tuchman explores through an examination of the life of one man, Enguerrand de Coucy. Scion of perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest baronial family in France, Coucy lead a fairly amazing life. He fought wars in his homeland of France, Italy, North Africa, Switzerland and Bulgaria, lead important diplomatic missions, twice turned d ...more
Tuchman's books are always interesting, but usually they have more than one can absorb. For this reason, reading them is always a bit of a struggle. OK, I am merely speaking for myself.

I am going to try to keep this review short, maybe a reaction to having just completed Tuchman's extensive opus. Not every detail need be explained. A Distant Mirror covers thoroughly every single aspect of medieval life. It covers in detail the battles of the Hundred Years' War. What is the Hundred Years' War?

Nov 18, 2010 Susan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read a little more than half of this a couple of years ago and stopped. This time I read it all, for the discussion of my local book group. I really liked it--I've never NOT liked a Tuchman book. I admire the way she's able to follow one historical figure and still manage to tell the story of a whole age, especially one person, in this case Enguerrand de Coucy about whom so little is known other than what he did. There exist references to him in contemporary works but never more than a figure ...more
A comprehensive who's who and what's what of 14th century Europe.
Sep 21, 2011 Bruce rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Tuchman published this book in 1978. In her preface she makes clear that she is interested in comparing the 14th century in Europe - a time of war, disease, social and economic dislocation, and general demoralization - with the two 20th century decades before the book’s publication. One could legitimately argue that the same issues apply during the first eleven years of the 21st century. Tuchman’s method is to use an actual French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, as an exemplar whom she then f ...more
Dec 23, 2009 Inder rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just got a nice hardbound copy of this for Christmas, so I'm set to read it again ...

My dad is a Barbara Tuchman fan, so I grew up around this book. As a small child, I used to ponder with interest the scary cover art, which shows the arrival of the Forth Horseman of the Apocalypse ("and his name was death" for you Johnny Cash fans). I finally read the book when I was in high school, and I have reread it several times since. It is a perfect example of good history writing - absolutely engaging a
Cathy DuPont
While I mostly enjoyed reading Tuchman's comprehensive book on the 14th Century, it was TMI. I'm not writing a thesis nor a college paper.

I read this for the enjoyment of knowing more about the century when the Black Plague decimated the world. Well, I got that and much much more. I read this for fun, I thought, however it was about twice as long and twice the information as I wanted and/or needed.

Unfortunately for me it got tiresome and although I did learn a lot such as the size of a royal b
This is what I thought the Hundred Years' War was all about. Apparently that's wrong. (Or maybe Tuchman is wrong, hmmm?)

We pretty much all know what the Middle Ages was all about, we all have at least heard tell of the Hundred Years' War or the Black Death or the Papal Schism. Those terms are all familiar. What Tuchman did here was bring all of those familiar terms to life. She filled in the gaps that public education doesn't (whether due to funding or time or the Board of Education doesn't thin
Greg Strandberg
I have to take a bit of a different tact on this book than many other reviewers. Let me start off by saying that I liked the book. I'm not going to say I really liked it because I found it a bit dry. And when I say dry, I mean I was losing my place, or forgetting what I'd just read.

One of the reasons for this is that there are so many people, so many place names, and so many goings-on. It's hard to keep track of all of that! Even looking at the 'Look Inside' on Amazon right now, I can see tons
Mar 03, 2010 Tony rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: top-10-2010
The Calamitous 14th Century: a time of war, class struggle, taxation, endless litigation, ravaging disease, religious intolerance, Christian versus Moslem, feckless leaders, plenty of lust, torture, self-interest -- 'a distant mirror' indeed. We are not so different. Look back or just look around.

And that is the point, I think, of this wonderful work of history and literature. Tuchman's wit and erudition are on full display.

Sometimes the reading went very slow, but only because it all seemed so
I remember noticing this book as a kid, before I knew the meaning of the word “calamitous.” It was sitting on one of my Dad’s bookshelves, and I found myself intrigued by the title, mentally picturing an ornate enchanted mirror that reflected images from far off centuries.

While I may have initially picked this book up because of a nostalgic childhood memory, I’m glad that I did. I knew so little about the 14th century before delving into its pages. I suppose I could have told you that it was th
May 26, 2009 Trevor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I have been recommended this book by many of my good reads friends, and so I’ve read it. My friend Eric’s review says simply, “Normally, I have always enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's books, but this one, while very interesting, I felt I had to struggle a bit”.

This is a very uncharacteristic review by Eric. I think Eric is one of the most thoughtful and best reviewers on this site. His reviews generally give valuable insights into a book and unfortunately far too often have me adding books to my ‘to re
Jun 17, 2016 Max rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: european-history
The Four Horsemen had their way in the fourteenth century. Tuchman portrays a brutal decadent European society terrorized and demoralized by the plague, war, violence and deprivation. She focuses on France, England and the Italian city-states from 1350 to 1400. The religious leaders were hypocritical and profane; the aristocracy was arrogant and venal. Kings, nobles, popes and prelates accumulated fantastic wealth at the expense of everyone else for whom it was the worst of times. The century ma ...more
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Feb 10, 2013 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: History Buffs
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Ultimate Reading List - History
I first gave this massive doorstop book a try in my teens, and the immense detail, I think, is what defeated me. I remember finding it dry and tedious (a complaint echoed in the few negative reviews.) The book's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness--its density. This is an intensely rich and detailed account of "the Calamitous 14th Century" in Europe.

In the Foreword Tuchman wrote she wanted to approach the story through the frame of a single life. She didn't want to choose royalty, a
Dec 21, 2007 Janis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: serious readers of history
Dense with detail, A Distant Mirror offers a shocking picture of life in 14th-century Europe including endless warfare, crusades, burdensome taxing of the lower classes, public punishment as a form of entertainment, highway robbers, and recurring plague. Tuchman weaves the history loosely around the life of a French nobleman but her view is broad and her knowledge of the era seemingly boundless. It's no reflection on Tuchman (I thought her scholarly achievement was amazing) but I am relieved to ...more
Jan 30, 2015 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I tried to read this book several years ago and did not get very far, largely because I had no grounding in European history, but also because most of the people and place names are French which I find very difficult to follow. Recently I decided to give it another try however, partially because I had done more reading about European history and thought I would be better able to understand the historical and geographical references, but also because I had access to the audio format of the book w ...more
Don’t let the breadth of the title mislead you: this isn’t a history of the fourteenth century, it’s a history of France from about 1340 to 1400 through the career of a noble man, with occasional jaunts to England and the Italian city states. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – aside from one or two things, noted below – just for clarity.

My favorite parts of this book were the slice-of-life sections: what French peasants ate, what people talked about at court dinners, the lifestyle of Br
Jun 07, 2009 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I still remember reading this book when it first was published. It is another readable and accessible history by that great non-academic historian Barbara Tuchman. I first encountered her work when I read The Proud Tower so my expectations were high. That they were exceeded suggests that this is a work to which I should return as I seldom do for non-fiction. In this ambitious book she explores the tragedy, political intrigue and occasional dark comedy that surround the infestation of the Black P ...more
This book gets more relevant as time goes on - as Tuchman's examination shows, the 14th century really was a mirror for our own times in many ways. Disease is becoming a greater factor in geopolitics, with malaria and HIV changing history, and threatens to devastate world civilization if avian flu or another pandemic gets out of control; in the post-Cold-War era, more and more of the world is lapsing into feudalized failed-state status. I wish Tuchman was still with us - it would be fascinating ...more
Aug 27, 2015 Jeanette rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is just a reaction for the 4 or 5 chapter revisit I made back to this excellent history. Having read the entire decades ago, and also having used it for some reference referrals for others at different times, I wanted to read again about the cracks appearing in serfdom, the agriculture crisis, the disease factors (especially the percentage numbers for Italy in decimation from Plague). And also and most importantly, the change in the Papal and Nobel rationalizations toward rights and preroga ...more
Dana Stabenow
Readable history. It doesn't get any better than this.
Aug 05, 2015 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I feel like I’ve been reading about the 14th century for months, although that’s an exaggeration. ‘A Distant Mirror’ covers an enormous amount of ground in an era about which I knew practically nothing before. It was therefore a more exacting read than I was expecting, although fully worth the effort. The subtitle is entirely accurate, as the 14th century appears to have been an unmitigated disaster for Europe. During that hundred years, the population fell by 50 or 60% thanks to plague, wars, e ...more
Lise Petrauskas
I keep thinking about this book wondering what to say about it. I was really excited to read it after reading Tuchman's masterful The Guns of August. This was much harder for me to get through and absorb and I stalled out a couple of times, which was disappointing. A lot of that is due to the scope of the book—it covers a huge span of time and geography. It's not the book's fault that I had no basic knowledge of the period going into it, nor can Tuchman be blamed for the fact that I have reread ...more
Nov 26, 2011 Jeweleye rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When this book came out in the late 1970s, my stepdad -- who was fascinated by the Middle Ages -- read it and told me afterwards, "If you read this book, you will have graduated." A few years later I got about halfway through it and put it down, always planning to pick it back up. Now, given my own interest in the Middle Ages, I finally picked it back up (reading it from the beginning, of course). And at last I can say, "Dad, I have graduated!"

Barbara Tuchman describes the 14th century as "calam
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Barbara Wertheim Tuchman was an American self-trained historian and author. She became best known for The Guns of August, a history of the prelude and first month of World War I.

As an author, Tuchman focused on producing popular history. Her clear, dramatic storytelling covered topics as diverse as the 14th century and World War I, and sold millions of copies.
More about Barbara W. Tuchman...

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“Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves; the bad times in history come when they cannot.” 1090 likes
“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.” 18 likes
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