A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century
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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

4.14 of 5 stars 4.14  ·  rating details  ·  14,146 ratings  ·  679 reviews
The 14th century gives us back two contradictory images: a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a dark time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world plunged into a chaos of war, fear and the Plague.

Barbara Tuchman anatomizes the century, revealing both the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived.
Paperback, 677 pages
Published July 12th 1987 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published January 1st 1978)
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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken FollettThe Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey ChaucerBeowulf by UnknownA Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman
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This book is the reason I majored in history.

I know it sounds...odd...but until I read this book, I felt like I was weird because I liked history--hard core, down and dirty, obscure and addictive, history.

Whenever I researched women and history, their contributions were always sidelined, and I don't just mean the way most text books write about women rulers as curiousities or give a quick nod to Molly Pitcher and the like. I also mean women historians. So many of them were researching how histor...more
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
Oct 25, 2008 Aaron rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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...more
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
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...more
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...more
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...more
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...more
Glenn Russell
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
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Feb 10, 2013 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it 4 of 5 stars
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...more
Dec 21, 2007 Janis rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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...more
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
Mar 27, 2011 Sunsprout rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history buffs
Let me be clear: this is an amazingly well researched book. However, as a lay person with a strong but passing interest in world history, it was more detail than I could slog through.

I made it just past the chapter on the Black Plague and had to stop (about 100 pages in). Tuchman clearly knows almost everything there is to know about 14th century Europe. Unfortunately for this reader, she imparts way to much in the text. I am a fairly fast reader, but was slowed down considerably by the rich (te...more
Wow! A fantastically written and often riveting introduction to the Middle Ages. I wish my brain were powerful enough to assimilate every last detail presented in this book, but, sadly, I will have to settle for just getting a flavor for the medieval period, something that this book expertly delivers. The most brilliant aspect of this book is the way Tuchman chose to organize it: She presents the life of one figure, Enguerrand VII, Sire de Coucy, a French noble who was prestigious enough in his...more
Dana Stabenow
Readable history. It doesn't get any better than this.
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...more
Geoff Sebesta
One of the best histories there is. I started this long ago, came back to it recently and devoured it. Took me four weeks, because the prose is so dense and I want to understand EVERYTHING.

Two major things have changed since my last try at this book:

1. I've been to a few of the places they're talking about
2. I have a regular internet connection now.

Let me tell you, being able to wiki these historical figures is the single best guard against all those ancient names running together. This book is...more
I read this book some time during the late 1980s and it was the first of Barbara's books to pass through my hands. Despite having a life-long love of history (except for a three year period from first year of high school to third year - bad teachers make make students) I wasn't that knowledgeable about the 14th century. Ms Tuchman changed all of that. Her writing is clear, well-researched and accessible. Most books on that period that you get are written by professors from one university or anot...more
Ana Mardoll
A Distant Mirror / 9780307793690

I selected this book for a book club discussion, not realizing that it's ~700 pages long rather than ~400 pages long. Whoops! However, this is a completely awesome book and everyone had a ball reading and discussing it, even if several members weren't able to finish on time, and I recommend it highly as a fun and fascinating, as well as wonderfully researched and sourced, look into 14th century culture.

"A Distant Mirror" is a look at the 14th century and follows...more
Often, it is difficult for us to put ourselves into the frame of mind of a different era: even just a decade before we were born--or, for that matter, precisely when we were born--can be a difficult imaginative exercise. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman does an excellent job of helping the modern reader understand not only what happened 600-700 years ago in Europe at the end of the Medieval period but also to understand better the profound differences in the way t...more
It took me a long time to read this book, because it is so dense with information. Even though I have a master's degree in European History and taught it for a while, there were so many things in this book that I didn't know. This book should be a foundation for understanding the world that went before us. Tuchman does an incredible job in providing an eagle eye view of one individual over the course of the 14th century while incorporating him into French politics, religious issues, the economy,...more
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...more
Erik Graff
Mar 23, 2013 Erik Graff rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Tuchman fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
I acquired and read this book because I'd liked Tuchman since reading her The Proud Tower and The Guns of August in high school. This one was a bit of a disappointment though. Why, I'm not sure. Usually histories which span from the world-historical to the intimate and personal appeal to me, especially when written by a talented writer like she is. Perhaps I was distracted because my wife had recently left, leaving me in a somewhat dreamlike state for some time.
Lauren Albert
A wonderful look at the 14th Century. How Tuchman manages to handle so much information without ever letting the reader get lost is a wonder. The Plague. The Papal Schism. The Jacquerie. The Hundred Years' War. Well worth reading.
If only all history books were written like this.

Focusing on a particular point in time, the author embarks on the monumental task of painting the canvas of that time as accurate as possible. It describes all that fanfare of the royal lineages, the huge border changing battles and the mischievous power plays of the 14th century. But it doesn't stop here. Otherwise it would have been, just another history book.

Tuchman shifts from grandiose kingly scenarios to the mundane routine and thoughts of t...more
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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...
The Guns of August The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam The Zimmermann Telegram Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45

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