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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

4.12 of 5 stars 4.12  ·  rating details  ·  17,137 ratings  ·  758 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
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Paperback, 677 pages
Published July 12th 1987 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published September 21st 1978)
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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken FollettThe Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey ChaucerWorld Without End by Ken FollettA Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman
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5th out of 881 books — 1,087 voters
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Community Reviews

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William1
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
Hana
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
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Aaron
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
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
Chrissie
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?

Th
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Susan
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
Inder
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
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Marita
A comprehensive who's who and what's what of 14th century Europe.
Bruce
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
Trevor
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
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El
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
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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
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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
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Beth
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
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Tony
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
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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
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James
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
Janis
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
Lightreads
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
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Sunsprout
Feb 03, 2015 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 too much in the text. I am a fairly fast reader, but was slowed down considerably by the rich (t
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James
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
Dana Stabenow
Readable history. It doesn't get any better than this.
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
Jeweleye
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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Jill Hutchinson
I have been a Tuchman fan for years but put off reading this book because it concerned a period of history of which I was not particularly interested. Wrong!!! Chock full of details, it fills in all the details of a bloody, unenlightened time in history where war for no justifiable reason was the norm, crusades against distant lands were the epitome of a knight's duty, and the Black Death was decimating half the world's population.
As usual, the author has done extensive research and although it
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Fortunr
Beutifully written and very detailed book. Recommended to all people genuinely interested in the history of the period. It is not about knights in gleaming armour rescuing and seducing defenseless ladies, but about a potent and credible mixture of well researched historical truth and good story-telling. A classic. If you want to get a good understanding of 14 Century Europe this is a book for you (it gets a little long and dense at times, but overall it is a rewarding read).
Jim
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
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.
Carol Apple
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman is a book that has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for years. I looked at it every now and then, knowing I needed to fill in this medieval gap in my knowledge of history, but was always a bit put off by its bulk and density. Then several months ago I read two books that increased my eagerness to read this one. The Guns of August sold me on the readability of Barbara Tuchman and Ivanhoe whetted my appetite for the Middle Ages. ...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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“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.” 13 likes
“Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves; the bad times in history come when they cannot.” 12 likes
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