Bruce's Reviews > A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman
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's review
Sep 21, 11

it was ok
Read in September, 2011

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 follows from 1340-1397 as he lives out the times and events that she wants to explore.

Tuchman does provide a few notable quotations. “What people believe about their own time becomes a factor in its history,” being one. Another is, “Of all mankind’s ideas, the equating of sex with sin has left the greatest train of trouble.” This idea was derived largely from St. Augustine who wrote out of the context of his own spiritual wrestlings.

Tuchman postulates that the Black Death may have been the beginning of modern man in that it led to questioning of the established order, of the religious and social paradigms that seemed to have failed humanity during its ravishing of the population, raising the possibility of individual thought and understanding and thus opening the way to diversity of interpretation and opinion based on individual conscience.

The style of exposition in this book is extraordinarily turgid, and that is being generous. Those who have read the histories of Will Durant will feel at home with Tuchman’s writing. The reader is too often faced with endless catalogues of examples, relieved occasionally by narrative that is in many cases speculative. For anyone with basic familiarity of this period of history, not much is to be gained by wading through this long work. For those without knowledge of this important period, there are less painful ways to acquire this knowledge.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Michele (new)

Michele Thanks for your cogent review. Will you please recommend some medieval history books that you prefer, the "less painful ways" you reference?


Bruce Two books that are classics on the late Middle Ages are Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages.


message 3: by Michele (new)

Michele Thanks very much!


Glenn Russell I've listened to a number of courses on Medieval history and culture from The Great Courses but I am far from being a medieval historian. Anyway, I read Distant Mirror back when it was first published and I'm listening to the audiobook now. I find it most enjoyable and insightful. I can understand your saying the writing can be turgid. I plan to revisit the book in more detail (research the names, movements, etc. on google as I read) so use the book as a textbook on the 14th century.


message 5: by John (new)

John Abele I have the impression that this idea that the 14th century somehow mirrors the 20th century was just a gimmick to sell the book. You can find lots of parallels comparing any historical periods, the human brain does it naturally. The very backward social structure of the late middle ages does not make it seem very familiar to me.


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