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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  26,317 Ratings  ·  1,152 Reviews
"Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . A great book, in a great historical tradition." —Commentary

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
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Paperback, 677 pages
Published July 12th 1987 by Random House Trade (first published September 21st 1978)
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Kalliope





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
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Glenn Russell
Mar 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing


A Distant Mirrorr by Barbara W. Tuchman is, on one level, a seven hundred 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 one Enguerrand de Coucy V11 (1340-1397), a high-ranking noble, heralded as “the most experienced and skillful of
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William2
Sep 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 20-ce, us, 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
Michael Finocchiaro
My grandmother had this book on her shelf for years and I read it as a kid and loved it. Of course, I knew the King Arthur legends and pretended to be a knight in shining armour like any other young boy, but reading about the insanity of this period, the rage of the Black Death that killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, the grappling for power by the French and English competitors, the epic battles...it was a mind-blower and still is. I visited many of the sites since living here in Paris t ...more
Matt
Nov 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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.
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Hana
Oct 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Max
May 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
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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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
Marita
A comprehensive who's who and what's what of 14th century Europe.
Susan
Nov 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Trevor
May 26, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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WarpDrive
Feb 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history_general
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).
Bruce
Sep 21, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Inder
Nov 19, 2007 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
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Jill Hutchinson
Aug 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: world-history
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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Jan-Maat
This introduction to the 14th century uses the biographical framework of the life of the seigneur of Coucy to take in aspects of the hundred years war, the crusade of Nicopolis and late medieval life generally.

That's what the book is and that is the problem I suspect, in that the Tuchman style much loved in great fat book about the First World War and the period preceding it does not work in a period without the same wealth of information, you can not recapture the sense of immediacy and driving
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Cathy DuPont
Apr 20, 2013 rated it liked it
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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El
Aug 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
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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Chris Gager
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just started. Looks interesting ...

Well, it IS interesting, but kind of dry, as at least one other reviewer has noted. It's going to take a while!

Continuing to enjoy this book as the author is doing a fine job of combining the informative with reading pleasure. So far it's a bit like reading a sci-fi account of a far-away alien planet and it's weird but familiar culture! Jack Vance-like indeed ...

The Black Plague - why can't we have one of those, only more virulent and untreatable? Steve King ha
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Greg Strandberg
Apr 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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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Ken Moten
Nov 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ken by: Ta-Nehisi Coates
"If the [century] seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top, to most they were a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils: pillage, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness, and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and t ...more
Joachim Stoop
May 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
The research 5/5
Reading experience 3/5

Can a researcher or historian be too thorough? I would have loved to read the summary of this one.
I focused solely on the sociological, psychological, cultural aspects and not on the historic trivia as in which duke fought with that earl or which prince married that daughter. So I didn't care enough to totally adore this amazing work.
Jeanette
Jul 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Christopher (Donut)
This is the second time I have 'read' this on audio. The first time was on tape, so, a long time ago.

I had to downgrade my opinion of this book on a second reading. Based on an attempt to read The Proud Tower, I realized that Barbara Tuchman could barely grasp the inner motives of 19th C. people, which made it less likely that she really understood 14th C. people.

Although she doesn't make clear ever why she regarded the 14th C. as 'a distant mirror,' I am inclined to guess that she thought the
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Tony
Jan 25, 2010 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
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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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James
Jun 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Michael
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A monumental work that encompasses more than 100 years of some of the most tumultuous period of European history. A brutal time of endless wars, widespread anarchy and brigandage triggered by the Black Plague and a deep schism in the Catholic Church which resulted in two warring Popes vying for control. Ms. Tuchman tackles her monumental subject by focusing on the life one Enguerrand de Coucy, a nobleman and renowned knight who, Forest Gump-like, managed to participate in many of the significant ...more
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Barbara Wertheim Tuchman was an American self-trained historian and author and double Pulitzer Prize winner. She became best known for The Guns of August (1962), 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 copie
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“Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves; the bad times in history come when they cannot.” 1072 likes
“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.” 23 likes
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