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

A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman
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's review
Nov 18, 2010

it was amazing
Read in November, 2010

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 who steps out of the background now and then to be seen from a distance. He nevertheless comes alive, particularly toward the end when he seems to be a thoughtful and sensible man in a era which encouraged the opposite. I also liked the book because I know so little about France and am trying to rectify that lack. And before this "the hundred years war" seemed to me an historical stalwart with no detail behind it--except perhaps the picture of Mother Courage pulling her cart.... I know much more English history so it was instructive to see the Black Prince and John of Gaunt and the Peasant Rebellion from the other side and in the context of what was going on on the continent.

The focus on Coucy was not like Tuchman's focus on Stillwell in her book on World War II in China. That really was a biography of Stillwell as well as an attempt to understand the US in China in WWII and after. Coucy is, in many ways, a rack--a hat rack not a torture device-- to hang Tuchman's understanding of the 14th century on. Her title in interesting: "distant" is self explanatory--600 years and more ago, but why "mirror"? That I think is because Tuchman found the calamitous 14th century (her term) analogous in many ways to her own century. Understanding that pivotal century might be "consoling in a period of similar disarray" characterized by war, plague, religious schism, irrationality and progress.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by James (new)

James Murphy Oh, I remember this. I remember my breath being taken away by her explaining that a third of the European population was swept away by the plague. Good history.

message 2: by ·Karen· (new) - added it

·Karen· This was the history book that got me reading history books. I realised this summer that I tend to read history books rather like novels: if I find an author I like then I read more by same. Thus with Tuchman I went on to read The Proud Tower, and I also started The March of Folly, but didn't finish because I was reading it in German (hubby's book) and it was just too tough going at the time.

message 3: by James (new)

James Murphy I guess my first was The Guns of August.

message 4: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa On my wishlist now, thanks for this review, Susan and the comments Karen and James - if you three like it, it must be good!

message 5: by Merilee (new)

Merilee Yes, The Guns of August was great. Tuchman is great. I've had this book since it came out, but have yet to read it.

Susan Merilee wrote: "Yes, The Guns of August was great. Tuchman is great. I've had this book since it came out, but have yet to read it."

The Guns of August was my first too. I haven't read them all by any means. I recently read Stillwell and he's become one of my heroes. I also read The Proud Tower and consider the first essay in that one an absolute masterpiece.

John Susan, I started this book because of your thoughts. I finished it because it was very interesting. Thank you

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