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

A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman
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's review
Mar 14, 2011

really liked it

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 that people viewed themselves, each other, and the world--which, of course, was quite a different world. As the title implies, however, there are perhaps some parallels to be drawn between recent history and more distant history, but if we lose sight of the profound differences then we're missing a great deal of the causality of events.

The unifying thread that Tuchman puts her finger upon is Enguerrand VII (1340-1397) de Coucy, a French nobleman, as the thread to follow through the century, though her lens is considerably wider than just his life. He is a central character in her work, but the proportions of her history are much larger. Still, Coucy was a young lord when the French got their butts handed to them at the Battle of Crecy, and as one of the more important families in France, he was one of the hostages demanded by the English to let the King of France go free. Despite being at war, the English and French nobility had a sort of brotherhood that included partying together, hostages and captors all together. Coucy was renowned for his grace and charm and, indeed, he ended up marrying the King of England's daughter, so in the course of his life he fought along side kings of both countries and straddled a line between them. All in all, a good choice.

However, as I alluded to earlier, this is not simply a biography of Coucy. At times, in fact, it's easy to lose sight of him. Tuchman does a great job of portraying the times and illuminating the forces at play, both the personalities involved and the broader natural and social forces, and to do so she has to expand her range. As the subtitle notes, it was a "calamitous" century: the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Schism in the Catholic church, crusades, brigands, revolts by the commoners, pogroms against the Jews, and the unraveling of chivalry. More than that, though, it's striking what a harshly brutal period it was.

At times, the level of detail may seem like too much for the average reader, but on the whole she makes a pretty exacting piece of historical writing read like a novel.

I listened to the audio version of the book which, overall, was quite good, though I think I would have had an easier time following everything if I had been reading it--but then, if I'd been reading it instead of listening to it, I wouldn't have read it at all, since I only picked it up because it was freely available from the library and caught my attention when I was browsing.
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Terence Definitely get a hard copy of this book. I first read it in 11th grade (I remember asking Aimee Cooper how to pronounce "Enguerrand" because she was taking French) and it was a powerful influence in my taking up Medieval history as a major in college.

It also made me a big fan of Tuchman. You should try to find a copy of her Practicing History: Selected Essays. I haven't opened my copy in years but I particularly remember a brilliant piece on Henry Kissinger (a review of one of his memoirs) and an essay on how she writes (wrote) her histories.

And while we're recommending books, you should try The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

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