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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th…
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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

by Barbara W. Tuchman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Mirror of the Past (1)

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Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century" is a wonderfully written and researched view of what life was like and the important religious and political events in Western Europe during the 1300s and early 1400s (essentially, the period of the Hundred Years War between England and France). The book begins with six or seven chapters that provide background information on various aspects of life in the 14th century (how feudalism operated, the experiences of peasants, the meaning of chivalry and courtly love to nobles of the era, etc.). In later chapters, less text is spent describing everyday life and conditions: the focus is on the specific personalities and actions of kings, dukes, popes, and other important personages. Throughout, Tuchman follows the actions of Enguerrand de Coucy, an important French nobleman, whom she has chosen as a sort of protagonist because of his unique experiences, reasonably well-documented life, and involvement in most of the important political matters of his day. (Tuchman also covers important events in which Coucy played no part.)

While this is a long book, I read it quickly and without becoming bored. I was often excited to see what would happen next. Tuchman manages to make the characters human and give them personality without resorting to the techniques of fiction, such as giving them specific lines of dialogue, which might compromise the accuracy of a historical work.

The 1300s was a period when the concept of nationhood was just beginning to crystallize, but loyalty to one's country had not yet replaced loyalty to one's lord. Tuchman offers a fascinating view of the way politics was conducted, including the importance of the capabilities and proclivities of the king to national welfare, the means by which other nobles could influence governance, and the role of the Church as a political actor. In some ways, the Church was unique- for instance, it claimed to provide the only route to Heaven and churches paid taxes to the Pope rather than to the local lord or king. In other ways, the Church was surprisingly similar to other kingdoms of the day. The Papacy controlled territory and castles, the pope governed like a king and could order peopled tortured or killed without trial, and the Papacy hired mercenary armies.

Even the nature of warfare in the 1300s can be unfamiliar and surprising. This was a time when the cannon was just starting to come into use and was not yet capable of destroying city or castle walls. Without this technology, it was almost impossible for Medieval armies to take well-defended walled cities by storm, so diplomacy, subversion, and siege were the only available options. It was also an era before proper army supply lines, so armies had to scavenge food and necessities from the countryside (which may have been depleted or intentionally burned by the defenders), making a siege punishing on the besiegers as well as on the besieged. Even the motivation for warfare was different: nobles' quests to win personal glory in combat, and the hope to capture important hostages who could then be ransomed for large sums of money, were at least as important in motivating war as any desire to capture territory.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in a book that provides a rich, sweeping, yet detailed view of 1300s society, politics, and war. If you have any interest in learning about the Middle Ages, Tuchman's book is an excellent place to start. (Technological and social change was slow in the Medieval period, so much of what life was like in the 1300s will be applicable to earlier centuries.) ( )
  jrissman | Nov 22, 2014 |
All historians should write as well as Barbara Tuchman! She tells the history in beautiful clear prose, and then throws in the most wonderful comments and asides that brings the book to life.
The 14th century was not a good time in Europe. There was almost constant warfare, the plague killed more than half of the population, government was functionally incompetent, the church was venal and corrupt, and a major schism in the church exacerbated the failings.
Tuchman tells the story of the century by using the life of the Sire of Courcy, a senior French noble, as a narrative thread. As a result, there is some concentration on France and England (as traditional foes) but she manages to weave in enough of the rest of Europe to make a coherent picture.
There are some gems of information: the fact that the Church owned 30% of all property in England was one I particularly liked.
It is hard to see the origins of the modern state in the environment of the 14th century. The centralised government had not been created; the role of the noble class was to fight, but they were not a standing army, or even very effective - too much fighting was centred on personal glory rather than results; taxes were mostly ad hoc and totally paid by the bourgeois and the peasants - the church and the nobility were exempt. As the title of the book says - a distant mirror.
Read October 2014 ( )
  mbmackay | Oct 31, 2014 |
I've been reading this book off and on for the last two months, and I can safely say that Tuchman thoroughly presents the 14th century through great research and a readable writing style. As in most very long nonfiction books, I must admit that there were sections that I personally found kind of boring, but most likely everyone who reads this will find something to love and something to skim and it will probably be different for everyone.

Tuchman covers a lot in this book. My favorite parts were actually the more general sections where she talks about everyday life for varying classes of people. I also like where she wrote about the Black Death and its effects on population and the mindset of the people. I was interested in reading about the schism in the church, with one Pope in Rome and one Pope in Avignon. I was also interested in the general information about warfare and chivalry (the Hundred Years War between France and England takes place during this time plus some Crusades), though I get bored reading about specific battles and sieges. I also thought it was great that she chose one nobleman, Enguerrand VII de Coucy, to follow throughout the book. Enguerrand was integral in the politics and warfare of the era and was well respected as a intelligent, moderating force amidst a lot of craziness. Actually, literal craziness, as several of the Kings of France were mad in the 14th century.

As always with books that cover these sorts of events, I personally am not very interested in reading about battles or in really understanding the politics of the day in any depth. But that's just my personal taste. This book is both broad and focused and I think that everyone will find something in it to satisfy themself. ( )
  japaul22 | Oct 17, 2014 |
Many books in this style of the historical novel followed, but couldn't compete with this. This could be subjective since I was young then and hadn't started my history studies yet. ( )
  ToonC | Aug 19, 2014 |
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 book because it did not offer the narrow focus and sleek thematic underpinnings of Tuchman's The March of Folly. I see his point. It should be noted, however, that Folly is a very different kind of book. Folly is a deft study of the almost systematic loss of rational method leaders experience once they are dazzled by the trappings of ultimate power. A Distant Mirror is a survey of a lost world. As such it brings before the reader an almost encyclopedic survey of the particulars of that time, a few major ones outlined above. Reading A Distant Mirror is like being in thrall to an endless film loop of natural disasters, pitiless murders, and roadside accidents. Tuchman brings order to this concatenation of relentless self-woundings so that try as we might we cannot look away. If there is only one book you read on the Middle Ages it might be this one. It is not for the squeamish or those afraid of the dark. It is not a light beach- or inflight-read. Highly recommended. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (19 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara W. Tuchmanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
May, NadiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sliedrecht-Smit, J.C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vries, S. deEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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" For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered. "

John Dryden
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The genesis of this book was a desire to find out what were the effects on society of the most lethal disaster of recorded history-that is to say, of the Black Death of 1348-50, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345349571, Paperback)

In this sweeping historical narrative, Barbara Tuchman writes of the cataclysmic 14th century, when the energies of medieval Europe were devoted to fighting internecine wars and warding off the plague. Some medieval thinkers viewed these disasters as divine punishment for mortal wrongs; others, more practically, viewed them as opportunities to accumulate wealth and power. One of the latter, whose life informs much of Tuchman's book, was the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who enjoyed the opulence and elegance of the courtly tradition while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants under his thrall. Tuchman looks into such events as the Hundred Years War, the collapse of the medieval church, and the rise of various heresies, pogroms, and other events that caused medieval Europeans to wonder what they had done to deserve such horrors.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:28 -0400)

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The prize-winning historian traces the major currents of the fourteenth century, revealing the century's great historical rhythms and events and the texture of daily life at all levels of European society.

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