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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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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 all the knights of France”. The focus on Lord Coucy is supremely appropriate since this nobleman repeatedly pops up as a prime player in many of the century’s key events.

The 14th century witnessed ongoing devastation, including the little ice age, the hundred years’ war, the papal schism, the peasant’s revolt and, most dramatically, the black death of 1348-1350, which depopulated Europe by as much as half. Ms. Tuchman’s book covers it all in twenty-seven chapters, chapter with such headings as Decapitated France: The Bourgeois Rising and the Jacquerie, The Papal Schism, The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions and Dance Macabre.

Many pages are filled with the color and morbidity of the times. By way of example, here is one memorable happening where the French Queen gave a masquerade to celebrate the wedding of a twice widowed lady-in-waiting: six young noblemen, including the King who recently recovered from a bout of madness, disguised themselves as wood savages and entered the masked ball making lewd gestures and howling like wolves as they paraded and capered in the middle of the revelers. When one of the noble spectators came too close with his torch, a spark fell and a few moments later the wood savages, with the exception of the King, were engulfed in flames. Afterwards, the French populace was horrified by this ghastly tragedy, a perverse playing on the edge of madness and death nearly killing their King.


And here is what the author has to say about the young man who concocted the wood savage idea, “The deviser of the affair “cruelest and most insolent of men,” was one Huguet de Guisay, favored in the royal circle for his outrageous schemes. He was a man of “wicked life” who “corrupted and schooled youth in debaucheries,” and held commoners and the poor in hatred and contempt. He called them dogs, and with blows of sword and whip took pleasure in forcing them to imitate barking. If a servant displeased him, he would force the man to lie on the ground and, standing on his back, would kick him with spurs, crying, “Bark, dog!” in response to his cries of pain.” All of the chapters are chock full with such sadistic and violent sketches.

Speaking of the populate, there is plenty of detail on the habits and round of daily life of the common people. And, of course, there is a plethora of detail on the lives of the upper classes. Here is a snippet of one description: “In the evening minstrels played with lutes and harps, reed pipes, bagpipes, trumpets, kettle drums, and cymbals. In the blossoming of secular music as an art in the 14th century, as many as thirty-six different instruments had come into use. If no concert or performance was scheduled after the evening meal, the company entertained each other with song and conversation, tales of the day’s hunting, “graceful questions” on the conventions of live, and verbal games.”

As in any age, it makes for more comfortable living being at the top rather than at the bottom of the social scale. And all those musical instruments speak volumes about how the 14th century was a world away from the plainchant of the early middle ages. In a way, the 14th century musical avant-garde fit in well with the fashions of the times: extravagant headdresses, multicolored, bejeweled jackets and long pointed shoes. For those who had the florins, overindulgence was all the rage.



Ms. Tuchman offers ongoing commentary: for example, regarding military engagement, she cites how the 14th century nobility was too wedded to the idea of glory and riding horses on the battlefield to be effective against the new technology of the long-bow and foot soldiers with pikes. And here is a general, overarching comment about the age, “The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change, and miseria gave force to the impulse. The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, they were inadequate, unready, and unequipped for the task.” Indeed, reading about 14th century economic upheaval one is reminded of Karl Marx’s scathing observations four hundred years later.

On a personal note, my primary interests are literature and philosophy; I usually do not read history. However, if I were to recommend one history book, this is the book. Why? Because Ms. Tuchman’s work is not only extremely well written and covers many aspects of the period’s art, music, literature, religion and mysticism, but the turbulent, transitional 14th century does truly mirror our modern world. Quite a time to be alive. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
An excellent general history book of European countries. ( )
  larainy | Jan 13, 2017 |
In this work, Tuchman introduces us to the life and times of the 14th century by following the story of Enguerrand, Sire of Souci.

I very much enjoyed this book. I've been trying to brush up on my knowledge of history, and this has been a great read for me. Tuchman writes in an accessible style and takes time to explain and elaborate, making it a work that is quite complete and goes into depth, without it being too complex for people who are not well-versed in history.

I liked the fact that she chose to tell the story of a specific person. It makes the story more personal, interesting to follow, and gives it a very human aspect. This makes it much more fun to read than a dry history textbook with just numbers and facts. In a way, it reads a bit like a fictional historical novel - but with much more information.
Though Tuchman writes the story of a single person in history, she also gives a lot of information surrounding this story. In many ways, Enguerrand de Souci was not a 'typical' 14th century person - he was an important nobleman with ties to both England as well as France, giving him quite a unique position in this period of warfare between the two countries. Tuchman expands the story with a lot of information about other aspects of the 14th century, the situation people lived in, the culture and the politics. Though I did sometimes find these explanations broke up the story a bit, they were also very welcome and give a very complete view of 14th century life. ( )
  Britt84 | Jul 31, 2016 |
One of the best books I have read on the 14th century. ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Jun 4, 2016 |
Very heavy, but historically a classic. ( )
  Frances.S.Brown | Apr 26, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (19 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara W. Tuchmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:45 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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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