Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchmann

Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman is a narrative history book that was first published in 1978 and won the 1980 U.S. National Book Award in History.

The main title, A Distant Mirror, conveys Tuchman’s thesis that the death and suffering of the 14th century reflect those of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of World War I.

The book focuses on the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages which caused widespread suffering in Europe in the 14th century. Drawing heavily on Froissart’s Chronicles, Tuchman recounts the histories of the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Plague, the Papal Schism, pillaging mercenaries, anti-Semitism, popular revolts including the Jacquerie in France, the liberation of Switzerland, the Battle of the Golden Spurs, and various peasant uprisings.

She also discusses the advance of the Islamic Ottoman Empire into Europe until the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis. However, Tuchman’s scope is not limited to political and religious events.

She begins with a discussion of the Little Ice Age, a change in climate that reduced average temperatures in Europe well into the mid-19th century, and describes the lives of all social classes, including nobility, clergy, and peasantry.

The book’s main themes include loyalty, the folly of war, and the importance of understanding history. Tuchman weaves the narrative around the life of the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who was chosen as a central figure partly because his life spanned much of the 14th century, from 1340 to 1397. His ties put him in the middle of events.

A Distant Mirror received much popular acclaim and critical reception. It inspired Katherine Hoover to write her composition Medieval Suite. The book provides a fascinating look into a time far removed from our own and a sobering frame of reference for the events in our own recent history.

What I Liked

I am fascinated by this era in medieval history – so I personally found it interesting.

It’s insane to see how much human action was changed by environmental shifts. The mass death of the Black Plague radically changed the labor market structure. The “Little Ice Age”** dramatically changed harvests and food balance, which then pushed societies into massive change.

**Side note – the Little Ice Age is absolutely nothing to compared to the change happening now…which makes the parallels even more disconcerting.

The detail and richness in the writing was awesome.

What I Did Not Like

The book is dense. While it’s written in a style that’s not full-on “sit in a University library” dense…it’s also not a popular style history book either. It takes some time (and skimming) to get through.

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