A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror:

The Calamitous 14th Century

by Barbara W. TUCHMAN

597 pages

This book counts for

My Dewey Decimal Challenge

and for

The 2011 Non-Fiction Challenge


In A Distant Mirror, historian Barbara Tuchman reveals in harrowing detail a “tortured century” with parallels to our own. People in the fourteenth century were subjected to natural and man-made disasters, including the Hundred Years’ War, the Crusades, insurrection, lawlessness, the Schism of the Church, massacres of Jewish people, and the Black Death, which claimed the lives of nearly half the population living between India and Iceland. Barbara Tuchman introduces a nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy (1340-1397), a “whole man in a fractured time,” who takes the reader through the century and gives a personalized context through which to understand the events and attitudes of the day. A Distant Mirror goes beyond recording facts to analyze the psychology of the age as it follows Enguerrand from one battle to the next, observing how bankruptcies, crop failures, revolts, and plagues effectively forced people apart so that “emotional response, dulled by horrors, underwent a kind of atrophy…” Suggesting that the “relative emotional blankness of a medieval infancy may account for the casual attitude toward life and suffering,” she illustrates the discrepancy between the ideal and the real apparent in upper-class traditions of chivalry, in the practice of Christianity, and in the impossible regulations imposed on nobles, priests, and commoners alike. Pessimism inevitably resulted, for “man had lost confidence in his capacity to construct a good society.” This fascinating portrayal of a tumultuous time provides insights into the present and hope for the future [amazon]


Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (January 30, 1912 – February 6, 1989) was an American self-trained historian and author. She first became known for her best-selling book The Guns of August, a history of the prelude to and first month of World War I, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1963.

Tuchman focused on writing popular history. Her clear, dramatic storytelling covered topics as diverse as the 14th century and World War I, and sold millions of copies. [wikipedia] Click here to read more about her.


The 14th century gives us back two contradictory images: a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a dark time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world plunged into a chaos of war, fear and the Plague. Barbara Tuchman anatomizes the century, revealing both the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived. [goodreads]

Anyone who has read THE GUNS OF AUGUST or STILWELL AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN CHINA, knows that Barbara Tuchman was one of the most gifted American writers of this century. Her subject was history, but her profiles of great men and great events are drawn with such power that reading Tuchman becomes a riveting experience

In A DISTANT MIRROR, Barbara Tuchman illuminates the Dark Ages. Her description of medieval daily life, the role of the church, the influence of the Great Plagues, and the social and political conventions that make this period of history so engrossing, are carefully woven into an integrated narrative that sweeps the reader along. [publisher]


A friend of mine, knowing my love for the Middle Ages, suggested I read this book. This is an excellent and very thorough book on the 14th century. The Middle Ages is a major part of the High School history curriculum in France, but I still discovered many things here I had never heard about the Middle Ages.

Tuchman had a genius idea by weaving her study around the character of Enguerrand de Coucy (1340-1397). He is a central character in the national history of the time, and with his strategical position in all major events, in France itself and also in neighboring countries, he is the perfect character. His own tour de force was to stay alive so many years, while taking part in many battles of all kinds, with words or weapons, and maneuvering to always be on the side of the winner!

Two other things struck me: the strength of antisemitism, in the Plague years; and that taxing the lowest class to get money for war purposes is absolutely not a new phenomenon; indeed the 14th century seems to have developed it as an art!

Finally, I enjoyed very much Tuchman’s style, often witty and sarcastic. It is a long read, but very enjoyable, if you want to know more about the 14th century in Europe.



1 thought on “A Distant Mirror

  1. Pingback: My Dewey Decimal Challenge 2011 « Words And Peace

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