A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror

The Calamitous 14th Century

Book - 2014
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The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering age of crusades, cathedrals, and chivalry; on the other, a world plunged into chaos and spiritual agony. In this revelatory work, Barbara W. Tuchman examines not only the great rhythms of history but the grain and texture of domestic life: what childhood was like; what marriage meant; how money, taxes, and war dominated the lives of serf, noble, and clergy alike. Granting her subjects their loyalties, treacheries, and guilty passions, Tuchman re-creates the lives of proud cardinals, university scholars, grocers and clerks, saints and mystics, lawyers and mercenaries, and, dominating all, the knight--in all his valor and "furious follies," a "terrible worm in an iron cocoon."
Publisher: New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.
Edition: Random House Trade paperback edition.
Copyright Date: 1978
ISBN: 9780345349576
Branch Call Number: 944.025 T79DA
Characteristics: xxvii, 714 pages : illustrations, maps


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Mar 12, 2018

This is a tour-de-force of scholarship; a chronicle of an entire century told through the life-story of one of its denizens, one Enguerrand de Coucy. Granted, the century is explored in only a small corner of the world (England and Northern France, with brief episodes in Spain, Italy, Tunisia, and the Middle East), but there is enough detail here for five “War and Peace” -sized novels. “War and Peace” is an apt metaphor on another level as well; the 14th century in that part of the world was mostly a century of war – by the end, the actual cause of the conflict was forgotten but peace was still illusive. The 14th century (seemingly the last, sulfurous gasp of the Middle Ages) was rather like the 20th – which also began with a plague and witnessed endless wars and barbarity on previously unimaginable scales as the older orders of things collapsed. The horrors of the century are all laid out (knights who pillaged their own, and other, countries; wars of extermination; nobles living high while squeezing the poor for literally everything they owned; gruesome diseases that depopulated entire cities; individual incidents of madness and grand parties turned deadly) but this is also a chronicle of hope: the people muddled through seeking a brighter day (and there were moments when that brighter day looked close). Altogether this is a fascinating, if very long and complicated, study on how a perioid in the distant past was so different – and so exactly the same – as our own time.

Nov 17, 2017

I was curious about parallels of medieval times to our own. This book’s cover blurb says, “Tuchman examines not only the great rhythms of history but the grind and texture of domestic life: what childhood was like; what marriage meant; how money, taxes and war dominated the livers of serf, noble, and clergy alike.” I appreciated the explanation of royalty’s frivolous spending and taxing to support their vain pursuit of honor and glory. I had never heard of the Free Company that threatened peaceful existence between wars. I was enlightened by the various uprisings among the commoners that almost changed society but foundered on lack of a common goal and enduring leader. But, I had to infer that serfs and laborers get the dreary dregs, because we get no details on them. With sources like Froissart and the Monk of St. Denis, we see only the childhoods and weddings of knights and dukes. Tuchman confines our view of domestic life to the castle, and occasionally, the guild hall. With the title “A Distant Mirror” I had hoped to find more distinct parallels between Tuchman’s calamitous 14th century and our increasingly disturbed 21st century. I didn’t find many because she shows the effects of war, plague, marauding Free Companies, and religious schism almost exclusively from the viewpoint of nobles, with brief mention mechants and guild members.

Oct 14, 2017

chapter 4

Feb 23, 2013

I find Tuchman's book to be mediocre to submediocre --- one would be much better served in reading about the similar period covered by Swiss historian, Johann Huizanga. Although I enjoyed Tuchman's "Stillwell and the American Experience in China" - - it was really Stilwell's diary excerpts which were most illuminating and entertaining, Tuchman really had nothing much to offer. No rating, I'm afraid.

Jan 16, 2013

Of the 100 or so histories I've read in my life, on any topic, I would put this one in the top 3 or 4. The story of the 14th century in Europe is incredibly compelling, and relatively unknown. Barbara Tuchman does a masterful job of relaying it, partially using a specific French/English nobleman and his comings and goings and war travels, to focus it. Thank you Ms. Tuchman!


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