A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman

I tend not to read non-fiction very often, but Barbara W Tuchman’s 1978 history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, is one I’ve been intending to read for years. It looked like such a long book, and I’d heard that it was also a very detailed one, so I knew I would need to pick the right time to read it – and that time came at the beginning of April this year. It took me all of that month to read it, but I actually found it a much easier read than I’d expected, due partly to the style of Tuchman’s writing and partly, of course, to the 14th century being so fascinating!

I couldn’t possibly list everything that this book covers, but here are some of the topics it explores: the Hundred Years’ War, the conflict between England and France usually dated as beginning in 1337 and ending in 1453 and including the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers; the Black Death which ravaged Europe and then reared its head again and again throughout the rest of the century; the Papal Schism which resulted in a split within the Catholic Church; and the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the similar uprising, the Jacquerie, which occurred in France. A lot of destruction, disaster and devastation, but the book is subtitled The Calamitous 14th Century, after all, and – as Tuchman points out – it tends to be the negative rather than the positive which survives in historical records. It is not really necessary to have any prior knowledge of any of these things before you begin, as Tuchman does take the reader through everything you need to know and more.

In an attempt to pull all of these different threads together, Tuchman uses the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy, as a central point of focus. There are a few reasons for her choice of this particular historical figure: not only did he live through most of the major events of the 14th century (being born in 1340 and dying in 1397), but his noble status means that he appears in historical records and sources, and as the husband of Isabella, daughter of Edward III of England, he had close connections with both the English and the French. When I first started reading, I really liked the idea of seeing the century from one man’s perspective, but actually this aspect of the book wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. There are whole chapters where Enguerrand is barely mentioned, and others where I felt that too much attention was given to him and his actions when other people or incidents might have been more interesting.

Of course, as well as Enguerrand de Coucy, we do hear about lots of other historical figures of the period – such as Charles the Bad of Navarre, whose horrific-sounding death sticks in the mind! I enjoyed reading about some of the notable women of the time, including the poet Christine de Pisan; Marcia Ordelaffi, left to defend the city of Cesena in her husband’s absence; and in particular, Jeanne de Montfort (Joanna of Flanders), who also proved herself more than capable in moments of crisis:

When Charles de Blois besieged Hennebont, she led a heroic defence in full armour astride a war-horse in the streets, exhorting the soldiers under a hail of arrows and ordering women to cut short their skirts and carry stones and pots of boiling pitch to the walls to cast down upon the enemy. During a lull she led a party of knights out a secret gate and galloped a roundabout way to take the enemy camp in the rear, destroyed half their force and defeated the siege.

War is, understandably, a major theme of the book, as is religion, but Tuchman also covers almost every other aspect of 14th century life you can think of, from food, clothing and housing to music, literature and entertainment. She often goes off on a tangent, for example starting with a description of a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor to the French court then digressing to talking about miracle plays and how they were performed. There are interesting discussions of medieval artwork and why there were so few pictures of children, of the decline of chivalry and the changing role of the knight, and all sorts of odd snippets of information – did you know that during one of France’s failed attempts to invade England they tried to transport an entire portable wooden town across the sea to house the invaders in when they landed?

The book’s title, A Distant Mirror, suggests the mirroring of 14th century events by more recent ones, and Tuchman does draw some parallels with her own century, the 20th, particularly with reference to the two World Wars:

For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.

She also compares World War I and its effect on society with the devastation caused throughout medieval Europe by the plague:

An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.

However, I’m sure links and similarities could be found between any two periods in history if you looked for them, so I would have liked more specific examples and analysis of why the author considered the 14th century in particular to be ‘a distant mirror’.

I know this sort of long, detailed, in-depth account is not for everyone, especially if you’re not as interested in medieval history as I am, but I enjoyed it and felt that I got a lot out of it. If anyone else has read this book, I would love to know what you thought.

25 thoughts on “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman

  1. whatmeread says:

    I tried to read one of her books once, maybe this one, and failed, but it was a long time ago, when I hardly ever read anything but genre fiction. I might try her again.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    You and I have a similar approach to reading long non-fiction. Take a bit at a time. I am happy to know about this book and I thank you for your review. If I ever get through Will Durant’s The Age of Faith, and I will eventually, this would be an excellent companion book.

    • Helen says:

      I think it would have been too much for me if I hadn’t taken my time with it. There’s an overwhelming amount of information to take in. Good luck with finishing The Age of Faith!

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    This does sound like a dense read with a few aspects that didn’t quite work. The idea of tying it together with one person is great but I would think there’s just too MUCH for him to be involved in all of it!

    • Helen says:

      I liked the idea of tying things together with one person’s life at first, but it didn’t work as well as I’d expected. I would have enjoyed the book just as much without that aspect.

  4. FictionFan says:

    I like the idea of a book that covers lots of different aspects of life rather than simply concentrating on what all the pesky Kings were up to, but I can see how trying to concentrate it all round one individual could get a bit tricky. This is a period I know next to nothing about – no, make that nothing! Would you recommend it as an introduction?

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure it would still be a fascinating read. There was so much information packed into it, I think you could read it several times and still learn something new every time.

  5. April Munday says:

    I’ve thought about reading this a couple of times, but been put off because it’s an overview and probably not as detailed as I’d like, and because it’s forty years old. A lot of research about the fourteenth century has been done in that time and some of her interpretations might no longer apply. In addition, Tuchman wasn’t a specialist in medieval history.

    • Helen says:

      There was more than enough detail for me, but the scope of the book is obviously very broad as it covers so many different topics. I think it’s a good introduction for the general reader who just wants to learn more about the 14th century, but possibly not for someone who already knows the period well.

  6. Fariba says:

    I’m currently reading this book too! How exciting to know that others have heard about Tuchman’s history. While it’s true that there has been 40 years of scholarship on the 14th century since this book was published and Tuchman was not a medievalist, popular histories introduce me to important names and works of the period.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’re enjoying it, Fariba. A lot can change in 40 years of scholarship, but I think older books are still relevant and this one doesn’t feel too dated. I was able to learn a lot from it and, as you say, reading books like this is a good introduction to the period.

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed it and I think you probably would too. Trying to link everything with one man’s life wasn’t really necessary, though, and I felt that the book would have been just as good without that angle.

  7. cirtnecce says:

    I loved Tuchman’s The Guns of August which covered the early months of World War 1 and with great expectations had started March of Folly. But I am now struggling to finish the later. Like you mention in the Distant Mirror, some parts in Folly are given too much attention and others scant and reads more like a hypothesis which is attempting to be proved. Despite all my love for History, I think I will hold off on Distant Mirror for some time!

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed this book, but there were some problems with it and it sounds like there are the same problems with March of Folly. The Guns of August sounds good, though – maybe I will try that one!

  8. piningforthewest says:

    I have this one and intend to get around to reading it sometime. My husband read it some years ago and enjoyed it, he’s read a few of her books.

    • Helen says:

      I think you would find it interesting. I haven’t really looked into what Tuchman’s other books are like, but I will have to investigate.

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