A Distant Mirror
"Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . A great book, in a great historical tradition." —CommentaryThe 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.

A Distant Mirror Details

TitleA Distant Mirror
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJul 12th, 1987
PublisherRandom House Trade
ISBN-139780345349576
Rating
GenreHistory, Nonfiction, Historical, Medieval, European History, Medieval History

A Distant Mirror Review

  • Kalliope
    January 1, 1970
    What an extraordinary read it is when one book is as action packed as thirty riveting novels. And if it also contains rich and erudite disquisitions and is narrated in a language as clear and flowing as water from a spring, then the volume must be given a preferential place in one’s library.I am not too keen of including quotes in my reviews. But given the amount of material that marshals in front of one’s eyes, as colorful as overwhelming pageants and breathtaking jousts, and as dense as the ti What an extraordinary read it is when one book is as action packed as thirty riveting novels. And if it also contains rich and erudite disquisitions and is narrated in a language as clear and flowing as water from a spring, then the volume must be given a preferential place in one’s library.I am not too keen of including quotes in my reviews. But given the amount of material that marshals in front of one’s eyes, as colorful as overwhelming pageants and breathtaking jousts, and as dense as the tightly woven wefts and warps of a tapestry, there is no way I could attempt to give a glimpse with my own words of what Barbara Tuchman has achieved with this book.But before I present the quote, I would like to draw attention to how shrewd Tuchman has been in the choice of her subject. As she explains in her early pages, she set herself to follow one particular character as he lived during a period in history when the actors were on the count of hundreds, and thereby keep one's focus and walk through the maze and the turmoil without getting lost.Enguerrand de Coucy VII was a member of the French nobility at a time when ‘French’ could also mean ‘English’. Enguerrand in fact acted as both French and English as he had acquired double allegiance: to his own King and to the King and father of his wife. And this he did when the two Kingdoms were at war; a war that would last for over one hundred years. Opportunely Enguerrrand is well documented by one of the most striking chroniclers of the time, Jean Froissart. As nothing had been written about him in English before Tuchman, she had found a gold vein for her research and pen to exploit.Here stops my explanation. It is time now for the quote. This passage is better than an the Index to offer a glimpse to that Distant Mirror that Tuchman has approached to us for our close examination. Since he (Enguerrad de Coucy) had first marched at fifteen against the English, and at eighteen hunted down the Jacquerie, the range of Coucy’s experience had extended over an extraordinary variety of combat, diplomacy, government, and social and political relationships. As son-in-law of Edward III, holding double allegiance to two kings at war, his position had been unique. He had seen war as captain or one of the to command in eleven campaigns—in Piedmont, Lombardy, Switzerland, Normandy, Languedoc, Tuscany, northern France, Flanders, Guelders, Tunisia, Genoa; he had commanded mercenaries, and fought as ally or antagonist of the Count of Savoy, Gregory XI, Hawkwood, the Visconti, the Hapsburgs, the Swiss, Navarrese, Gascons, English, Berbers, the Republic of Florence, and nobles of Genoa. As diplomat he had negotiated with Pope Clement VII, the Duke of Brittany, the Count of Flanders, the Queen of Aragon, with the English at peace parleys, and the rebels of Paris. He had had one temperamental and extravagant wife eight years his senior, and a second approximately thirty years his junior. He had served as adviser and agent of the two royal Dukes, Anjou and Orléans, as Lieutenant–General of Picardy and later of Guienne, as member of the Royal Council, as Grand Bouteiller of France, and had wtice been the preferred choice for a Constable. He had known and dealt with every kind of character from the ultra-wicked Charles of Navarre to the ultra-saintly Pierre de Luxemburg. If to the above adventures, narrated ever so smoothly, one is to add the excellent studies of various chapters of Material Life in late Medieval Europe, that help us to shorten the Distance of the Mirror and make reflections become what is reflected, then one can begin to imagine the sheer pleasure that this book offers to whoever decides to open up its pages and read it.As it is often claimed, Tuchman may not be a historian of the academic breed, but in this account she has demonstrated her excellent narrative abilities that many historians and novelists would just love to command as well as she.Brilliant.
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  • William2
    January 1, 1970
    A vivid and detailed look into a lost world. The major players are The Black Death, The Hundred Years War, the sick, uproarious joke of chivalric valor, The Papal Schism, ruinous taxation, serfdom, petty feudal institutions, the utter absence of reason, murderous vengeance, horrendous peculation, brigandry, subjection of women, endless cruelty of mankind, crusade against the "infidel," and so on. A GR friend said that he was disappointed in this book because it did not offer the narrow focus and A vivid and detailed look into a lost world. The major players are The Black Death, The Hundred Years War, the sick, uproarious joke of chivalric valor, The Papal Schism, ruinous taxation, serfdom, petty feudal institutions, the utter absence of reason, murderous vengeance, horrendous peculation, brigandry, subjection of women, endless cruelty of mankind, crusade against the "infidel," and so on. A GR friend said that he was disappointed in this book because it did not offer the narrow focus and sleek thematic underpinnings of Tuchman's The March of Folly. I see his point. It should be noted, however, that Folly is a very different kind of book. Folly is a deft study of the almost systematic loss of rational method leaders experience once they are dazzled by the trappings of ultimate power. A Distant Mirror brings before the reader an almost encyclopedic survey of the late Middle Ages. Reading it is like being in thrall to an endless film loop of natural disasters, pitiless murders, and roadside accidents. Tuchman brings order to this concatenation of relentless self-woundings so that try as we might we cannot look away. If there is only one book you read on the Middle Ages it might be this one. It is not for the squeamish or those afraid of the dark. It is not a light beach- or inflight-read. Highly recommended.
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  • Glenn Russell
    January 1, 1970
    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 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.
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  • Hana
    January 1, 1970
    I was a little worried at the start that 600 pages of 14th century history might be, shall we say, a bit too much. There is no denying the book is long and very detailed and at times it was a struggle, but every time I was about to give up after yet another pointless battle Tuchman would come up with a telling detail or surprising insight. Example: the invention of chimneys in the 14th century made separate bedrooms possible and introduced notions of privacy that had never before been possible I was a little worried at the start that 600 pages of 14th century history might be, shall we say, a bit too much. There is no denying the book is long and very detailed and at times it was a struggle, but every time I was about to give up after yet another pointless battle Tuchman would come up with a telling detail or surprising insight. Example: the invention of chimneys in the 14th century made separate bedrooms possible and introduced notions of privacy that had never before been possible in Northern Europe and so she wove her web again, catching me for another hundred pages. There are so many wonderful reviews of this book on Goodreads that I’ll just highlight a few things that struck me as I was reading this masterpiece.The Black DeathAbout only thing I knew about the 14th century when I started this book was that this was when the bubonic plague spread across Europe from Asia and I only knew this because I’ve read Connie Willis’ superb Doomsday Book in which a time-traveling historian gets stuck in 1348.One of the surprises for me was that the plague died down and recurred more than once throughout the terrible century “The Black Death returned for the fourth time in 1388-90. Earlier recurrences had affected chiefly children who had not acquired immunity, but in the fourth round a new adult generation fell under the swift contagion. By this time Europe’s population was reduced to between 40 and 50 percent of what it had been when the century opened.”If you want to know what happened during the plague and why, and what it meant read A Distant Mirror. If you want to know what it felt like read the Doomsday Book. Better yet, read them both.The Hundred Years WarCould there be anything more horrifying than the Black Death? Well, yes, actually. Chapter 6 tells the story of the start of the war between France and England that would last for a hundred years. There were more than a few idiots, but no heroes, no chivalrous knights, just ugly opportunists laying waste to their own countryside, killing for no reason, looting, and burning towns to the ground.In fact, death in every form (famine, war, disease) stalked the 14th century and death personified as a pale horseman or as a hawk-like old hag, was a recurrent image in the art and literature of the era.Mercenary BandsEngland and France were not always fighting. So what was an unemployed knight to do? “Left unemployed by the truce the [mercenary] companies reverted to plundering the people they lately liberated." One truce with England was immediately followed by six weeks of plunder. Forty villages were robbed and wrecked, inhabitants killed or raped, monasteries and convents burned to the ground. One French nobleman, the Sire de Coucy who plays a central role in the book, tried to rein them in, hanging culprits daily, but against “men habituated to lawless force punishment failed to bring the violence under control.”Charles V who succeeded to the throne of France in 1364 developed a fairly effective strategy for dealing with the mercenaries, the tarde venus--pack them off to fight still more foreign wars! Repeated spasms of the Hundred Years War, a war in Italy, then more Papal wars, then war against the Berbers, and finally a last bloody Crusade would provide employment and plunder for these rapacious bands--and for some a fitting end. Knights in ArmorThis aspect of medieval times fascinated me as a child; at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art my favorite exhibit was the knights on their great chargers.But by the 14th century the international code of chivalry was breaking down and the armor and horses were proving surprisingly vulnerable to such innovations as the long bow. Not to mention the fact that many of the knights were far from chivalrous. New strategies were called for. Slowly, novel approaches towards war were developed. For the aborted 1348 French invasion of England, the French packed a vast prefab camp with numbered panels. “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” There were a handful of sensible strategists and innovators: "It was in truth the non-chivalric qualities of two hard-headed characters, Du Guescline and Charles V, that brought France back from ruin.” But old ways and old knights die hard. The final Crusade against the Turks at the end of the 14th century was on balance a catastrophe. "The crusaders of 1396 started out with a strategic purpose in the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, but their minds were on something else. The young men...born since the Black Death and Poitiers and the nadir of French fortunes, harked back to the pursuit of those strange bewitchment, honor and glory. They thought only of being in the vanguard, to the exclusion of tactical plan and common sense...." Pageantry and the Arts Not all was grim. For some, the century was a time of plenty—a time when the arts were reborn and new secular themes were suddenly and surprisingly in vogue.“Ostentation and pageantry...was traditionally the habit of princes. But now in the second half of the 14th century it went to extremes as if to defy the increased uncertainty of life. Conspicuous consumption became a frenzied excess, a gilded shroud over the Black Death and lost battles, a desperate desire to show oneself fortunate in a time of advancing misfortune." "Charles V's three brothers were all compulsively acquisitive...Each put his own interests above the kingdom's each was given to conspicuous consumption...and each was to produce unsurpassed works of art: The Apocalypse series of tapestries for Anjou; the Tres Riches Heures and Belles Heures illuminated for Berry; and the statues of the Well of Moses and the Mourners for Burgundy.""Men and women hawked and hunted and carried a favorite falcon, hooded, on the wrist wherever they went, indoors or out--to church, to the assizes, to meals. On occasion huge pastries were served from which live birds were released to be caught by hawks unleashed in the banquet hall.""In the evening minstrels played with lutes and harps, reed pipes, bagpipes, trumpets, kettle drums, and cymbals. “ Poetry, story-telling and drama were all wildly popular. Literature, written for the first time in the vernacular by masters from Dante to Chaucer, flowered; all was ready for the great leap to print in the next century.The Papal Schism and Religious ReformationThe 14th century was a time of innovative and sometimes bizarre religious practices, prompted in part by the horrors of plague and wars but also by the Papal schism. "Of all the strange evils and adversities of the 14th century the effect of the Papal schism on the public mind was among the most damaging. When each Pope excommunicated the followers of the other, who could be sure of salvation? Every Christian found himself under penalty of damnation by one or the other Pope, with no way of being sure that the sacraments of their priest were valid or a sacrilege."Mystical sects thrived (some of them seriously weird). On the more practical front some, including a notable number of women, banded together to form communities—lay religious orders like the Beguines that provided not only spiritual solace and a chance to do good but also a not inconsiderable degree of protection and autonomy. Left without solace, without guidance, it must have seemed to far too many ordinary people that there was nowhere sacred to turn. Scientific knowledge was growing, but “could not dispel the sense of a malign influence upon the times. As the century entered its last quarter, the reality and power of demons and witches became a common belief….Women turned to sorcery for the [some of the] same reasons they turned to mysticism. In Paris in 1390 a woman whose lover had jilted her was tried for taking revenge by employing the magical powers of another woman to render him impotent. Both were burned at the stake.” Among the clergy there were those who became obsessed with witchcraft, demonology and heresy—fueling the fires of the Inquisition. Yet at the same time a novel view of religion was emerging; a vision that empowered the individual’s search for God and meaning. The Bible was translated into the vernacular for the first time. Wyclif and others were challenging the power of the clerics. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a natural consequence of default by the Church in the 14th—and the desperate searching of those who felt abandoned by both divine and earthly powers.Peasant and Middle Class UprisingsCharles V of France succeeded for a time in his war aims against England, but at the cost of a ravaged and exhausted country. Punishing taxes and mercenary bands oppressed the ordinary peasants and the growing middle class. The stage was set for rebellion. Tuchman always knows how to give a nuanced view. In the chapter entitled 'The Worms of the Earth Against the Lions' I was just about to cheer wholeheartedly for the weavers of Ghent until I read of the way they in turn oppressed the lower class fullers; and my sympathy was with commoners of Anjou demanding tax relief until "In a frenzy of triumph and unspent wrath, the people rushed to rob and assault the Jews, the one section of society upon whom the poor could safely vent their aggression.”By the late 1380s defeats in battle, widespread economic malaise, and disenchantment with government had seized Europe. Both England and France were ruled by minors and prey to factions, but the seeds of effective rebellion and reform would lie dormant for many decades more. Ordinary LifeTuchman’s ability to paint vivid pictures of a far-away time and place is astonishing. Often, I felt that, like Connie Willis’ time traveler, I had suddenly arrived, transported through the distant mirror….In a dangerous world night was not a time to be abroad. Even in Paris in the 14th century, “At sundown the curfew bell rang for closing time, work ceased, shops were shuttered, silence succeeded bustle. At eight o'clock, when the Angelus bell signaled bedtime, the city was in darkness. Only the crossroads were lit by flickering candle or lamp placed in a niche holding a stature of Notre Dame or the patron saint of the quarter.”There were also fascinating bits of social history like these:"In everyday life women of noble as well as non-noble class found equality of function, if not of status, thrust on them by circumstances. Peasant women could hold tenancies and in that capacity rendered the same kinds of service for their holdings as men. In the guilds, women had monopolies of certain trades....The chatelaine of a castle more often than not had to manage alone when her husband was away."Although marriage was a sacrament, divorce was frequent and, given the right strings to pull, easily obtained...”lawyers are said to 'make and unmake matrimony to money' and a man might get rid of his wife by giving the judge a fur coat....marriage litigation filled the courts of the Middle Ages.”Who knew? Certainly not me!But above all Tuchman’s gifts are her sweeping vision and the poetry of her writing through which we glimpse the wheel of time and human fortunes slowly turning:"Yet change as always was taking place….Monarchy, centralized government, the national state gained in strength...Seaborne enterprise liberated by the compass was reaching toward the voyages of discovery that were to burst the confines of Europe….Times were to grow worse over the next fifty odd-years until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected."Four and a half stars, with a half star off because all the battles and political machinations really were a bore, at least for me. Content rating, PG for all the death, destruction, blood and disease.
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  • Michael Finocchiaro
    January 1, 1970
    My grandmother had this book on her shelf for years and I read it as a kid and loved it. Of course, I knew the King Arthur legends and pretended to be a knight in shining armour like any other young boy, but reading about the insanity of this period, the rage of the Black Death that killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, the grappling for power by the French and English competitors, the epic battles...it was a mind-blower and still is. I visited many of the sites since living here in Paris t My grandmother had this book on her shelf for years and I read it as a kid and loved it. Of course, I knew the King Arthur legends and pretended to be a knight in shining armour like any other young boy, but reading about the insanity of this period, the rage of the Black Death that killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, the grappling for power by the French and English competitors, the epic battles...it was a mind-blower and still is. I visited many of the sites since living here in Paris that Tuchman mentions in her book and loved having the context to understand why they were standing...or not. An incredibly vibrant and realistic view of this critical and bloody century in Europe.By the way, I have been up to see the castle of Chaucy which is the epicenter of this book and, unfortunately, there is precious little to see - the chateau was demolished during the World Wars of the 20th C.
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  • Matt
    January 1, 1970
    My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant. I’ve read Ken Follett’s two Kingsbridge novels, and I’ve been to a few Renaissance Fairs in my time (and eaten more than my share of child-sized turkey legs), but beyond that, I’ve never cared much about the Middle Ages. I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century not for its subject matter, but because Tuchman wrote it. My interest in medieval times is not incredibly strong; it is, in fact, relegated mostly to the hope of someday going to a Medieval Times restaurant. I’ve read Ken Follett’s two Kingsbridge novels, and I’ve been to a few Renaissance Fairs in my time (and eaten more than my share of child-sized turkey legs), but beyond that, I’ve never cared much about the Middle Ages. I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century not for its subject matter, but because Tuchman wrote it. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Tuchman was one of the great author/historians of her time, or any time. Her name on the cover demands attention. While A Distant Mirror didn't turn me into an expert in making barley bread or choosing the right kind of alligator for your castle moat, it was nevertheless an utterly fascinating read. Tuchman’s focus on the 14th Century began with an interest in the Black Death of 1348-1350, which she states killed an estimated one-third of the people “living between India and Iceland.” As she explains in the Forward, Tuchman initially wanted to study the effects of such a disaster on society. In researching the answer to that question, her interest grew to include the entirety of the 1300s, “a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age.” Certainly there was no shortage of turmoil and strife. There was the aforementioned Black Death – the bubonic plague – that caused pus-and-blood-filled buboes (inflamed lymph nodes) to appear on the groin, neck, and armpit. Millions of people died in this, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. There was constant war between England and France, part of the so-called Hundred Years’ War, which ravaged the countryside and depleted tax bases. There was a Papal Schism, with three men simultaneously claiming that tall white hat. And to cap things off, in 1396, the Ottomans put a decisive end to the Crusade of Nicopolis. To get an idea of the eventfulness of the 14th Century, let’s take a brief look at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. It pitted the English forces under Edward, the Black Prince, and the French under King John. The English won, and furthermore, captured King John, decapitating the French monarchy. In John’s absence, the bourgeois rose in France, and the Third Estate attempted to establish constitutional control. Meanwhile, mercenary “free companies” scoured the land, plundering and burning. It’s all the bad parts of Westeros, except there are no dragons coming to the rescue. (Conversely, I suppose, there were no dragons to make things worse). All this takes place in just two chapters (out of 27). Tuchman presents her material with a mixture of thematic sections and chronological sections. Parts of the book are pure overview, touching on what it was like to live during the 14th Century. She describes the lives of peasants and knights and lords; she describes their faith; their clothing; their jobs; their sexual practices (apparently the chastity belt “rests on only the faintest factual support”). The writing is brilliant. Descriptive, alive, witty, and engaging. Take, for instance, her portrait of the peasant:What was this peasant who supported the three estates on his back, this bent Atlas of the medieval world…Snub-nosed and rough in belted tunic and long hose, he can be seen in carved stone medallions and illuminated pages representing the twelve months, sowing from a canvas seed bag around his neck, scything hay bare-legged in summer’s heat in loose blouse and straw hat, trampling grapes in a wooden vat, shearing sheep held between his knees, herding swine in the forest, tramping through the snow in hood and sheepskin mantle with a load of firewood on his back, warming himself before a fire in a low hut in February. Alongside him in the fields the peasant woman binds sheaves wearing a skirt caught up at the belt to free her legs and a cloth head-covering instead of a hat.Or try this description of the food at a sumptuous wedding: The meats and fish, all gilded, paired suckling pigs with crabs, hares with pike, a whole calf with trout, quails and partridges with more trout, ducks and herons with carp, beef and capons with sturgeon, veal and capons with carp in lemon sauce, beef pies and cheese with eel pies, meat aspic with fish aspic, meat galantines with lamprey, and among the remaining courses, roasted kid, venison, peacocks with cabbage, French beans and pickled ox-tongue, junkets and cheese, cherries and other fruit.I think I hear George R.R. Martin’s tummy grumbling!The overview sections were my favorite, because I’m more interested in the essence of the 14th Century than in the timeline. That said, her chronological sections are just as engaging, displaying her rare gift for giving life to people who lived hundreds of years ago. In order to anchor her narrative, Tuchman chose a central figure to follow. This man is Enguerrand de Coucy VII. He is like Sean Patrick Flanery in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, showing up and playing a role in a remarkable number of landmark 14th Century events. Tuchman took pains in choosing him, because she wanted:[N]ot a king or queen, because everything about such persons is ipso facto exceptional, and besides, they are overused; nor a commoner, because commoners’ lives in most cases did not take in the wide range that I wanted; nor a cleric or saint, because they are outside the limits of my comprehension; nor a woman, because any medieval woman whose life was adequately documented would be atypical.The knock on Tuchman is that she is not a medievalist. That is, she has not devoted her life to getting someone to pay her think about Ye Olden Days. She has been criticized, for among other things, using secondary sources and relying on poor translations. Though I respect the hell out of dogged, elbow-patched professors digging through dusty primary sources, I can’t help but believe that most of this criticism is a mark of Tuchman’s commercial success. Medievalists tend to take themselves rather seriously, so it’s fairly easy to ignore their sniffing (and their dry monographs). If I’m going to have surgery, yes, I want a trained surgeon to do the cutting. But writing about medieval times is not surgery. I feel quite comfortable having a polished writer and historian – if not an expert – guide me through the subject. Tuchman wrote this book – as the title implies – to compare the catastrophes of the 20th Century with those of the 14th. Her book is an elegant way of saying that in times like these, it’s helpful to remember there have always been times like these. And despite the many sorrows of the 14th Century, Tuchman is keen to remind us – at several points in her story – that for most people, life went on as usual. A Distant Mirror is thoroughly engaging and consistently excellent reading. It creates its own energy; that is, is got me revved about a subject I never really cared about. Tuchman was a special writer, with that magical ability to make the past feel like the present. Critics have called her out on her anachronisms, but I don’t think it’s anachronistic to recognize that even though these people are distant, they were still human, and in that way, closer to us than we realize.
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  • Aaron
    January 1, 1970
    I'm not quite sure how I came to read this strange and unwieldy book. It just kept popping up in my sights. For a while now, I've had a boyish fascination with the Middle Ages, intensified by a couple of years spent studying Old English in grad school, and nursed along since then with occasional books about the Black Death, the Crusades, castle building, and whatever else seemed interesting to me. Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to I'm not quite sure how I came to read this strange and unwieldy book. It just kept popping up in my sights. For a while now, I've had a boyish fascination with the Middle Ages, intensified by a couple of years spent studying Old English in grad school, and nursed along since then with occasional books about the Black Death, the Crusades, castle building, and whatever else seemed interesting to me. Most of what I've read has been deeply thought-provoking, on the one hand, if somewhat tiresome to read, on the other. Norman Cantor, at his best, is an exception, but even he grows drowsily academic. There are few great writers among medievalists, I've discovered. Steven Runciman, the British historian of the Crusades, is one. But Barbara Tuchman, the author of this book, is in a league entirely of her own.Maybe that's because she wasn't a traditional medievalist. Tuchman was an amateur historian, unaffiliated with any academic institution. She was a writer, first and foremost, who produced gigantic, painstakingly crafted books on a wide variety of subjects. Her history of the events leading up to World War I, "The Guns of August," earned her the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. (Just added to my "to read" list.) From the moment I started in on this hefty 600-pager, I was enthralled by the voice of the consummate stylist guiding me along. Perhaps that's a naive thing to say about a historical account, and perhaps it's the sort of thing that leads to a flawed understanding of historical events. Eloquence isn't everything, and plenty of important books have been the work of rough hands. But it's not so much Tuchman's command of language that draws you in as her infectious enchantment with her subject: the period of Western European history beginning with the Black Death of 1348 and ending with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the early 1400s, all as seen through the life of a single French nobleman. "People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization," Tuchman writes. And indeed the reflection of humanity you see in this "distant mirror" is almost unrecognizable, but all the more fascinating for that.Today, as I finished off the last hundred pages, I found myself reading long passages aloud, the way you do when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the first time, or some other uncannily good novelist. Unlike some authors of ambitiously long and complicated books, Tuchman doesn't peter out near the end and leave the reader feeling cheated. Her culminating chapters are some of her best, and it doesn't even matter that the people and events she's describing are so old and of so little relevance to your daily life that you will probably never hear them mentioned again, not even on Jeopardy. What matters is that she makes them all alive again, more alive than they've been for 600 years.
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  • Max
    January 1, 1970
    The Four Horsemen had their way in the fourteenth century. Tuchman portrays a brutal decadent European society terrorized and demoralized by the plague, war, violence and deprivation. She focuses on France, England and the Italian city-states from 1350 to 1400. The religious leaders were hypocritical and profane; the aristocracy was arrogant and venal. Kings, nobles, popes and prelates accumulated fantastic wealth at the expense of everyone else for whom it was the worst of times. The century ma The Four Horsemen had their way in the fourteenth century. Tuchman portrays a brutal decadent European society terrorized and demoralized by the plague, war, violence and deprivation. She focuses on France, England and the Italian city-states from 1350 to 1400. The religious leaders were hypocritical and profane; the aristocracy was arrogant and venal. Kings, nobles, popes and prelates accumulated fantastic wealth at the expense of everyone else for whom it was the worst of times. The century marked the decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s power, the feudal system and the myth of the chivalrous knight.The plague killed 1/3rd of the people of Europe between 1347 and 1350. Thereafter, outbreaks recurred regularly. Those afflicted died agonizing deaths although many succumbed quickly. People became unhinged with most believing God was punishing them. Many scapegoats were targeted. Jews were rounded up and executed or driven off to Eastern Europe. Stories of Jews poisoning wells and killing Christian children for their blood (blood libel) became firmly established. Christians lost faith in the Church as priests too hid in fear or charged exorbitant fees to perform last rites. If God had caused the plague or at least didn’t seem to care, what was the point of the Church? Its vast wealth was resented deeply by many. Pope Clement VI had even started the selling of indulgences. When the plague subsided in 1350 fear was replaced by gloom. A pessimism ensued which would last into the next century.The fight between secular kings and the Papacy was a key conflict of the 14th century. Money and power were at stake. In 1303 King Philip IV of France in conjunction with the anti-papist Italian army captured Pope Boniface VIII, who not surprisingly, soon was dead. Philip felt the many Church fees collected in France were rightfully his. The Pope said Philip was subject to him. The Pope lost. The next Pope, Clement V, set up shop in Avignon and worked hand in glove with Philip. Popes ruled from Avignon from 1307 to 1377 with ever increasing domination by the French kings, which was deeply resented outside of France. Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome greatly surprising his benefactor, Charles V of France. Gregory shortly thereafter died. The cardinals in Rome elected Urban VI who they believed they could easily control to stay in Rome. Soon they realized he was crazy. They declared it a mistake and elected Clement VII. But Urban wouldn’t quit and soon Clement found it advisable to relocate in Avignon. Now there were two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, with the Christian world split in its support of the two. Thus began the Papal Schism which lasted until 1417 dividing the Christian world. With two Popes issuing orders, selling indulgences and church offices, and with people blessed by one condemned by the other, the legitimacy of the Church was greatly diminished. The Church would never regain its pre-fourteenth century power and prestige. The seeds for the reformation were being sown. In England in the 1370’s and 80’s John Wycliffe began openly criticizing the great wealth and ostentation of the Church and formed a following known as the Lollards who carried his message on after he died. Wycliffe translated the bible into Middle English believing the faithful should approach God directly bypassing the priests. His movement foreshadowed the English break with the Church 150 years later. War between England and France was another key conflict of the fourteenth century. A desire to invade England was one reason Philip needed the church money. But the English King Edward III attacked first. Edward claimed to be the rightful French King but his real goal was to add mainland provinces to his domain. Thus in 1340 began the Hundred Years’ War. The war started badly for the French led by Philip VI with a humiliating defeat at Crecy in 1346. Overconfident French knights charged mindlessly into English infantry whose archers wielded the very effective English longbow. The English longbow with the power to drive heavy arrows accurately came of age at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Much faster to reload than the French crossbow, the longbow proved a decisive advantage, particularly as deployed by the far more organized and disciplined English army. The war continued with another humiliating French defeat. This time Edward III's son, Edward Prince of Wales, faced the French King Jean II at Poitiers in 1356. Again believing in chivalry, Jean used his knights to lead the charge just as Philip VI had done at Crecy with the same result. Jean II was captured and his forces fell apart and scattered. The Prince of Wales took Jean back to England along with other captured nobles and the enormous booty he had seized. Jean and the prisoners were held for ransom. France entered anarchy. In 1357, the merchant class tried but failed to impose its will on the Dauphin, Jean II’s son, with a violent end. Then in 1358 a peasant group, the Jacquerie, led a revolt and after even more carnage and looting they were brutally put down by the nobles. More pillaging, killing, raping and hostage taking ensued from mercenary Free Companies made up of former soldiers, mostly Englishmen who did not want to give up their way of life when the military campaigns ended. Armies of the time lived off the land so these men were used to taking anything and everything they wanted. Brigands from all over Europe joined them and they spread terror all over France, Italy, England and adjacent territories. The free Companies were for hire and employed extensively in the Papal wars in Italy. With the Papacy removed to Avignon, Rome fell into decay. An effective Papal force could not be managed from so far away. Similarly the English could not hold onto the mainland territories they had won by managing them from England. Their conquered subjects began identifying as French in response to the brutal treatment of their English overlords. The Papacy’s location in France exacerbated the English anger against the French. It also diminished the legitimacy of the Church in England. In the years after Charles V death in 1380, France was struck by yet another series of violent revolts led by the merchant class and supported by the peasants sick of high taxes and declining incomes while the rich got richer. The heir, Charles VI was only twelve. The Dukes were in charge and taxed everybody and everything to finance wars to expand their territories. A similar story took place in England where Richard II, only 13 in 1380, was likewise guided by the recently departed Edward III’s relatives. They similarly taxed commoners to the hilt to raise money to acquire new fiefdoms. A huge peasant’s revolt ensued making it all the way to London. Both in France and England the revolts were put down brutally. Throughout the fourteenth century peasants in both France and England were being transformed from serfs to tenant farmers. This transformation from the feudal system enabled the lords to squeeze the peasants mercilessly by charging rents for everything while no longer bearing any responsibility for the peasants’ wellbeing. Another example of the folly of the knight’s search for glory is the Barbary Crusade in 1391. Five thousand mostly French with some English knights encased in their head to toe plate armor attacked the Berber stronghold of Mahdia in Tunisia. The Berbers held fast behind their walls while sending out harassing parties that avoided direct combat. Eventually the knights tired of the suffocating heat gave up and went home. Of course it was the commoners through heavy taxation who as always paid for this ill-conceived effort. At least, the knights might have learned their limits in Mahdia, but they were soon to repeat. This time they were decimated at the hands of the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396. Knights from around Europe took part in this Crusade, again driven by vainglory. While the losses were heavy on both sides, arrogance and overconfidence led to the defeat of the crusaders. Once again the heavy fourteenth century plate armor constricted more than it helped against a disciplined mobile opponent. Although both sides executed prisoners without compunction, the Turks saved important nobles, as was the practice, for ransom. They returned home in humiliation, an appropriate end to their mythical prowess and a disastrous century.The lessons of the fourteenth century were not lost on the monk, Honore Bonet. In his book written in 1387, The Tree of Battles, he asked “Whether this world can by nature be without conflict and at peace?” answering “No, it can by no means be so.” The 14th century’s toll of countless wars, rampaging mercenaries, ruthless governance and mindless preoccupation with glory and indulgence of those in power left France and England in serious decline. The killing, dislocation and destruction combined with recurring plague epidemics reduced the population of Europe to half its 1347 count by the end of the century. The tradition of chivalry of the knights was shown to be hollow, the knights themselves to be petty, the Church to be a charade and its leaders self-serving. The Middle Ages were coming to an end as its religious and feudal traditions were undermined. Somehow, miraculously, in the next century the Renaissance was able to spring from this morass. Tuchman’s account of the period is very detailed and a bit daunting to follow. One must take in score after score of kings, nobles, popes, prelates and others and their complex relationships as well as Middle Ages political geography. Tuchman chronicles much more than major events. She carefully crafts pictures of the everyday lives of those at every level of society. These portraits are well done and provide a fascinating look into a time far removed from our own. So despite the unsettling bleakness of the fourteenth century, reading Tuchman’s book is well worth the effort. I could see how the excesses of the fourteenth century set the stage for dramatic changes to follow. A Distant Mirror also provides a sobering frame of reference for the events in our own recent history.
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  • Chrissie
    January 1, 1970
    Tuchman's books are always interesting, but usually they have more than one can absorb. For this reason, reading them is always a bit of a struggle. OK, I am merely speaking for myself. I am going to try to keep this review short, maybe a reaction to having just completed Tuchman's extensive opus. Not every detail need be explained. A Distant Mirror covers thoroughly every single aspect of medieval life. It covers in detail the battles of the Hundred Years' War. What is the Hundred Years' War?Th Tuchman's books are always interesting, but usually they have more than one can absorb. For this reason, reading them is always a bit of a struggle. OK, I am merely speaking for myself. I am going to try to keep this review short, maybe a reaction to having just completed Tuchman's extensive opus. Not every detail need be explained. A Distant Mirror covers thoroughly every single aspect of medieval life. It covers in detail the battles of the Hundred Years' War. What is the Hundred Years' War?The Hundred Years' War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 pitting the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the House of Valois for control of the Kingdom of France. Each side drew many allies into the war.....Historians commonly divide the war into three phases separated by truces: 1) the Edwardian Era War (1337–1360); 2) the Caroline War (1369–1389); and 3) the Lancastrian War (1415–1453).Contemporary conflicts in neighbouring areas, which were directly related to this conflict, included the War of the Breton Succession (1341–1364), the Castilian Civil War (1366–1369), the War of the Two Peters (1356–1375) in Aragon, and the 1383–85 Crisis in Portugal. Later historians invented the term "Hundred Years' War" as a periodization to encompass all of these events, thus constructing the longest military conflict in history.That is taken directly from Wiki. Pay attention to the sentence I have underlined. This is a book where the majority of pages are concerned with war and battles. Tuchman has chosen to follow one man of nobility through his lifetime, Enguerrand de Coucy VII(1340-1397). He is from Picardy, France, and is married to the daughter of the Kind of England. He is a perfect character to follow since he is thus connected to both the French and English nobility, the two warring nations. He took part in many of the decisive battles. The book follows what he DOES. Little attempt is made to understand the psychology of the man. That is not the point of the book. You observe his actions. Who does he marry? What battles did he fight in? Where did he live? How did he die? Through him we study medieval life and the Hundred Years’ War. After his death Tuchman quickly summarizes the end of the Hundred Years' War. So while the Edwardian Era War and the Caroline War are depicted in complete detail as well as related battles with the Bretons, battles in Italy, in Spain, in Belgium and finally in Bulgaria (contemporary country names used), only a quick summary of the Lancastrian War is given. Enguerrand dies in 1397 at the Battle of Nicopolis in Bulgaria. This explains why the Lancastrian War is summarized, in the epilog.Approximately the first fourth of the book establishes the setting. Enguerrand was born in 1340. The world he was born into, that is the earlier years of the 14th Century prior to his birth are studied. They provide a general overview of how people behaved and thought during the medieval era, while the remainder of the book covers more closely the battles. I preferred the first part of the book. The Black Death, the Schism of the Church, clothing, foods, mysticism, chivalry and how motherhood was perceived – it’s all here and it is all interesting, but there is too much to grasp given the abundance of details. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Nadia May. This was excellent, but I do NOT recommend the audiobook. There are so many names of places and people! it is hard to keep everything straight. You need maps and genealogical charts which a paper book can easily provide. I learned a lot. It is an excellent book, but in terms of my personal enjoyment I can only say I liked it. I don’t love books describing battles.
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  • Trevor
    January 1, 1970
    I have been recommended this book by many of my good reads friends, and so I’ve read it. My friend Eric’s review says simply, “Normally, I have always enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's books, but this one, while very interesting, I felt I had to struggle a bit”.This is a very uncharacteristic review by Eric. I think Eric is one of the most thoughtful and best reviewers on this site. His reviews generally give valuable insights into a book and unfortunately far too often have me adding books to my ‘to re I have been recommended this book by many of my good reads friends, and so I’ve read it. My friend Eric’s review says simply, “Normally, I have always enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's books, but this one, while very interesting, I felt I had to struggle a bit”.This is a very uncharacteristic review by Eric. I think Eric is one of the most thoughtful and best reviewers on this site. His reviews generally give valuable insights into a book and unfortunately far too often have me adding books to my ‘to read’ list that I really will probably never get around to reading – but if I ever do read any of them I will read purely due to Eric’s recommendations.Then there is Wendy, another friend here, whose opinion I also respect, value and seek out and who has introduced me to many excellent books. She told me she had read this one three times – now, if that isn’t high praise it is hard to know what is.Then there is Richard who although enjoyed this said that it didn’t feel as historically relevant to him as Tuckman’s WW1 books.So, what to do? I tried to read this one ignoring the advice of friends and plunged in. And my reactions are as mixed as those of my friends. I’ve ended up having to agree with virtually all of them.Like Eric, I find it hard to explain just what my problem with this book is. Really, this should be a book I rave about. I didn’t know very much about the 14th Century before I read this – although I did know enough to know that it was one of those ‘cusp’ centuries – where things that had stayed pretty much the same for a very long time were about to come up against innovations that would make their continuing virtually impossible. In many ways this is the doormat century that welcomes in the modern world. This is very much the last century of the Middle Ages in which (to mix my metaphors appallingly) the birth cries of the modern world are virtually drowned out by the death rattle of the old one. This is the century in which Europe is first confronted with the plague (the black death). It is also the century in which that most lethal of inventions (the long bow) makes its entrance and makes the entire notion of knights and the type of warfare they preferred obsolete overnight (at least, it would have if people knew what was good for them – which, of course, they generally don’t). It was a century in which the undisputed power and unity of the church and the strict boundaries between royalty and peasants was beginning to be usurped by the rising merchant and capitalist classes. It was a century in which peasants revolted shaking the existing order to its core.This book is called ‘A Distant Mirror’ and in some ways that is the problem I had with this book. A mirror reflects an image of the viewer back onto themselves – but this mirror was placed so far away that it was hard to make out any of the images in a way that felt satisfying. As I was reading this one I found myself wondering why I was quite so dissatisfied with it. At first I thought it was because this book lacked a central thesis – her March of Folly, for example, has just such a thesis and it bridges with ease stories from diverse centuries, giving a dreadful perspective on self-destructive foolishness that is all-to-human. So, for a long time I thought this one lacked something like that – a central idea to drive the book forward. But I’ve read other histories that don’t have such a thesis and haven’t felt it necessary. Then I thought perhaps there was just too much focus on wars during the century – but even so, her other books focus solely on wars and I had no problem with them. Maybe Richard is right and the concerns of the 14th Century just seem too far away, too long ago. But then, I’ve read quite a few books on Ancient Greece and Rome and have never felt they are receding too far into the distance (although, admittedly, there is a sense in which Classical Societies do seem closer to us than those in the Middle Ages).The most interesting bits of this book were when she gives a glimpse into the odd lives of people and how they viewed their world. I’ve known since I was a child that there were differences between the Eastern European and Western European calendars – but I had no idea that for a long time the year started at Easter. Think about that for a second and you will understand how hard it would be to know what year you are talking about. Easter isn’t a fixed date – so using that to beginning the year is a deeply strange thing to do.Then there were discussions on religious life. Look, if you are going to have trouble with the idea of people putting their lips to pus filled sores, then you are going to find this part of the book challenging. This was a time when one in three (and perhaps even as many as two in three) children did not make it out of childhood. It was a time when people were dying in droves even without the endless and senseless wars being waged to hurry them along to their graves. The Turks decapitating the French soldiers in front of their masters towards the end of this book – their masters being spared as they could be used to provide ransom – is a disturbing image of the first order. In fact, it is the stuff of nightmares, to be quite frank.The treatment of Jews throughout this century is also something that is designed to induce nightmares. As a case in point – I had heard of the flagellants before, those fun guys who would whip themselves until they were a bleeding mess as their way to seek God’s forgiveness and thereby stop the plague. Now, as a way of stopping plague this is probably not the most obvious or the most effective treatment, and I guess we all know without reading this book that it actually helped to spread the disease. But what I didn’t know was that after their little parades (where people would come over to them and either drink or use their blood as some odd form of ‘protection’ or treatment) they would then generally head around to the local Jewish quarter and kill as many people as they could get their hands on. In fact, killing Jews seems to have been the century’s recreation of choice.Favourite line in the book? Probably the young man who was ‘very religious’ who chastised his brother by telling him off for laughing – as the Bible doesn’t record Jesus every laughing but does say, “Jesus wept”. The increasingly bizarre machinations involving the split in the Catholic Church and the damage this did to both the church and society at large makes for fascinating reading in that it confirms yet again that people are often the last people you can rely on to act in any way that might be in accordance with their own best interests.Like I said, there are lots of things to love about this book – and I should have loved it much more than I did, I really should have, and really wanted to – but there was something missing that I just can’t put my finger on and which just kept me at arm’s length.
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  • Matt Brady
    January 1, 1970
    The Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the Black Death, peasant uprisings, the death of chivalry, crusades, assassinations, tournaments, all these things and more Tuchman explores through an examination of the life of one man, Enguerrand de Coucy. Scion of perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest baronial family in France, Coucy lead a fairly amazing life. He fought wars in his homeland of France, Italy, North Africa, Switzerland and Bulgaria, lead important diplomatic missions, twice turned d The Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, the Black Death, peasant uprisings, the death of chivalry, crusades, assassinations, tournaments, all these things and more Tuchman explores through an examination of the life of one man, Enguerrand de Coucy. Scion of perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest baronial family in France, Coucy lead a fairly amazing life. He fought wars in his homeland of France, Italy, North Africa, Switzerland and Bulgaria, lead important diplomatic missions, twice turned down the title of Constable of France and, for over a decade, was married to the favourite daughter of the King of England, who also happened to be his captor at the time, and died a captive of the Ottoman Sultan after the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis.This isn't a strict biography though, and Tuchman wanders wherever her interests take her. There's a hell of a lot of ground to cover, so this isn't as tight as, say, Guns of August, and Tuchman will occasionally get hung up on something, but these are minor faults. Speaking of getting hung up, this book was cited by George R R Martin and the inspiration he drew from it is very apparent. Tuchman really relishes describing feasts, fetes and tournaments in incredible detail, and portrays the major and minor figures of the era with a blend of real ambiguity, grittiness and the occasional larger-than-life anecdote that any reader of A Song of Ice and Fire will find familiar. This book is littered with Barristan Selmys and Gregor Cleganes.I particularly enjoyed Tuchman's sneering portrayal of knighthood and the ruling class. No flower of chivalry here, Tuchman portrays people like the famous Black Prince as the brutal, rapacious, violent thugs they really were, and even her main character, who she is obviously fond of, is not spared, being described as "the least compromised of his class and kind by brutality, venality and reckless indulgence." Not exactly a glowing reccomendation.
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  • Marita
    January 1, 1970
    A comprehensive who's who and what's what of 14th century Europe.
  • Susan
    January 1, 1970
    I read a little more than half of this a couple of years ago and stopped. This time I read it all, for the discussion of my local book group. I really liked it--I've never NOT liked a Tuchman book. I admire the way she's able to follow one historical figure and still manage to tell the story of a whole age, especially one person, in this case Enguerrand de Coucy about whom so little is known other than what he did. There exist references to him in contemporary works but never more than a figure I read a little more than half of this a couple of years ago and stopped. This time I read it all, for the discussion of my local book group. I really liked it--I've never NOT liked a Tuchman book. I admire the way she's able to follow one historical figure and still manage to tell the story of a whole age, especially one person, in this case Enguerrand de Coucy about whom so little is known other than what he did. There exist references to him in contemporary works but never more than a figure who steps out of the background now and then to be seen from a distance. He nevertheless comes alive, particularly toward the end when he seems to be a thoughtful and sensible man in a era which encouraged the opposite. I also liked the book because I know so little about France and am trying to rectify that lack. And before this "the hundred years war" seemed to me an historical stalwart with no detail behind it--except perhaps the picture of Mother Courage pulling her cart.... I know much more English history so it was instructive to see the Black Prince and John of Gaunt and the Peasant Rebellion from the other side and in the context of what was going on on the continent.The focus on Coucy was not like Tuchman's focus on Stillwell in her book on World War II in China. That really was a biography of Stillwell as well as an attempt to understand the US in China in WWII and after. Coucy is, in many ways, a rack--a hat rack not a torture device-- to hang Tuchman's understanding of the 14th century on. Her title in interesting: "distant" is self explanatory--600 years and more ago, but why "mirror"? That I think is because Tuchman found the calamitous 14th century (her term) analogous in many ways to her own century. Understanding that pivotal century might be "consoling in a period of similar disarray" characterized by war, plague, religious schism, irrationality and progress.
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  • Bruce
    January 1, 1970
    Tuchman published this book in 1978. In her preface she makes clear that she is interested in comparing the 14th century in Europe - a time of war, disease, social and economic dislocation, and general demoralization - with the two 20th century decades before the book’s publication. One could legitimately argue that the same issues apply during the first eleven years of the 21st century. Tuchman’s method is to use an actual French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, as an exemplar whom she then f Tuchman published this book in 1978. In her preface she makes clear that she is interested in comparing the 14th century in Europe - a time of war, disease, social and economic dislocation, and general demoralization - with the two 20th century decades before the book’s publication. One could legitimately argue that the same issues apply during the first eleven years of the 21st century. Tuchman’s method is to use an actual French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, as an exemplar whom she then follows from 1340-1397 as he lives out the times and events that she wants to explore.Tuchman does provide a few notable quotations. “What people believe about their own time becomes a factor in its history,” being one. Another is, “Of all mankind’s ideas, the equating of sex with sin has left the greatest train of trouble.” This idea was derived largely from St. Augustine who wrote out of the context of his own spiritual wrestlings.Tuchman postulates that the Black Death may have been the beginning of modern man in that it led to questioning of the established order, of the religious and social paradigms that seemed to have failed humanity during its ravishing of the population, raising the possibility of individual thought and understanding and thus opening the way to diversity of interpretation and opinion based on individual conscience.The style of exposition in this book is extraordinarily turgid, and that is being generous. Those who have read the histories of Will Durant will feel at home with Tuchman’s writing. The reader is too often faced with endless catalogues of examples, relieved occasionally by narrative that is in many cases speculative. For anyone with basic familiarity of this period of history, not much is to be gained by wading through this long work. For those without knowledge of this important period, there are less painful ways to acquire this knowledge.
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  • WarpDrive
    January 1, 1970
    Beutifully written and very detailed book. Recommended to all people genuinely interested in the history of the period. It is not about knights in gleaming armour rescuing and seducing defenseless ladies, but about a potent and credible mixture of well researched historical truth and good story-telling. A classic. If you want to get a good understanding of 14 Century Europe this is a book for you (it gets a little long and dense at times, but overall it is a rewarding read).
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  • Inder
    January 1, 1970
    Just got a nice hardbound copy of this for Christmas, so I'm set to read it again ...My dad is a Barbara Tuchman fan, so I grew up around this book. As a small child, I used to ponder with interest the scary cover art, which shows the arrival of the Forth Horseman of the Apocalypse ("and his name was death" for you Johnny Cash fans). I finally read the book when I was in high school, and I have reread it several times since. It is a perfect example of good history writing - absolutely engaging a Just got a nice hardbound copy of this for Christmas, so I'm set to read it again ...My dad is a Barbara Tuchman fan, so I grew up around this book. As a small child, I used to ponder with interest the scary cover art, which shows the arrival of the Forth Horseman of the Apocalypse ("and his name was death" for you Johnny Cash fans). I finally read the book when I was in high school, and I have reread it several times since. It is a perfect example of good history writing - absolutely engaging and human. Among other things, this book, along with "Rats, Lice & History," crystalized my interest in the history of disease and epidemiology (you are right to ask - is there anything I'm not interested in?). If you're ever stuck home with a bad flu, I recommend reading the chapter on the Black Death - it really puts things in perspective.
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  • Jill Hutchinson
    January 1, 1970
    I have been a Tuchman fan for years but put off reading this book because it concerned a period of history of which I was not particularly interested. Wrong!!! Chock full of details, it fills in all the details of a bloody, unenlightened time in history where war for no justifiable reason was the norm, crusades against distant lands were the epitome of a knight's duty, and the Black Death was decimating half the world's population.As usual, the author has done extensive research and although it I have been a Tuchman fan for years but put off reading this book because it concerned a period of history of which I was not particularly interested. Wrong!!! Chock full of details, it fills in all the details of a bloody, unenlightened time in history where war for no justifiable reason was the norm, crusades against distant lands were the epitome of a knight's duty, and the Black Death was decimating half the world's population.As usual, the author has done extensive research and although it is often difficult to keep all the players straight, it offers a fascinating panoply of a time when "knighthood was in flower". I'm sorry I waited so long to read it.
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  • Jan-Maat
    January 1, 1970
    This introduction to the 14th century uses the biographical framework of the life of the seigneur of Coucy to take in aspects of the hundred years war, the crusade of Nicopolis and late medieval life generally.That's what the book is and that is the problem I suspect, in that the Tuchman style much loved in great fat book about the First World War and the period preceding it does not work in a period without the same wealth of information, you can not recapture the sense of immediacy and driving This introduction to the 14th century uses the biographical framework of the life of the seigneur of Coucy to take in aspects of the hundred years war, the crusade of Nicopolis and late medieval life generally.That's what the book is and that is the problem I suspect, in that the Tuchman style much loved in great fat book about the First World War and the period preceding it does not work in a period without the same wealth of information, you can not recapture the sense of immediacy and driving rapid narrative without the mass of detail to illustrate an intense story taking place over a short length of time. The era of the Black Death, has its drama but it is rather spread out, and while the seigneur of Coucy was a real person, we can't feel that we know him or have been with him on life's journey for all Tuchman's literary skills.
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  • Cathy DuPont
    January 1, 1970
    While I mostly enjoyed reading Tuchman's comprehensive book on the 14th Century, it was TMI. I'm not writing a thesis nor a college paper. I read this for the enjoyment of knowing more about the century when the Black Plague decimated the world. Well, I got that and much much more. I read this for fun, I thought, however it was about twice as long and twice the information as I wanted and/or needed. Unfortunately for me it got tiresome and although I did learn a lot such as the size of a royal b While I mostly enjoyed reading Tuchman's comprehensive book on the 14th Century, it was TMI. I'm not writing a thesis nor a college paper. I read this for the enjoyment of knowing more about the century when the Black Plague decimated the world. Well, I got that and much much more. I read this for fun, I thought, however it was about twice as long and twice the information as I wanted and/or needed. Unfortunately for me it got tiresome and although I did learn a lot such as the size of a royal baby blanket, 15 feet X 30 feet, I think much of the information was simply useless for my purpose. Now I'm wondering whatever will I do with that royal baby blanket information? Oh, I know, forget it---unless someone asks.
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  • Greg Strandberg
    January 1, 1970
    I have to take a bit of a different tact on this book than many other reviewers. Let me start off by saying that I liked the book. I'm not going to say I really liked it because I found it a bit dry. And when I say dry, I mean I was losing my place, or forgetting what I'd just read. One of the reasons for this is that there are so many people, so many place names, and so many goings-on. It's hard to keep track of all of that! Even looking at the 'Look Inside' on Amazon right now, I can see tons I have to take a bit of a different tact on this book than many other reviewers. Let me start off by saying that I liked the book. I'm not going to say I really liked it because I found it a bit dry. And when I say dry, I mean I was losing my place, or forgetting what I'd just read. One of the reasons for this is that there are so many people, so many place names, and so many goings-on. It's hard to keep track of all of that! Even looking at the 'Look Inside' on Amazon right now, I can see tons of names in the first chapter. Nonetheless, you get a good picture of this time from a good historian. I should read it again some day, and probably will.
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  • Chris Gager
    January 1, 1970
    Just started. Looks interesting ...Well, it IS interesting, but kind of dry, as at least one other reviewer has noted. It's going to take a while!Continuing to enjoy this book as the author is doing a fine job of combining the informative with reading pleasure. So far it's a bit like reading a sci-fi account of a far-away alien planet and it's weird but familiar culture! Jack Vance-like indeed ...The Black Plague - why can't we have one of those, only more virulent and untreatable? Steve King ha Just started. Looks interesting ...Well, it IS interesting, but kind of dry, as at least one other reviewer has noted. It's going to take a while!Continuing to enjoy this book as the author is doing a fine job of combining the informative with reading pleasure. So far it's a bit like reading a sci-fi account of a far-away alien planet and it's weird but familiar culture! Jack Vance-like indeed ...The Black Plague - why can't we have one of those, only more virulent and untreatable? Steve King had the right idea in "The Stand! The cure for the many man-made ills the rest of the planet is suffering from could be a plague with a 99.6% non-survival rate.Moving along now into post-Poitiers(a disaster for the French) brigandage. Sounds like the 14th c. was a miserable time to be living(and dying). Sometimes you're just trapped. Not a great time to be a poor "villein"(peasant) either - of course!I was at the local transfer station, where I voluntarily straighten out the book shelves(and get some good ones for myself), and I found a nice hardbound edition of this book. It'll be easier to read than the paperback, so that one will go into the out pile. However, the paperback is better in that the cover image(of an impressive Medieval painting) is in color. My newly acquired hardbound is blank of course. The page numbers correspond exactly ...Part One ends with the papal schism thing. Part Two begins tonight.Lately reading of peasant uprisings in England and on the Continent. Sheesh! Has it not ever been thus? Are we not still fighting the same political/economic battles in this country? The haves versus the have-nots. Republicans versus Democrats. My reading of various history books(this one, "Citizens" by Simon Schama(about the Fr. Rev.), and "The Glory and the Dream"(about the middle of the American 20th century) all feature the same thing. The rich and powerful(and now the corporate) keep wanting more and everyone else getting the shaft. Those f---ers NEVER GIVE UP! The rest of us mean NOTHING to them. When oh when will the rest of the people in this country get that?????Getting towards the end as we reach the 1380's of this action-packed and seemingly chaotic century. SO MUCH detail to attend to, but it's still fascinating. The violence(warfare) is endless and usually no clear outcomes ensue. Just more warfare and intrigue.Finished up last night with this excellent and engrossing read. Yes, there IS an abundance of detail, but then, there was an abundance of dramatic activity during this dysfunctional epoch. As Ms. Tuchman points out, things DID begin to turn around for Europe in the latter half of the 15 c. Whew!
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  • El
    January 1, 1970
    This is what I thought the Hundred Years' War was all about. Apparently that's wrong. (Or maybe Tuchman is wrong, hmmm?)We pretty much all know what the Middle Ages was all about, we all have at least heard tell of the Hundred Years' War or the Black Death or the Papal Schism. Those terms are all familiar. What Tuchman did here was bring all of those familiar terms to life. She filled in the gaps that public education doesn't (whether due to funding or time or the Board of Education doesn't thin This is what I thought the Hundred Years' War was all about. Apparently that's wrong. (Or maybe Tuchman is wrong, hmmm?)We pretty much all know what the Middle Ages was all about, we all have at least heard tell of the Hundred Years' War or the Black Death or the Papal Schism. Those terms are all familiar. What Tuchman did here was bring all of those familiar terms to life. She filled in the gaps that public education doesn't (whether due to funding or time or the Board of Education doesn't think it's as important, whatever), so for myself there were a few "ah-ha!" kinds of moments. (Like "Oh, so the War didn't start because of a wedgie!")The additional bonus of reading Tuchman is that she wasn't a dry writer. She did what seems like a thousand years' worth of research and managed to make just about every word of it absolutely fascinating. Yes, my eyes glazed over a time or two; I was in this read primarily to know more about the society, culture, and day-to-day living of folks back in the Late Middle Ages. The battles were of less interest to me, though kudos to Tuchman for the amount of detail she provided. She had that research down to bitch-slaps and other offenses. There are 18 pages of Bibliography and something like 36 pages of Notes. She didn't just make this stuff up here. She did a lot of research, and I appreciate that.So the parts that I signed up to read were especially fascinating to me - how women were treated in society, how so-and-so died (like in a fire after being wrapped in booze-soaked wraps to help his fever - whoops!), the plague and sickness - y'know, totally gruesome stuff like that. It's not a quick read, though it's not a difficult read, if that makes any sense. Most readers will get at least something out of this, no matter what they're going in expecting or wanting. I wanted one thing but came out with so much more. It's action-packed, written in a narrative that doesn't exclude or alienate the reader, and (again!) so freaking well-researched it's insane.This was my first Tuchman, but I have more in my stacks. I'm looking forward to reading those others even more now.
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  • Martin
    January 1, 1970
    If Time Travel becomes possible I will not be signing up for tours of the 14th century.The fourteenth century was a step back in the flow of history. Europe was slowly rising up from the dark ages only to descend into confusion.Many things disrupted this time such as;the Bubonic plague, which overturned the feudal system,the Hundred Year's War,the many petty wars against neighbors,antisemitism,the Papal Schism,the Jacquerie revolts,peasant uprisings,and the start of a mini Ice Age.Interesting fa If Time Travel becomes possible I will not be signing up for tours of the 14th century.The fourteenth century was a step back in the flow of history. Europe was slowly rising up from the dark ages only to descend into confusion.Many things disrupted this time such as;the Bubonic plague, which overturned the feudal system,the Hundred Year's War,the many petty wars against neighbors,antisemitism,the Papal Schism,the Jacquerie revolts,peasant uprisings,and the start of a mini Ice Age.Interesting fact #462Seventy five books in a personal library was considered to be a great show of wealth.Enjoy!
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  • Jeanette
    January 1, 1970
    This is just a reaction for the 4 or 5 chapter revisit I made back to this excellent history. Having read the entire decades ago, and also having used it for some reference referrals for others at different times, I wanted to read again about the cracks appearing in serfdom, the agriculture crisis, the disease factors (especially the percentage numbers for Italy in decimation from Plague). And also and most importantly, the change in the Papal and Nobel rationalizations toward rights and preroga This is just a reaction for the 4 or 5 chapter revisit I made back to this excellent history. Having read the entire decades ago, and also having used it for some reference referrals for others at different times, I wanted to read again about the cracks appearing in serfdom, the agriculture crisis, the disease factors (especially the percentage numbers for Italy in decimation from Plague). And also and most importantly, the change in the Papal and Nobel rationalizations toward rights and prerogatives. This all becomes of high interest when reading numerous books of the 15th Century European Renaissance, which I have in the last 4 months. It intrigued me that nation systems or loyalty oaths could change that much in just 80 or 100 years. It wasn't just art, science, politico that changed- it was more. And yet there was no electricity, or vast power source or huge physical changes of living arrangement for the average human that changed. But reading this entire picture of overview for the 14th Century- you can see why nearly all the old restraints were breaking down. So much so that not even the horrific punishments of the 15th Century "disloyal" could buck the trend toward a different worldview.
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  • Tony
    January 1, 1970
    The Calamitous 14th Century: a time of war, class struggle, taxation, endless litigation, ravaging disease, religious intolerance, Christian versus Moslem, feckless leaders, plenty of lust, torture, self-interest -- 'a distant mirror' indeed. We are not so different. Look back or just look around.And that is the point, I think, of this wonderful work of history and literature. Tuchman's wit and erudition are on full display.Sometimes the reading went very slow, but only because it all seemed so The Calamitous 14th Century: a time of war, class struggle, taxation, endless litigation, ravaging disease, religious intolerance, Christian versus Moslem, feckless leaders, plenty of lust, torture, self-interest -- 'a distant mirror' indeed. We are not so different. Look back or just look around.And that is the point, I think, of this wonderful work of history and literature. Tuchman's wit and erudition are on full display.Sometimes the reading went very slow, but only because it all seemed so important. This is History of the highest rank.
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  • B. P. Rinehart
    January 1, 1970
    "If the [century] seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top, to most they were a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils: pillage, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness, and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and t "If the [century] seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top, to most they were a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils: pillage, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness, and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and the hostility of God.Mankind was not improved by the message. Consciousness of wickedness made behavior worse. Violence threw off restraints. It was a time of default. Rules crumbled, institutions failed in their functions. Knighthood did not protect; the Church, more worldly than spiritual, did not guide the way to God; towns, once the agents of progress and the commonweal, were absorbed in mutual hostilities and divided by class war; the population, depleted by the Black Death, did not recover. The War of England and France and the brigandage it spawned revealed the emptiness of chivalry's military pretensions and the falsity of its moral ones. The [Papal] schism shook the foundations of the central institution, spreading a deep and pervasive uneasiness. People felt subject to events beyond their control, swept, like flotsam at sea, hither and yon in a universe without reason or purpose. They lived through a period which suffered and struggled without visible advance. They longed for a remedy, for a revival of faith, for stability and order that never came." Don't think I can do better to summarize the topic of the book than the above quote, so that frees me to give general impressions and a sort-of explanation of why I have read it and will be turning my attention to more books on European history for the foreseeable future. This book (and historian) was put to my attention by one Ta-Nehisi Coates, who read it for similar reasons I have read it. It's charting of the decline of the medieval era is breath-taking. Tuchman, who is known more for her books on 20th century warfare, did an amazing job here. She has written an engaging, down-to-earth history, of the 14th century. Like Edward E. Baptist, she recounts the history but is not afraid to commentate on the folly of it. She uses the life of a French nobleman--Enguerrand VII, Sire (Lord) of Coucy & Count of Soissons--to tell the greater story of this time of woe. Rarely do historical eras transition peacefully and the end of the Middle Ages was a very violent 150 years. Though it did have some interesting writers like Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, and William Langland, it was a time of plague and nearly every person with authority being enslaved to the worst myths of chivalry and their own egos. The three most capable heads of state during the century were King Edward III of England, King Charles V of France, and Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan. They weren't "good guys," because such does not exist in the politics of any age, but they were by far the most competent in their prime. The one factor in their favor was that they either subverted or (in the case of Charles V) did not subscribe to the chivalric code--the dominant and destructive ideology of the era. The Sire de Coucy's success during the century was in-part because he only used chivalry as a last resort in all matters. His reliance on practical wisdom and personal charisma saved him from the brutal fate of many of his contemporaries, but his obedience to the code at the end of the century during the Nicopolis Crusade cost him his life. Here is a clip of Tuchman being interviewed on the book and some of her other works: https://archive.org/details/openmind_...My reason for reading this (and my plan for reading more European history) is a rather simple one. In becoming ever more versed in history and growing up being educated in African-American history and white-American mainstream/general-American history, I felt like I was seeing a picture, but not fully. I've spent almost thirty years of my life seeing the "effect," now I want to know the "cause." Sun Tzu says " know your enemy, know yourself." I read Nelson Mandela's story of studying the works and language of the Afrikaners in jail to better understand the people who he was dealing with. So I have taken-up this challenge. When one reads the news and sees what's happening now, it becomes apparent that the mirror is much closer than it was when Tuchman wrote this book. In The Color Purple, the protagonist tells the antagonist that everything he's done to her, he's already done to himself. My educated-guess is that that's true here too, given the treatment of villens and Jews described in this book.I had thought to put more and make this a thorough review, but I think this sums-up my thoughts directly, anymore is just wasting all our time.
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  • Christopher (Donut)
    January 1, 1970
    This is the second time I have 'read' this on audio. The first time was on tape, so, a long time ago.I had to downgrade my opinion of this book on a second reading. Based on an attempt to read The Proud Tower, I realized that Barbara Tuchman could barely grasp the inner motives of 19th C. people, which made it less likely that she really understood 14th C. people. Although she doesn't make clear ever why she regarded the 14th C. as 'a distant mirror,' I am inclined to guess that she thought the This is the second time I have 'read' this on audio. The first time was on tape, so, a long time ago.I had to downgrade my opinion of this book on a second reading. Based on an attempt to read The Proud Tower, I realized that Barbara Tuchman could barely grasp the inner motives of 19th C. people, which made it less likely that she really understood 14th C. people. Although she doesn't make clear ever why she regarded the 14th C. as 'a distant mirror,' I am inclined to guess that she thought the debacle at Nicopolis, when the French were defeated by Bajazet, was like unto the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam. Thank God she didn't spell that out explicitly, or else I would have given the book two stars, despite some impressive narration and assemblage of facts.I have no complaints about the narration of Nadia May.
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  • Joachim Stoop
    January 1, 1970
    The research 5/5Reading experience 3/5Can a researcher or historian be too thorough? I would have loved to read the summary of this one.I focused solely on the sociological, psychological, cultural aspects and not on the historic trivia as in which duke fought with that earl or which prince married that daughter. So I didn't care enough to totally adore this amazing work.
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  • Beth
    January 1, 1970
    I remember noticing this book as a kid, before I knew the meaning of the word “calamitous.” It was sitting on one of my Dad’s bookshelves, and I found myself intrigued by the title, mentally picturing an ornate enchanted mirror that reflected images from far off centuries. While I may have initially picked this book up because of a nostalgic childhood memory, I’m glad that I did. I knew so little about the 14th century before delving into its pages. I suppose I could have told you that it was th I remember noticing this book as a kid, before I knew the meaning of the word “calamitous.” It was sitting on one of my Dad’s bookshelves, and I found myself intrigued by the title, mentally picturing an ornate enchanted mirror that reflected images from far off centuries. While I may have initially picked this book up because of a nostalgic childhood memory, I’m glad that I did. I knew so little about the 14th century before delving into its pages. I suppose I could have told you that it was the century when the plague broke out in Europe, but little else. The Battle of Poitiers, the Black Prince, a ransomed king (as in "a king's ransom"!), peasant revolts, misguided crusaders, bands of roving mercenaries, eccentric noblemen, the seeds of the future protestant reformation, a king trying to rule amid fits of insanity –- all of these had previously escaped my notice. I found it a very engaging and accessible read: denser than, say, David McCullough, but not at all laborious.When an author tackles a subject as immense as an entire century, I’m always curious as to the organization of the book and how it will hang together. The thread that unifies this work is the life of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, a nobleman who played a central role in the political events of the day. I found it to be a good choice: not a king, but still someone involved in national upheavals of the time. And while much of the narrative focuses on key social and political figures, Ms. Tuchman also opens windows into the lives and perspectives of ordinary people of the day. The mirror may not have been enchanted, but I am glad to have finally peered in to see reflections of this far off century. *****If you appreciated this review, check out my blog at pagesandmargins.wordpress.com
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  • James
    January 1, 1970
    I still remember reading this book when it first was published. It is another readable and accessible history by that great non-academic historian Barbara Tuchman. I first encountered her work when I read The Proud Tower so my expectations were high. That they were exceeded suggests that this is a work to which I should return as I seldom do for non-fiction. In this ambitious book she explores the tragedy, political intrigue and occasional dark comedy that surround the infestation of the Black P I still remember reading this book when it first was published. It is another readable and accessible history by that great non-academic historian Barbara Tuchman. I first encountered her work when I read The Proud Tower so my expectations were high. That they were exceeded suggests that this is a work to which I should return as I seldom do for non-fiction. In this ambitious book she explores the tragedy, political intrigue and occasional dark comedy that surround the infestation of the Black Plague in medieval Europe. She tells the tale from the perspective of a rather obscure French nobleman (Enguerrand de Coucy VII), a fresh approach and one that is rewarded well. The book is steeped with arresting details. The Black Death chapter is fascinating, and in her introduction Tuchman makes some interesting comparisons between medieval and latter-day behavior. History truly 'comes alive' with Tuchman's telling and that says it all.
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