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

I saw a reference to this book recently in something else I was reading and thought, "Oh, yes, I remember reading that book." But then I took the book down from the shelf to look at it and realized that I hadn't read it at all. I think I may have started and stopped. After all, it was published in 1978 which was an extraordinarily busy time in my life, so I may simply not have had the energy for it. It is a dense and long book.

I'm so glad that I picked it up again. The world has turned many times since its publication date more than thirty years ago, but when you get right down to it, not much has changed about human nature. Indeed, not much has changed since the 14th century about which Tuchman was writing. 

Europe - specifically France and England - in the 14th century was beset by an incredible series of catastrophes. There was climate change (the Little Ice Age), the Hundred Years War between England and France, the papal schism, the last Crusades, pillaging companies of brigands, peasant revolts, and then, to top it all off, the cherry on top of the whipped cream so to speak, there was the Black Death. 

The deadly pestilence of the bubonic plague may have killed a third of the total population. No one can say with absolute certainty. What is known is that many areas were virtually depopulated. The plague hit not just once but at intervals throughout the last part of this rotten century and into the 15th century. 

Meanwhile, the wars ground on incessantly with, as usual, the poor ordinary folk as their main victims. When one considers all the things that went wrong in this century, it is somewhat amazing that anything of European society remained when it finally dragged to its sorry end. 

Barbara Tuchman was a tireless and thorough researcher and it certainly shows in this book. With an enormous amount of ground to cover and events to explain, she frequently wanders off in delightful ways to various related topics of medieval life. With all that meandering though, she still manages to keep the reader focused on a clear narrative of events. 

She does this by the device of showing us the benighted century though the life of a particular man, a French nobleman named Enguerrand de Coucy. Coucy was a sort of 14th century Forrest Gump who happened to be present at many of the important events that occurred during his lifetime. Moreover, his activities were remarkably well-documented and he was an inspired choice for the peg on which to hang the tattered cloak of this century. 

The title of this book, A Distant Mirror, was an acknowledgement by Ms. Tuchman that her century, the 20th, was in many ways a reflection of the medieval century. If you think about that long list of tragedies that were to mark that long-ago time and compare them to the events of the 20th and now 21st centuries, the things which they have in common are apparent. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it and we never seem to learn. 

If we fail to learn, it cannot be laid on the shoulders of Barbara Tuchman who did a truly masterful job of bringing the calamitous century to life and making us feel the pain of those who lived and died (often horribly) there.


  1. Good review. I remember this book well. She was one of those who set the standard in the second half of the twentieth century for well researched, well written and yet popular history. The Guns of August is also a top favorite of mine.... :)

    1. She was remarkable for being able to sustain and explain in understandable terms a very complicated story, troutbirder. I haven't read "The Guns of August" but it is on my (very long!) to-be-read list.

  2. Oh my, I want to read this one as well. Perhaps I should just switch to female historians.

    1. One could do worse. The entire Tuchman oeuvre would not be a bad place to start. I still haven't read that book about World War I, The Guns of August, and I still hope to get to it one of these days.


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