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

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.

Distant Mirror

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.

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