A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
By Barbara W. Tuchman
Review by Piers (History)
For me this book was a revelation. I hadn’t read anything before this that had made History seem so weird, nor had any history book made me want to read much deeper into the subject. I only read the book because I knew I had to do some reading, my dad recommended it, and I didn’t know where else to start; but it was a really good choice. Not only is the style of writing very engaging, the book is full of really interesting and funny details and stories that give you a glimpse into a world so unlike our own that you’ll want to know more.
Tuchman explores most aspects of Western European 14th century history with both thematic and narrative chapters – the book has the added element of a (real) main character, whom you really end up rooting for too. The book might look long at first (and it is quite!), but it repays your time, as there are so many talking points and questions that Tuchman poses. While A Distant Mirror certainly isn’t a dry academic textbook on the period, it does cover most bases in describing a period that not many at school have studied before. This means it puts you in a position to talk about and link the different elements of society and then to speculate about how different factors, like jousting culture and war itself, interact. The book’s only downside lies really in its greatest strength: the power of Tuchman’s storytelling, which doesn’t leave much room for discussion of historical debates. This needn’t be a problem, however, as even with no other sources on the period you can think about and evaluate Tuchman’s main arguments and overall narrative just with the information in the book.
I hadn’t studied the 14th century at all before reading Tuchman, but that was part of the charm the book: it was look into a world that was so thoroughly bizarre that I couldn’t not interested by it. I’d actually recommend this book to historians and non-historians alike – that’s how much I liked it.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman