A Distant Mirror

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A Distant Mirror
Country United States
Language English
Published Alfred A. Knopf, 1978
Media type Print (paperback, hardcover)
Awards National Book Award, 1980
ISBN 978-0-345-34957-6

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century is a narrative history book by the American historian Barbara Tuchman, first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. It won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in History.[1][a] The main title, A Distant Mirror, conveys Tuchman's idea that the death and suffering of the 14th century reflect that of the 20th century, especially the horrors of World War I.


The book's focus is the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages suffered by Europe in the 14th century. Drawing heavily on Froissart's Chronicles, Tuchman recounts the Hundred Years' War, the Black Plague, the Papal Schism, pillaging mercenaries, anti-Semitism, popular revolts including the Jacquerie in France, the liberation of Switzerland, the Battle of the Golden Spurs, and peasant uprisings against laws that enforced the use of hops in beer. She also discusses the advance of the Islamic Ottoman Empire into Europe, ending in the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis. Yet Tuchman's scope is not limited to political and religious events. She begins with a discussion of the Little Ice Age, a change in climate that reduced the average temperature of Europe until the 18th century, and describes the lives of all social classes, from nobles and clergymen to the peasantry.

Much of the narrative is woven around the life of the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy. Tuchman chose him as a central figure partly because he lived a relatively long life and could therefore stay in the story during most of the 14th century. (Coucy was born in 1340, seven years before the Black Death began in southern Italy. He died in 1397.) He was also close to much of the action, tied to both France and England. (Coucy was a French noble, but he married Isabella, the eldest daughter of Edward III of England. He and his contemporaries ruthlessly suppressed the Jacquerie.)

Critical reception[edit]

A Distant Mirror received much popular acclaim. A reviewer in the monthly history magazine History Today described it as an enthralling work full of "vivid pen-portraits."[2] In The Spectator, David Benson called it "an exciting and even bracing" book which did away with many sentimental myths about the Middle Ages.[3] It also received a favourable review in the Los Angeles Times,[4] though in the Saturday Review, Ted Morgan described it as a "noble failure."[5]

However, scholarly reaction was more muted. In the journal Speculum, Charles T. Wood praised Tuchman's narrative abilities but described the book as a "curiously dated and old-fashioned work" and critiqued it for being shaped by the political concerns of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[6] Bernard S. Bachrach criticised Tuchman's reliance on secondary sources and dated translations of medieval narratives at the expense of archival research, and characterised the book as a whole as "a readable fourteenth-century version of the Fuzz n' Wuz (cops and corpses) that dominates the evening news on television."[7] Thomas Ohlgren agreed with many of Bachrach's criticisms, and further took issue with many perceived anachronisms in Tuchman's characterisation of the medieval world and a lack of scholarly rigour.[8] William McNeill, writing in the Chicago Tribune, thought that A Distant Mirror, while well-written on a technical level, didn't present an intelligible picture of the period.[9]



  1. ^ This was the 1980 award for paperback History.
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories, and multiple nonfiction subcategories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including this one.


  1. ^ "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-16.
  2. ^ McGurk, J.J.N. (1979). "Review". History Today 29 (6): 412–13. 
  3. ^ Benson, David (1979). "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Barbara W Tuchman (Book Review)". The Spectator. 
  4. ^ Kirsch, Robert (1978). "Barbara Tuchman's 14th century: Period of brilliant turbulence: The 14th century as a period of adjustment". The Los Angeles Times. 
  5. ^ Morgan, Ted (1978). "Caught in the Thickets of Medieval History". Saturday Review. 
  6. ^ Wood, Charles T. (1979). "Reviewed Work: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman". Speculum 54 (2): 431. doi:10.2307/2855026. Retrieved 7 June 2015. 
  7. ^ Bachrach, Bernard S. (1979). "Review". The American Historical Review 84 (3): 724. doi:10.2307/1855427. 
  8. ^ Ohlgren, Thomas H. (1981). "Review". Fifteenth Century Studies 4: 219. 
  9. ^ McNeill, William H. (1978). "A tapestry of vainglory, greed: A Distant Mirror The Calamitous 14th Century". The Chicago Tribune.