A Distant Mirror

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
A Distant Mirror
A Distant Mirror.jpg
First edition
AuthorBarbara Tuchman
CountryUnited States
PublishedAlfred A. Knopf, 1978
Media typePrint (paperback, hardcover)
AwardsNational Book Award, 1980

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 thesis that the death and suffering of the 14th century reflect those of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of World War I.


The book's focus is the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages which caused widespread suffering in Europe in the 14th century. Drawing heavily on Froissart's Chronicles, Tuchman recounts the histories of 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 various peasant uprisings. She also discusses the advance of the Islamic Ottoman Empire into Europe, which ended 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 average temperatures in Europe well into the mid-19th century, and describes the lives of all social classes, from nobility and clergy 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.) A French noble who married Isabella, the eldest daughter of Edward III of England, Coucy had ties to both France and England, and was therefore close to much of the action.

Critical reception[edit]

A Distant Mirror has 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 favorable 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 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 criticized it for being shaped by the political concerns of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[6] Bernard S. Bachrach criticized Tuchman's reliance on secondary sources and dated translations of medieval narratives at the expense of archival research, and characterized 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 characterization of the medieval world and a lack of scholarly rigor.[8] William McNeill, writing in the Chicago Tribune, thought that A Distant Mirror, while well-written on a technical level, did not present an intelligible picture of the period.[9]



  1. ^ This was the 1980 award for paperback History.
    From 1980 to 1983, dual hardcover and paperback awards were given in most categories, and in multiple nonfiction subcategories, including History. 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. JSTOR 2855026.
  7. ^ Bachrach, Bernard S. (1979). "Review". The American Historical Review. 84 (3): 724. doi:10.2307/1855427. JSTOR 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.