A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror - Barbara W. Tuchman I first gave this massive doorstop book a try in my teens, and the immense detail, I think, is what defeated me. I remember finding it dry and tedious (a complaint echoed in the few negative reviews.) The book's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness--its density. This is an intensely rich and detailed account of "the Calamitous 14th Century" in Europe. In the Foreword Tuchman wrote she wanted to approach the story through the frame of a single life. She didn't want to choose royalty, as by definition they're an exception, but the life of a commoner would neither be well-chronicled nor give enough of a range, nor was she tempted to hang her book on the life of a clergyman, so she framed the book by choosing as a focus Enguerrand, Lord of Coucy (1340-97), a French nobleman who had the King of England as a father-in-law and died on Crusade in what is now Turkey. This doesn't read like a biography at all though. Although we get more of Coucy's story than a chronicle of his age might justify, this is a book much wider in scope than a biography would allow. And frankly, the rather rational Coucy comes across as a rather bland figure in this pageant of the High Middle Ages. This was an era that included the Black Death, peasant revolts, brigandage, Papal schism, and several decades of the Hundred Years War between England and France. This was an age that saw the faint glimmers of the Protestant Reformation in such figures as Wycliff and Hus and a flowering of great literature by Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer and great mystics such as St Catherine of Sienna and Thomas Kempe. The title implies that we can better see our own times through the reflection of this bygone age. If so, Tuchman doesn't draw the comparisons for us. She described it as a time of flux and change when the "fiction" of chivalry was broken down by the disruptions brought by the Black Death. Of the entire book, I certainly found the account of the plague, "This is the End of the World" the most riveting part of the book. There were parts I did find a slog (why I'm docking a star) as it seemed at times Tuchman was determined to leave no detail of dress or feasts unlisted. But if this is a mirror to our age, I can't say I can see the resemblance. Instead what comes through to me is how alien is this far distant time in its values and structure. Especially if you're not familiar with the Middle Ages, reading this is like reading science fiction--and it's a good corrective to the prettified view of the era we get reflected back in high fantasy. And that's why this book gets high marks. Because you can't read this and not get a sense of the spirit of the age, from high to low, clergy and scholar and merchant and knight and mercenary in all its blood-soaked, anti-Semitic, misogynist glory.