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A Distant Mirror

The Calamitous Fourteenth Century
Written by: Barbara W. Tuchman
Narrated by: Wanda McCaddon
Length: 28 hrs and 38 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (13 ratings)
Price: CDN$ 50.07
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Publisher's Summary

The 14th century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and the exquisitely decorated Books of Hours; and on the other, a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world of chaos and the plague.  

Barbara Tuchman reveals both the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived. Here are the guilty passions, loyalties and treacheries, political assassinations, sea battles and sieges, corruption in high places and a yearning for reform, satire and humor, sorcery and demonology, and lust and sadism on the stage. Here are proud cardinals, beggars, feminists, university scholars, grocers, bankers, mercenaries, mystics, lawyers, and tax collectors, and, dominating all, the knight in his valor and "furious follies", a "terrible worm in an iron cocoon".

©1978 Barbara W. Tuchman (P)2005 Blackstone Audiobooks

What the critics say

"Beautifully written, careful, and thorough in its scholarship.... What Ms. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was.... No one has ever done this better." (New York Review of Books)

"Barbara Tuchman at the top of her powers.... A beautiful, extraordinary book.... She has done nothing finer." (Wall Street Journal

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Great work of historical analysis<br />

I am a great fan of Tuchman. I love the perspective she brings - the condemnation of war and the idiocy beneath the events that bring it about.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Very well read, captivating material!

Very well read, captivating material! Really enjoyed the description of customs, dress, and numbers. The reader adds a lot to the delivery

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • E. Smakman
  • Netherlands
  • 2009-11-30

Gripping, once you get into it

The reviews I have seen so far are between enthusiasm and irritation. This definitely is an audiobook that needs getting into. The narrator has a fast pace, which takes some time to get used to (but is required for the book not to be 40 hours...), and the topic is highly entertaining and gripping.

Why is this gripping? The book describes one of the bloodiest centuries in European History, with millions wiped out because of the Plague and probably hundreds of thousands due to wars, pillaging, meaningless executions, revolts and brutal slaughter of entire towns in reprisal. It describes the evil character of man in its eternal quest for more, whether it be power, glory, wealth or beauty; and the ruthlessness to achieve or obtain it.

Many developments of later ages can be understood from what started in this 14th century: the pogroms, the rise of populism and popular revolution, new military doctrines, and anticlerical movements.

A book this size has its drawbacks: there are numerous listings - of people, towns & regions, of the composition and resources of various armies and the payment each officer receives. Also the narrative uses a historical figure 'Angerand de Coucy' as a red line, while this might give too much focus on his exploits instead of describing the reasons or arguments behind historical events. Nonetheless, in an age so void of written records and chronologies, it is wonderfully detailed.

But these drawbacks are overshadowed by the lyric description of the royal bloodlines of France and England, their perpetual strife and cinematic character. Therefore, well recommended!

64 of 64 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Rob
  • 2006-03-23

And you thought the twentieth century was rough...

I initially purchased this book as a result of my budding interest in the bubonic plague and the devestation it brought to Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century. What I got, however, was a tour de force. This book is an amazing work of scholarship. The plague years, though thoroughly discussed, warrant only a chapter in what could arguably be called the most turbulent, violent and terrifying hundred-year span in human history. So bad were these years that they make the past century look like a vacation to Disneyland. War, disease, death, rape, slaughter, indignity, religious turmoil, gang violence -- all were present in the fourteenth century to degrees unimaginable today. And yet humanity survived. Ms. Tuchman's research is astounding -- more than once it will leave you shaking your head and thinking, "Where did she find that?" -- and her words are brought to vibrant life by the incomparable Nadia May. But be warned -- this is not an undertaking for the timid. It's a long journey through a hundred years, and Ms. Tuchman pays homage to minutiae. She ties it all together nicely by focusing primarily on the life of French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose adventures spanned the most important events of the century, but she takes a lot of detours. If you're curious about the middle ages, though, and you're looking for detail, this is the place to start. You'll never look at your own time the same way again.

93 of 94 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Chi-Hung
  • Riverside, CA, USA
  • 2009-02-27

A great history and a well deserved classic

I have been looking for a history of the middle ages that encompasses everything, the people, the nobles, the church doctrines, the economy, well, this is it, and the fact that this was written by an American historian, made it all the more astonishing. I went and bought a hard copy because many of the names and places were in French and cannot be understood without the written copy. I wish all the history books could be written like this, 5 stars.

30 of 30 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Kirsty
  • Toronto, Australia
  • 2009-09-15

A fantastic guide to a forgotten century

Travelling through rural France on an extended holiday, I found this book an excellent guide to this period of the history of the region. Tuchman's style, knowledge and and enthusiasm for the subject, her ability to bring the long dead back to life with meaning added greatly to the experience. The narration by Nadia May, injected with enthusiasm, humour and expression, brought the castles, palaces, churches and village streets closer and heightened my ability to be able to see the past as it was lived, multi-dimensionally. Life in 14th century France and England was extremely hard, but we need to remember the struggles of all the history which shaped the future generations of these societies to understand who we are today. So often history is selective, but Tuchman has brought to our attention very detailed consequences of the actions of rulers, the revolts of the powerless, and the ruthlessness which which people of all ranks were treated. The book also reminded me that my life, compaired to that of my unknown ancestors, is so privileged. Thank you Barbara Tuchman and all who contributed to the amazing experience I had in listening to this book.

26 of 26 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • John
  • MENLO PARK, CA, United States
  • 2008-04-30

Exceptional!

Now this is what a "scholarly" book should be. Impeccably researched, this book brings to life a period of history that has always proved opaque to me. Ms. Tuchman has done an exceptional job. It's the kind of book that makes you feel like you're investing your time well!

25 of 25 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Jefferson
  • Fukuoka, Japan
  • 2011-08-21

Plagues, Pillaging, Anti-Popes, & Pointed Shoes!

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is a fascinating history. As she explores the historical context surrounding the “protagonist” of her book, the lord Enguerrand de Coucy (who seems less cruel, arrogant, and wasteful and more brave, capable, and appealing than most of his noble peers), Tuchman provides vivid details about every imaginable aspect of medieval life, among them: chivalry, marriage, love, sex, children, war, mercenaries, politics, economics, taxes, religion, fashion, sewage, literature, art, pogroms, and plague. One of my favorites is the nobility’s absurd fashion consisting of pointed shoes so long that their tips had to be curled up against the legs with golden chains. She also manages to tell the gripping overall story of the European 14th century, with many absorbing sub-plots featuring remarkable actors and events.

I love Tuchman’s irony, sympathy, empathy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail for her subject. She brings history to life and makes us care about the people involved in it, from the abused peasants to the arrogant nobility, all of whom are caught up in disasters both natural (like earthquake and plague) and artificial (like war and class division). One of the wonderful things about Tuchman’s book is how strange it makes 14th century worldview and life seem and yet at the same time how uncannily it holds them up to mirror our own era and culture. In the words of Voltaire quoted by Tuchman: “History never repeats itself; man always does.”

She excels at the pithy turn of phrase, like this throwaway line from the epilogue where she describes Henry V, “who at 25 was prepared, with all the sanctimonious energy of a reformed rake, to enter upon a reign of stern virtue and heroic conquest.”

Though at times Nadia May’s voice is a little scratchy, her reading perfectly captures the tone of Tuchman’s writing. It’s a pleasure to listen to her witty and fluid prose. All in all this was an incredibly illuminating book.

19 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • victor wesseling
  • 2008-03-20

A great book...

Politics and war, but also daily life and the short sightedness of human ambition are brought to life in this excellent narrative of events in the 14th century. A pleasure to listen to the reading (I had the feeling the Queen of England was readig it to me). It makes you think of the stupidity and crazyness of the war in our 21st century. The bright pictures in this distant mirror helped me to reconcile myself with the darker side of our own times. And I met and lost a friend I never met....Angerand de Cousy, a bright and valliant man in this spectaculair cenury!

16 of 16 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Cameron
  • Monterey, CA, United States
  • 2010-01-29

A History Written Like a Novel

I understand why some people gave this a bad review--there are a lot of names and places that are difficult to keep to track of via audio. But overall the book flows together very well. There are some really good episodes that Tuchman relates and the listener understands the motivations of the principle characters (primarily the kings and queens and nobles). I learned a lot about the 14th century and I found it enjoyable to listen to.

13 of 13 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Jefferson
  • 2011-08-21

Plagues, Pillaging, Anti-Popes, & Pointed Shoes!

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is a fascinating history. As she explores the historical context surrounding the "protagonist" of her book, the lord Enguerrand de Coucy (who seems less cruel, arrogant, and wasteful and more brave, capable, and appealing than most of his noble peers), Tuchman provides vivid details about every imaginable aspect of medieval life, among them: chivalry, marriage, love, sex, children, war, mercenaries, politics, economics, taxes, religion, fashion, sewage, literature, art, pogroms, and plague. One of my favorites is the nobility's absurd fashion consisting of pointed shoes so long that their tips had to be curled up against the legs with golden chains. She also manages to tell the gripping overall story of the European 14th century, with many absorbing sub-plots featuring remarkable actors and events.

I love Tuchman's irony, sympathy, empathy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail for her subject. She brings history to life and makes us care about the people involved in it, from the abused peasants to the arrogant nobility, all of whom are caught up in disasters both natural (like earthquake and plague) and artificial (like war and class division). One of the wonderful things about Tuchman's book is how strange it makes 14th century worldview and life seem and yet at the same time how uncannily it holds them up to mirror our own era and culture. In the words of Voltaire quoted by Tuchman: "History never repeats itself; man always does."

She excels at the pithy turn of phrase, like this throwaway line from the epilogue where she describes Henry V, "who at 25 was prepared, with all the sanctimonious energy of a reformed rake, to enter upon a reign of stern virtue and heroic conquest."

Though at times Nadia May's voice is a little scratchy, her reading perfectly captures the tone of Tuchman's writing. It's a pleasure to listen to her witty and fluid prose. All in all this was an incredibly illuminating book.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Nassir
  • 2008-12-09

Half excellent

The first half of the book, like all of Tuchman's work, is 5-stars of exceptional. Interesting and erudite, it pounds enthusiastically over the landscape of the century, shaking hands with the people and sticking it's nose into the culture. It does this to explain the background of the eventual subject of the biography. Unfortunately, when this subject, de Coucy, appears and grows up enough to start acting on history, the book stiffens its back and starts marching along the path of that history like someone was whipping it. Better on the page, in audiobook form it becomes an impossible tangle of names and dates, where de Coucy in April goes to A and meets X and Y and flirts with W and then in May may have gone on to the Italian state of B or perhaps was in C with S and P to campaign against N during the war that year between P and Q. And it goes on like that for hours, without any of the digression or deep explanation that made the buildup so entertaining. When the guy finally bites it, he does so in a pinch conveyed so perfunctorily that it comes kind of as a relief. This is not the Tuchman who would later convey the mechanical ticking of the first month of World War One (in "The Guns of August"), with its myriad dates and cast of thousands, with famous joie and vivre. However, don't mistake this minor criticism as a prohibition, please! A half-excellent book by Tuchman will nevertheless leave you half-again as entertained and informed as any other book on the subject in existence. I highly recommend.

50 of 55 people found this review helpful