The book being reviewed this month is The Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. The subtitle of this book – “The Calamitous 14th Century” gives you an idea of the tone of this book and one of the reasons I can not give this book my full backing.
Barbara Tuchman is a “self-taught scholar” according to the back cover of my edition. And, scholarly this certainly is. The research supporting this book is incredible. She uses countless extant documents to base her claims and build images of people, places, events and life in the 14th century.
It is interesting to read about people who actually lived at this time and how they were perceived by their contemporaries. She provides a look into lives at many different levels, clerical and spiritual, women and men, children and elderly. But, her focus tends to be on the knights who appear to have affected all social classes.
This book gives you a realization that there was more traveling and interaction between countries and regions than we tend to believe today. It is also interesting to read what the French thought of the Germans, the Germans thought of the English, the Italians of the French, and so on. When we think of our personas, it is good to remember that as nobles, we did have access to cultures other than our own and were affected by them in fashion and manners.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I can not agree completely with this book. Although I am quite aware that we tend to idealize the Middle Ages with what we do, picking out the pretty parts to recreate, I feel that Barbara Tuchman picked out the nastiest parts to portray. There are very few knights (I want to say there are none, but I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope my memory is not serving me correctly) in her book who have any of the redeeming qualities of chivalry. Instead, the knight is shown to be "a terrible worm in an iron cocoon".
This book was written in 1978, which is important to keep in mind. At this point, there was a lot of research that we have available to us today that was missing. Quite a few finds have been discovered since then, and an increasing interest in the Middle Ages has spurred an academic focus on this time period that did not exist earlier. Also, more women have entered this field of research, expanding the knowledge we have of women’s lives in the Middle Ages.
My copy is bristling with sticky notes, marking interesting passages about clothing, jewelry, manners, food, housing, furniture and whatever else I felt could be put to use in my SCA life. I believe I could say that just about every other page has a note stuck to it. Read it for the details, read it for the overall ideas and ideals, but keep in mind that the truth always lies somewhere between the extremes. I do not believe that everything was as bleak as she paints it, but I also know that life was certainly not as glorious as what we read in the romances of that day, either.
On the whole, I would recommend that anyone who is interested in this time period read this book. It is filled with information about life in those times that is hard to find elsewhere. You can get a good idea of the opulence and the poverty that existed side by side in the Middle Ages as well as the challenges and rewards that people faced.
Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.
ISBN 0 345 28394 5
A Distant Mirror is currently available on Amazon.com for $12.57 (regular price 17.95).
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