Author: Barbara Tuchman | Publisher: Penguin
One of the more interesting books I have read recently, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (the full name of which I will not be using again, because, no disrespect, but it is longgg) attempts to synthesise a broad range of influences (religion, death, disease, family life, war, the crusades, politics and poverty, to name but a few), across an entire continent, to create a cohesive picture of the tumultuous 14th century. In the process, the book allows us to divine something of the minds and lives of some the periods’ greatest figures. It is an exploration of what makes things tick, and, as the title suggests, holds a mirror up to our own, equally tumultuous, times.
With such a wide remit, Distant Mirror ought to have been confusing and difficult to follow. On the contrary, by sticking to a roughly chronological timeline, eschewing technical language and the constant referral back to footnotes and sources, favoured by so many of her contemporaries, the book was very accessible. With so much ground to cover, is a weighty tome and it took me several weeks to finish. However, the time felt well-spent.
Ostensibly, the central loci was Enguerrand de Coucy VII, a knight of France who, through both accident of fortune and skilful manoeuvre, managed to be at the epicentre of most key events. He was ransomed as a prisoner to the King of England, and later served as a confidant and counsellor to the King of France; he took part in the crusades, and wars between England and France (he fought on both sides); spoke for the French during attempts to mend the Papal schism; and may even have been the inspiration for poetical works by Chaucer. The device of a central character anchors the book and allows Tuchman to put larger themes such as war, religion and disease, into a more personal context for the reader. The difficulty, of course, is the paucity of original sources when it comes to any one individual; which leaves us guessing when it comes to the more colourful detail of de Coucy’s life.
I thought that Tuchman kept the balance between pace and detail very well. It must have been tempting to add a little more here, a little more there, to give a more complete picture. However, a fine line was maintained between keeping the reader’s interest by moving the story along, and evoking the texture of the period. I particularly liked the descriptions of events such as the masquerade given by the Queen of France for one of her twice-married ladies-in-waiting, which were not only slightly shocking but added a sense of place for me when the themes were explored over such a geographically large area.
Distant Mirror clearly relied on excellent research and a wide variety of sources, but this would all have been very dry without a little humour and supposition. It crossed my mind from time to time that details may have been cherrypicked to support a particular theory, but, if they were, Tuchman’s insightful and intelligent commentary made me inclined to trust her judgement anyway.
I would highly recommend this book. If you liked the Time Traveller’s Guide To… books, or The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (both of which I also thoroughly enjoyed), you will find a lot to love in Distant Mirror.