A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tapestries decorated the castles and halls of royalty and noble throughout the medieval period. They were stunning examples of textile art that instructed, entertained, and warmed those around them.
Similarly, Barbara Tuchman took the various people and events of Europe throughout the 14th century to do the same for us. While her focus is on France, she must weave plotlines from England, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungary, and the Middle East to tell the story because they were all intertwined.
Her early description of the period of which she writes, “a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant,” could describe our time as well. Despite her warning, I was unprepared for the extent of violence and disregard for life in general that defined the period.
The Black Death and official corruption caused suffering everywhere. The common people were used and abused to provide luxury and excesses for the rich. The church was more interested in money than souls. Protests were brutally suppressed. And no one, it seemed, especially the ruling classes, felt any compunction to honor their agreements. It seems we’ve learned little.
But the experience of reading the densely-packed narrative felt quite a bit like following the threads of a tapestry. You had to look at minute details to step back and appreciate the whole.
In my estimation, it is a masterpiece of historical instruction and entertainment. Tuchman ties up loose ends by examining the period that followed it. She muses how the modern era arose like grass from the societal cracks and rifts in the medieval period.