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With A DISTANT MIRROR: THE CALAMITOUS 14th CENTURY, Barbara W. Tuchman presents us with a magnificent work that is enjoyable to general readers of history, medieval specialists and military history enthusiasts of Western Civilization
One of the most popular American historians of the 20th century, Tuchman gives the reader insights in the problems faced by the historian when researching and writing medieval history. These include the cultural context such as how individuals kept calendar time and the holidays (almost always holy days) that were celebrated, the state of preserved documents and why nearly all came from the clergy or government sources. She uses the device of telling the history of the period through the life story of a prominent individual - Enguerrand VII de Coucy - though this work is no means a biography.
Tuchman tells us the saga of the era from a "top down" perspective. This includes the prominence of the Catholic Church and its dueling Papacies; the demise of Europe's population by the plague known as The Black Death (which occurred in four outbreaks throughout the century and not only its best known outbreak of 1347-1352); the paramountcy of France on the European continent; and the nearly continuous warfare of baronies, duchies and dynasties of the later Middle Ages which dominates her narrative.
It is the story of dynastic politics and warfare that I recommend this work to the student of military history. Tuchman beautifully states the reasons why and how wars were fought noting the significance of financing campaigns and logistics and the lack of any body of knowledge with respect to military strategy and tactics. Some conflicts will be familiar like the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) in The Hundred Years War; some will be familiar to the serious military historian like the Battle of Nicopolis (1396) and some will probably be new to the reader like The Gugler War (1375) and the siege of Mahdia (1390).
Finally, I waited over 30 years to read my 1979 trade paperback which was intended to supplement the readings of my undergraduate history courses, but was regrettably set aside. Now, my copy looks like it has been through the wars I read ! I plan to upgrade to a hard cover edition and give this volume a place of honor on my bookshelf.
Nov 9, 2009
Read your Tuchman, children! It's good for you.
Crazy old broad of a housewife with no academic credentials decides to become a historian, stages a boffo performance. Just goes to show there's no excuse for bad history and boring historiography. Fooey on dry-as-dust history and Hurrah! for Barbara Tuchman.
I read 'A Distant Mirror' and enjoyed every line. Tuchman writes like she loves her work and it makes all the difference in the world. If her thesis (i.e.: The calamitous 14th century looks a lot like the calamitous 20th century) is somewhat understated it is not overemphasized. Tuchman has massive piles of evidence on her side and as a writer she has sense and taste enough sense to let the weight of that evidence persuade readers for her.
Those who have never read Tuchman should start with 'A Distant Mirror.' This is one for the ages. It is what most folks will remember her having written. Solomon sez: "This is great history, people. If you haven't yet read it, do so soon."
Nov 13, 2008
Middle Ages and modern times have far more in common than ever thought, and Barbara Tuchman, possibly the most important historical writer of this generation does a superb job
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