Book review: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A Distant Mirror cover. Under fair use policy.

I like history a lot – especially history which gets into the nitty-gritty of what people did and their motivations. That is often lost in histories, especially histories which are of large temporal scope, as this on (the entire 14th century). The tendency in many histories is to discuss events, as if they just happen, with insufficient setting as to understand why people pursued the amazing things they did.

Tuchman gets into the social, epidemiological (plague was a big thing) and political setup to the century — and goes further. She really got into the nuts and bolts of what motivated the class of people who had the largest impact on that era’s history: the nobles. It was due to their wars and follies that much of the wealth of nations was squandered, and by wealth, we include human life. The horrors of war, torture and vindictiveness which people of that era pursued makes the horror of present-day a little more believable, unfortunately. I refer to the atrocities of Daesh.

Well, Tuchman portrays a Catholic church which at that time was completely suborned by men of unabashed ambition, and despite the efforts of a few, for the most part it was part and parcel of many horrors perpetuated on the common people. The schism, between the Avignon and Rome papacies is central to this period and if you ever wondered just why that schism lasted so long, or desire to understand the base motivations behind it, Tuchman provides an enjoyable if horrifying account.

The subtitle is “The Calamitous 14th Century” and I don’t think anyone can argue with that. Tuchman lays it all out in detail, and it is at times unimaginable to understand how badly it all turned out, yet here we are. If there is good to be taken from the history of the time, it is that untrammeled pride, avarice and ambition will invariably lead to a bad end.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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