A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Distant Mirror / 9780307793690
I selected this book for a book club discussion, not realizing that it's ~700 pages long rather than ~400 pages long. Whoops! However, this is a completely awesome book and everyone had a ball reading and discussing it, even if several members weren't able to finish on time, and I recommend it highly as a fun and fascinating, as well as wonderfully researched and sourced, look into 14th century culture.
"A Distant Mirror" is a look at the 14th century and follows the life of Enguerrand de Coucy VII as a vehicle for examining every facet of life during this time period. If the idea of following the life and biography of a 14th century French lord you've probably never heard of turns you off to the idea of this book (as it briefly did me when selecting this book to read), don't let it! Tuchman is an absolute master at her work, and manages to make Enguerrand VII's life deeply interesting and entertaining, while using the larger narrative to talk about every aspect of 14th century life in griping detail.
Indeed, the first 8 chapters (of 27 total) deal largely with 14th century life before even really introducing Enguerrand VII, and while the entire book is 100% concentrated awesome, these opening chapters are definitely my favorite. Tuchman examines the 14th century ideals of religion and chivalry (as well as when and how and why the ideal diverged from reality), the social and political climate of the 14th century for France and some of her surrounding neighbors, the daily lives of both nobles and commoners (including their entertainments, their religious observances, and their access to medicine), and the impact of the Black Death and the Papal Schism in shaping history and social thought.
Tuchman is a truly entertaining writer, and I love how she shows her work as she goes along, and grounds sources before using them by warning the reader as to how accurate and/or unbiased the source is understood to be. (One terribly amusing anecdote of a brigand company shaking down the Pope for money is prefaced with the note that "it has been said of Cuvelier that 'the tyranny of rhyme left him little leisure for accuracy.'") And while this is absolutely a history book, it reads just as fluidly and fascinatingly as you could ever hope for -- I finished all ~700 pages and was left with nothing but admiration for this book and the feeling that Tuchman had made a really large and complex subject very accessible to the lay-person.
A note on the audiobook version of this book: There are currently two different versions of this book available on Audible, one narrated by Nadia May and one narrated by Aviva Skell. I tried listening to both books, and I recommend the Nadia May version. Her narration is a little slower than Aviva Skell's (indeed, there is a 2.5 hour difference between the two versions, and I think that's entirely pacing and not reflective of new/added material between the versions), and I found the pauses and slower pace necessary in order to adequately process all the material in this book. And Nadia May's pronunciations of the French names and places in this book are delightful to hear, so there's no need to worry that you might not be getting the full experience with her.
I absolutely recommend this book if you have any interest in the 14th century or in chivalry and its effect on nations when large sections of a privileged populace are armed and dangerous.
~ Ana Mardoll