22 October, 2021

LitStack Rec: A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century and The Boys of My Youth

A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th CenturyREC
by Barbara W. Tuchman

The polar vortex swirls intermittently and we hole up in our warm houses, reading of revolts in the Ukraine and instability in Serbia, the Middle East, elsewhere. We bemoan the lack of privacy under the gaze of the NSA, the breach of trust from corporations unable to protect us from hackers, and the polarization of the political climate.

Now seems as good a time as any to hearken back to a time when life truly was rough. In “A Distant Mirror”, Pulitzer prize winning historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a mesmerizing study on life in the 14th century, with the Black Plague ravaging the European countryside and the Papal Schism destabilizing the political climate of the Western world. The Hundred Years War, the advance of the Ottoman Empire, bands of roving mercenaries, and the beginning of “the Little Ice Age” all contributed to an era when life was, indeed, harsh. Yet it also was a “glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry”, of guilty passions, warm domestic life, loyalty, treachery, and reform hammered from the dregs of corruption. Every aspect of life in the Middle Ages is told with a historian’s eye on scholarship but a storyteller’s voice, using the real life French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy as touchstone.

I found “A Distant Mirror” to be eye-opening, enlightening, and indeed, encouraging in how even now we can reflect on where we have been, how far we have come and, indeed, what hopes we can have for our future. We got through worse before, we can prevail again. Perfect reading for these cold, burrowing days when the wind howls outside and we hold out hopes for a spring that we know some day will come.

—Sharon Browning

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