A Distant Mirror:
The “Calamitous” 14th Century
Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is about as entertaining as a history book can get or should be. Tuchman is a captivating storyteller and the quality of her history of France in the 14th century speaks for itself as the book has remained in print after 25 years. Famous for her engaging, narrative style that makes history flow like a thrilling novel, Tuchman presents a comprehensive review of 14th century Europe (via France, the dominant European power of the Middle Ages). She emphasizes three main events that dominate the lives of Europeans in the 14th century: the Plague, the Hundred Years' War and the Papal Schism. Despite this large-scale vision, she also succeeds in bringing this "distant mirror" as close to the reader as possible. The theme that runs thought this book (as well as other works by Tuchman) is the folly, pride and irrationality of behavior that she sees as characteristically human: "For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered," as the quote from John Dryden says on one of the first pages of the book. The title itself reflects this philosophical position. For her, the 14th century serves as a distant mirror for the 20th century. While most of the major characteristic of the two eras are quite different, human nature as such has not changed in the course of six centuries as evidenced by the madness of the two world wars being comparable to that of the Hundred Years' War (wars of ardent nationalism and mass/total warfare). Yet, the 20th century, for example, saw no epidemic like the plague that killed off more than one third of the population (though one might make a case for AIDS, though that will be more a global phenomenon of this century instead of the last); on the contrary, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its application as an injected drug in 1941 improved the chances of surviving a serious illness dramatically. More...
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