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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century | [Barbara W. Tuchman]

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and the exquisitely decorated Books of Hours; and on the other, a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world of chaos and the plague.
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Publisher's Summary

The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and the exquisitely decorated Books of Hours; and on the other, a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world of chaos and the plague.

Barbara Tuchman reveals both the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived. Here are the guilty passions, loyalties and treacheries, political assassinations, sea battles and sieges, corruption in high places and a yearning for reform, satire and humor, sorcery and demonology, and lust and sadism on the stage. Here are proud cardinals, beggars, feminists, university scholars, grocers, bankers, mercenaries, mystics, lawyers, and tax collectors, and, dominating all, the knight in his valor and "furious follies", a "terrible worm in an iron cocoon".

©1978 Barbara W. Tuchman; (P)2005 Blackstone Audiobooks

What the Critics Say

"Beautifully written, careful, and thorough in its scholarship....What Ms. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was....No one has ever done this better." (New York Review of Books)
"Barbara Tuchman at the top of her powers....A beautiful, extraordinary book....She has done nothing finer." (Wall Street Journal)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Jefferson Fukuoka, Japan 08-21-11
    Jefferson Fukuoka, Japan 08-21-11 Member Since 2010

    I love listening to or reading books--especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, classics, & historical.

    HELPFUL VOTES
    150
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    22
    22
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    Story
    "Plagues, Pillaging, Anti-Popes, & Pointed Shoes!"

    Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is a fascinating history. As she explores the historical context surrounding the “protagonist” of her book, the lord Enguerrand de Coucy (who seems less cruel, arrogant, and wasteful and more brave, capable, and appealing than most of his noble peers), Tuchman provides vivid details about every imaginable aspect of medieval life, among them: chivalry, marriage, love, sex, children, war, mercenaries, politics, economics, taxes, religion, fashion, sewage, literature, art, pogroms, and plague. One of my favorites is the nobility’s absurd fashion consisting of pointed shoes so long that their tips had to be curled up against the legs with golden chains. She also manages to tell the gripping overall story of the European 14th century, with many absorbing sub-plots featuring remarkable actors and events.

    I love Tuchman’s irony, sympathy, empathy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail for her subject. She brings history to life and makes us care about the people involved in it, from the abused peasants to the arrogant nobility, all of whom are caught up in disasters both natural (like earthquake and plague) and artificial (like war and class division). One of the wonderful things about Tuchman’s book is how strange it makes 14th century worldview and life seem and yet at the same time how uncannily it holds them up to mirror our own era and culture. In the words of Voltaire quoted by Tuchman: “History never repeats itself; man always does.”

    She excels at the pithy turn of phrase, like this throwaway line from the epilogue where she describes Henry V, “who at 25 was prepared, with all the sanctimonious energy of a reformed rake, to enter upon a reign of stern virtue and heroic conquest.”

    Though at times Nadia May’s voice is a little scratchy, her reading perfectly captures the tone of Tuchman’s writing. It’s a pleasure to listen to her witty and fluid prose. All in all this was an incredibly illuminating book.

    9 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jefferson Jonan-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Japan 08-21-11
    Jefferson Jonan-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Japan 08-21-11 Member Since 2010

    I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    ratings
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    246
    219
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    977
    15
    Overall
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    Story
    "Plagues, Pillaging, Anti-Popes, & Pointed Shoes!"

    Barbara Tuchman???s A Distant Mirror is a fascinating history. As she explores the historical context surrounding the ???protagonist??? of her book, the lord Enguerrand de Coucy (who seems less cruel, arrogant, and wasteful and more brave, capable, and appealing than most of his noble peers), Tuchman provides vivid details about every imaginable aspect of medieval life, among them: chivalry, marriage, love, sex, children, war, mercenaries, politics, economics, taxes, religion, fashion, sewage, literature, art, pogroms, and plague. One of my favorites is the nobility???s absurd fashion consisting of pointed shoes so long that their tips had to be curled up against the legs with golden chains. She also manages to tell the gripping overall story of the European 14th century, with many absorbing sub-plots featuring remarkable actors and events.

    I love Tuchman???s irony, sympathy, empathy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail for her subject. She brings history to life and makes us care about the people involved in it, from the abused peasants to the arrogant nobility, all of whom are caught up in disasters both natural (like earthquake and plague) and artificial (like war and class division). One of the wonderful things about Tuchman???s book is how strange it makes 14th century worldview and life seem and yet at the same time how uncannily it holds them up to mirror our own era and culture. In the words of Voltaire quoted by Tuchman: ???History never repeats itself; man always does.???

    She excels at the pithy turn of phrase, like this throwaway line from the epilogue where she describes Henry V, ???who at 25 was prepared, with all the sanctimonious energy of a reformed rake, to enter upon a reign of stern virtue and heroic conquest.???

    Though at times Nadia May???s voice is a little scratchy, her reading perfectly captures the tone of Tuchman???s writing. It???s a pleasure to listen to her witty and fluid prose. All in all this was an incredibly illuminating book.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    harkabir New Delhi, India 08-17-11
    harkabir New Delhi, India 08-17-11
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Well written but mistitled"

    Monumental? Yes certainly. Excellently written? Quite so.
    A history of the 14th century? No
    A history of 14th century Europe? No
    A history of 14th century Anglo-French relations? Yes that should sum it up.

    Ms. Tuchman's work really is fantastic but it has been made out to be a history of the 14th century in Europe, which it is not. Details of the Church have been given but more were expected for one of the most dramatic 100 years period for the Church; a century which saw the violent passage of many heresies and of course also of the Great Schism. Further the author almost ignores into oblivion the Germanic princes and the Holy Roman Empire. Relations with the Orient too have been glossed over or brushed aside. It seems that Eastern Europe and Russia have no business being in Ms. Tuchman's. work and nor do the various emirates of Muslim Spain.

    However whatever Ms. Tuchman does write about she writes really well. I don't think she has left out anything from the 14th century history of the Hundred Years War. The author goes into greats depths of the relations between the French and English courts, the lives of the nobles, the battles and the ideas of Chivalry, the trade, commerce and taxation aspects. Innumerable short annecdotes have been cleverly woven into the history to endear the reader to the work and to bring the history of the period alive. Unfortunately Ms. Tuchman always ends up only mildly chastising if not completely pardoning English war crimes and courtly machinations while condemning severely similar acts on the part of the French. She does however herself make note of a similar attitude of the 14th century English for their own atrocities vis a vis those committed by their French contemporaries.

    The audiobook has been narrated really nicely by Ms Nadia May, crisp, fantastic pronunciation, well accented for non-English words (almost to a fault at times). It will be worth revisiting the audiobook just for her narration.

    I would recommend it.

    6 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Matt Roberts Toronto, Canada 11-17-07
    Matt Roberts Toronto, Canada 11-17-07 Listener Since 2007
    HELPFUL VOTES
    12
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    "Spectacular`"

    Knowing Tuckman from her Guns of August. I decided to chance it on a historical work on period of history i know little about. Thank goodness i did, her lively, approachable and brilliant narrative made this book perhaps the most enjoyable work I've downloaded from Audible. The Narration by the speaker is particular well done. A1 Highly recommended.

    12 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marje Sarasota, FL, USA 01-20-10
    Marje Sarasota, FL, USA 01-20-10 Member Since 2009
    HELPFUL VOTES
    22
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    "Passion for the Middle Ages required"

    Those who enjoy Barbara Tuchman's history of the tumultuous 14th Century will likely have 1) a fascination for the Middle Ages, 2) a passion for exhaustive historical detail, and 3) an in-depth knowledge of the events of the 14th Century so that they don't loose sight of the forest for the trees.

    Nadia May, the reader, is superb.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 02-14-13
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 02-14-13 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Informative but with tedious parts"

    I really enjoyed Barbara Tuchman’s renowned classic, The Guns of August. This book is just as detailed, and provides a lot of insight into the politics, wars, religion, cultural attitudes, economy, daily life, and structure of society in 14th century Western Europe.

    However, the narrative momentum that made Guns such a good read (listen) wasn't as present here. Not that I can really blame the author, since writing about a long-past time period isn't the same as writing about events still in living memory (as WWI was in the 1960s), but listening to this book felt more like listening to a history professor give a lecture. To be be fair, Tuchman organizes a loose narrative around the life and times of a nobleman named Enguerrand de Coucy, whom she considers to be a representative figure of his times, but he's not really an absorbing character in his own right. I found the litany of specific religious and political affairs that filled the second half of the book a little too dry to hold my attention.

    That said, the first half of A Distant Mirror was pretty interesting. Tuchman paints a picture of a complex, multilayered society that continued to evolve over a century, both from gradual changes and the impact of calamitous events like the Black Death. Through the book’s rich detail, we get a sense not only of how all the pieces of this world fit together, but why things had gotten to be as they were. A few lessons that stood out for me:

    * Peasants and serfs gained more rights during this period, though not because of more egalitarian values. It was because the nobles needed money, and social mobility was what they could offer in return for rent. Advancements in war technology also improved peasant standing.

    * The elaborate fashions and rules of etiquette came about from competition between the "new nobility" and the "old nobility", which resented the upstarts

    * The characters in George R.R. Martin's popular Game of “Thrones” fantasy series weren't that far removed from their real-life inspiration. Knights followed the rules of chivalry with other nobility (at least superficially), but they were often quite nasty to everyone else. Mercenaries doubly so.

    * The church wasn't as backwards as it's often portrayed as being. In fact, it could be a force for learning and tolerance. However, it was often caught between the politics of the nobility, the superstitions of the common folk, and the worldly ways of some of its own members. Sometimes, it promoted holy wars as a way to send the destructive warrior classes somewhere else.

    * There were lots of uprisings by common and middle class folk, some of whom professed an idea of equality not all that distant from the one that inspired the American Revolution

    * The Black Death was an apocalyptic event that had a huge impact on the attitudes of survivors

    If you’re a fan of Barbara Tuchman or Middle Ages history, you’ll probably enjoy this book. However, I think only the biggest fans will want to do more than skim the second half. So, 4 stars for half one, 2 stars for half two, and 3.5 total.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Nathan T 05-14-11
    Nathan T 05-14-11 Listener Since 2009
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Take your time... with book in hand"

    This is one hell of a book, a great piece of history. I'm not going to try and summarize what Tuchman is able to cover in this book, if only because I doubt I could. She covers more than I thought was out there, which is both reassuring in the sense that there is more to read but also intimidating in it's obvious volume. I possessed a mostly romantic view of the period when I bought this as a companion piece to the actual book, and I've read more of the book than listened to the audio, but don't go by that. The narration by Nadia May is flawless in my opinion... she does an amazing job of conveying what Tuchman has written, not only in emphasis but nuance as well. It might be a flaw, but I prefer my books to be read by the same sex as the author. Call me superstitious, but I think something is lost when a man reads a woman's work, and vice versa.

    This book was my first serious foray into the Middle Ages, and I think it's a very fine place to start for beginners on many levels. Not only for the sheer amount of detail, but also for the way the author is able to shine a light on ways of living, thinking, and believing that "modern minds" might have difficulty identifying with, at least in a casual way. This is first class writing/narration for quiet nights and curious minds, get it and enjoy.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Charlotte New York, NY, USA 08-17-08
    Charlotte New York, NY, USA 08-17-08
    HELPFUL VOTES
    4
    ratings
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    22
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    "Excellent all round."

    The history is almost unimpeachable, and is strikingly written. The narrator does the work justice. All round, excellent.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 06-28-14
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 06-28-14 Member Since 2001

    Letting the rest of the world go by

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    159
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    "Informative but dense at times"

    I see most people seem to rate this book very highly. I don't and found the book a tough listen. I give the author kudos for presenting one of the best peeks into the start of the Renaissance at least from a mostly French perspective. A historian sometimes needs to tell a story in addition to presenting details. When this author is telling me about the bubonic plague or the schism within the Catholic church, she was holding my interest and keeping me on the edge of the seat. Unfortunately, that kind of story telling didn't happen that frequently in this book. I thought Simon Schama's 'History of Britain Vol I' covered the Renaissance (from the British perspective) much better because he never let the history get in the way of good story telling. Sometimes it makes for a better story when you leave things out and look at the big picture instead.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kellie Winona Lake, IN, United States 04-25-11
    Kellie Winona Lake, IN, United States 04-25-11
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Interesting approach kept me hooked"

    Another great book from Barabara Tuchman. I thought the idea of following the life of one man--Enguerrand de Coucy--throughout the book was a successful one, because it gave a good balance of weaving in politics, war, and territorial acquisition with a description of everyday life on all social levels. The book is thoroughly researched and well written, but Nadia May's voice is really starting to get on my nerves. Stop sneering!

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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