Book Review: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Author:  Barbara Tuchman
Title: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005. (Originally published in 1978)
ISBN: 9780786152940

Other Books Read by This Author: Practicing History, The Guns of August


The same historian who wrote an entire book – The Guns of August – about just one month in the First World War and found in it a microcosm of the war in its entirety goes an entirely different route in this book, taking on an entire century of an entire continent.  Not just any century, but a pretty rotten one.  The Fourteenth Century in Europe is marred by the Hundred Years War, Papal Schism, climate change (the Little Ice Age), the last Crusades, pillaging brigands, and if that wasn’t bad enough – the deadly pestilence.

With so much ground to cover this book delightfully veers off on numerous topics, kind of a cluttered attic of medieval facts.  Yet, Tuchman still manages to draw out one clear focal narrative and that is that the calamities of the 14th century sowed the seeds of the modern world.  Corruption in the church – from the warring popes down to local parish priests known for sleeping around and gambling during mass – lead to Reformation and the eventual downfall of Christendom.  100 years of warfare lead to increasing national identity for France and England that broke down feudal loyalties.  Peasant revolts eerily foreshadow the French Revolution. Death and disease destroyed ideas of hierarchy and order, whether from God or from wealth.

Tuchman centers the narrative on the life of French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, a 14th century Forrest Gump who happened to be at numerous pivotal events and had his life well-documented.  Also appearing in A Distant Mirror are John Wycliffe, Catherine of Siena, Geert Groote, and Charles VI whose monarchy would be marred by bouts of madness.  Fascinating events depicted include Christian movements like the Bretheren of the Common Life and Bretheren of the Free Spirit, The War of the Eight Saints, The Bals de Ardents, and the Battle of Nicopolis.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for over 20 years but was always intimidated by its length and the scary army of skeletons on the cover.  I’m glad that I finally plugged into an audio book adaptation and listened over a period of a couple of weeks.  Tuchman as always a crisp, detailed and entertaining writer (albeit a sometimes overly opinionated one).  This one will be worth reading again one day.  I find the whole period of time fascinating.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Nigeria

Author:  Chinua Achebe
Title: Things Fall Apart
Publication Info: Heinemann Educational Publishers (1971) [Originally published in 1958]
ISBN: 0435121626


Achebe’s novel depicts the traditional culture of the Igbo people in the late 19th century as a complex society unlike many European/American views of Africa of the time as “primitive.”  Central to the narrative is Okonkwo a strong man whose success as a wrestler has opened the door for him to seek leadership in the tribe.  Ambitious and something of a bully, Okonkwo is not a sympathetic character (fittingly as Achebe does not sentimentalize the Igbo and even show some as complicit when the Europeans arrive and “things fall apart”).

For breaking a taboo, Okonkwo is sent into exile and during that time European missionaries and traders arrive.  Some Igbo are drawn to Christianity and some hope that allying with the missionaries will help them redress that political flaws of their own society.  Okonkwo returns home and takes up the cause of driving away the foreigners with predictable results.

Things Fall Apart is a nuanced and truthful (if not factual) account of the colonial culture clash.  This novel is tragic, blunt, and in all things rather grim.

Recommended books: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (for a contrasting view)
Rating: ***1/2