I began to read this book over twenty-five years ago. It had been recommended by a classmate from Amherst College; I recall I could not get beyond page 80. Since then, I’ve done a lot more historical reading, and a growing curiosity about this era in history has evolved. When I considered it again, the book caught me like wild fire. It was the first of what was to be a number of this author’s impressive collection of work I would read. As a layperson, her insightful and highly readable historical work stands as a remarkable achievement in scholarship. In my view, she is a giant in the world of mankind's knowledge of history.
In A Distant Mirror – the winner of the U.S. National Book Award in History for 1980 – Barbara Tuchman draws from unpublished chronicles of the era, as well as more widely known sources, to depict the historical events of a cataclysmic time in European history. The lens of her writing is focused through the experience of one noble family, especially on one long-lived member of that clan, French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, whose wife was the eldest daughter of King Edward the III of England. Vividly depicting the lives of nobles as well as the common folk, Tuchman’s book covers critical events that changed the landscape of France and Europe at large, including the Black Plague, the Hundred Years' War, the Papal Schism, pillaging mercenaries, popular revolts and peasant uprisings, as well as the conflicts arising as the Islamic Ottoman Empire's advanced into Europe.
Despite my false start decades before, I found the book quite readable for the layperson. It is rich in vivid details, includes informative maps (I do love maps), and possesses a sense of soul that gives this author’s works an abundant resonance on me. I’ve gone on to read a number of her other works (The Proud Tower, The Guns of August, The Zimmerman Telegram and March of Folly), with consistent satisfaction. Two of her books some remain on my reading list (and on my bookshelf, thanks to the Agoura Hills Library Book Cellar, with hardbacks for $1.00 each): Stilwell and the American Experience in China and The Bible and the Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. Reading any book by Barbara Tuchman is guaranteed to enrich your life.