Must Read For 2020: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century By Barbara W. Tuchman



A series of disasters, beginning with the Great Famine of 1315–17 and especially the Black Death of 1347-1351, reduced the population perhaps by half or more as the Medieval Warm Period came to a close and the first century of the Little Ice Age began. It took until 1500 for the European population to regain the levels of 1300.” – Galens, July; Knight, Judson (2001). “The Late Middle Ages”. Middle Ages Reference Library. Gale.

When the pandemic began I noticed a swell of references to this book on Twitter. Having the book in my bookshelf, I decide to read it again. I was mesmerized. I had simply forgotten the correlations between the dystopian themes of today with the 14th century.

The book is a long read so I’ll jump around. The most relatable aspect of this publications can be found in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 deals with the plague in its entirety. Below, a few excerpts from that chapter which is entitled: “This Is The End Of The World”: The Black Death

“Rumors of a terrible plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through Tartary (Central Asia) to India and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and all of Asia Minor had reached Europe in 1346.”

“Chinese origin was mistaken notion of the 14th century based on real but belated reports of huge death tolls in China from drought, famine, and pestilence which have since been traced to the 1330s, too soon to be responsible for the plague that appeared in India in 1346.”


“In Orvieto (Italy) brawls kept breaking out; bands of homeless and starving brigands roamed the countryside and pillaged up to the very gates of the city.”

“Ignorance of the cause augmented the sense of horror. Of the real carriers, rats and fleas, the 14th century had no suspicion, perhaps because they were so familiar.”

“The legend of the Pied Piper arose from an outbreak of 1284.”

In France in 1350, death slowed the economy to a halt and peasants and laborers, not to mention guild members and artisans demanded more pay and shorter work days; so many had died that a labor shortage and a realignment of values had taken place. This being the 14th century the working class had little rights, any development in workers favor was particularly revolutionary. Over the next decade wages would continue to rise in steep contrast to the roaming bands of people, all suffering hardships, who went from town to town looting and pillaging.

Chapter 7 is equally as important and relevant as it deals with the growing power of the Third Estate inside the estates of the realm and those associated classes. How did the estates run? The First Estate comprised the entire clergy; the Second Estate was the French nobility and royalty, noblesse d’épée -or nobility of the sword, and the noblesse de robe or nobility of the robe, the magistrate class. By the way royalty in the Second Estate did not include the monarch, the monarch was without state and therefore all powerful. The Third Estate comprised everyone else and at the time made up over 90% of France’s population, and to make matters a little worse, the First and Second Estates lived off the labour of the Third. Fascinating to read while living in 2020.

Barbara W. Tuchman—the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning classic The Guns of August—once again marshals her gift for character, history, and sparkling prose to compose an astonishing portrait of medieval Europe. The fourteenth century reflects two contradictory images: on the one hand, a glittering age of crusades, cathedrals, and chivalry; on the other, a world plunged into chaos and spiritual agony. In this revelatory work, Barbara W. Tuchman examines not only the great rhythms of history but the grain and texture of domestic life: what childhood was like; what marriage meant; how money, taxes, and war dominated the lives Coop of serf, noble, and clergy alike.”

Published in 1978 by Alfred A Knopf

Where to buy:

Distant Mirror on Amazon

Distant Mirror @ Google Books