A Distant Mirror Critical Essays

Barbara Wertheim


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century quickly reveals that its author had a remarkable ability to assimilate bits of historical data into a lively and coherent depiction of a perplexing era. The work is a compendium of medieval lore and beliefs, not merely a biography of the sire of Coucy or a rehashing of major events and movements of his age. It gives all sorts of details about the different classes: their habits, occupations, recreations, beliefs, and superstitions. It is also packed with insightful hypotheses about the whys and wherefores of fourteenth century life, not merely in the self-conceptions recorded for posterity by those who lived it but also in what remained unsaid or simply unrecorded. For example, Tuchman ponders the fact that the writings of the age direct little or no attention to children or to the parental role of adults, then offers the tentative explanation that because the mortality rate among children was very high, they were not, on the whole, the focus of adult concern. Caring about them was simply too risky.

She also advances a theme that she would later more thoroughly develop in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)—the seemingly perverse inability of the wielders of power to change policy in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the policy was disastrous. For example, class arrogance, evidenced by the contempt in which knights held common foot soldiers, contributed to the...

(The entire section is 538 words.)