I (finally) read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century”. I received it in hard cover decades ago as a gift from my Uncle Joseph Pike and it has been on my stack of books to read “soon” ever since! I obtained an unabridged spoken audio version and listened while gardening.

In the introduction, Tuchman amusingly names a phenomenon she observes as she studies “deplorable developments” in history. She terms it “Tuchman’s Law”, herein quoted:

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening—on a lucky day—without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978; p. xviii.

It took me a moment to identify the spirit of the comment. Then I laughed out loud. The time it took me to identify her intentions with the comment one might consider a deplorable development in my history. I think this was the highlight of the entire book for me. One can extend her observation to social media and the 24-hour news cycle of our time. People have to talk about something. All the time. Amplifying the deplorable is par.

Overall, let’s just say that the 14th century was a time in which the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Jesus were rarely, if ever, in spiritual alignment. But what’s unexpected about that? I did gain in my appreciation for how pre-modern folk used numbers as generic amplifying adjectives rather than precise mathematical quantities. I suppose that’s a valuable talent for reading ancient texts.

As for recommending the book? I appreciated it, but had expected somewhat more scholarly depth from a famous scholar. I suppose she wrote for a more popular audience. I found it somewhat repetitive; however, I suppose that is an observation of the human condition and the times more than her writing about it. It is a worthwhile investment of casual reading time.