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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

“A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance. Portrait of an Age”, by William Manchester


320 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0316545310

I was reminded while reading this book of a (apocryphal) bon mot by a medieval scholar when asked just why so many people fainted in the presence of King Louis XIV; it was not, he assured his gentle readers, because of the Sun King’s very presence, but because the man stunk to high heaven (it was rare for the royal personage to bathe during the Age of Enlightenment, it would seem). This afforded the scholar with the opportunity to compare and contrast the appalling personal hygiene habits of the people of the Renaissance with the more regular bathing practices of Medieval people (a tale for another time). Sure, maybe this was just another exaggeration in the long-running and acrimonious debate between Medievalists and Renaissance scholars, but the greater point is that when you start trying to retrofit historical periods with modern values and judgments, you invite an unending stream of “yes, but…” retorts.

And so we come to A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance. Portrait of an Age (that’s some handle for such a slim book; indeed, William Manchester in his Author’s Note says “It is, after all, a slight work, with no scholarly pretensions. All the sources are secondary, and few are new; I have not mastered recent scholarship on the early sixteenth century”). This author, the deceased American author, biographer, and historian, scathingly posits, as the title suggests, that the Middle Ages were 10 Centuries of technological stagnation, short-sightedness, bloodshed, feudalism, and an oppressive Church, all wedged in-between the golden ages of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Although I have since expanded my knowledge of this period since then and have found a great deal of fault with Manchester’s characterizations, when I first read this book as a kid it was the first such work I came across that shown even a little bit of light on the “Dark Ages” of which I then knew so very, very little. As such, I find myself revering it, even still.

In spite of the title, A World Lit Only by Fire is largely about the Catholic Church and the Reformation: the section entitled The Shattering is by far that is the longest of the three essays that make up the whole, while the other two – The Medieval Mind and One Man Alone – are each shorter overviews of the long darkness of the medieval period and a study of the first circumnavigation of the world by Magellan (and his Asian manservant). Be forewarned that Manchester gets a lot of the Middle Ages wrong; while he doesn’t make up facts, he presents some highly selected anecdotes and bases fairly wild conclusions on each careful selection. For instance, he says that no technological progress occurred during the Middle Ages, but reading even the title of the book Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages (now in its 60th edition!) proves otherwise. For another instance, he professes to believe that medieval man had no sense of self, “a total lack of ego”, because there are no signatures or records of those who built the cathedrals…yet if we look at any modern construction project – bridge, skyscraper, jet – we likewise find no signatures, no egos except those of the corporation which built it. Are we modern people, then, also without ego? Er, not exactly. But this is not a scholarly work, and does not profess to be: it is “popular history” at its most popular, written to be entertaining, first and foremost. There are numerous factual errors made and conclusions drawn which may not be able to be substantiated in places, and seems to thoroughly enjoy the R-rated aspects of the medieval church: I think it is clear that the book has to be read as opinion rather than “this is exactly how it was” with things that interest the author getting the limelight (and as he warned in his Author’s Note, quoted above). To a degree, this grates on me because it makes me wonder about what else Manchester wrote, like the somber, dignified story of the Kennedy Assassination Death of a President, or the superb unfinished biography of Churchill The Last Lion; do they suffer the same errors and opinions masquerading as facts? I can only assume that, having survived the serious illness that he mentions at the start of this book, Manchester was in a “what the hell!” mood and just let ‘er rip.

This book is not really about the medieval mind, or even the Renaissance: it’s mostly about the birth of the concept of the modern Nation-State replacing the greater concept of Christendom and then how those early explorers created the ability for the Western World to seed itself all over the globe. A World Lit Only by Fire is lively and entertaining, which most medieval histories are not. Those readers who go away thinking that the Middle Ages was stagnant and the popes were evil will at least have learned a few things about Renaissance advances in science, while other readers may be tempted, by this spicy taste of history, to look further and deeper. Yes, Manchester is wrong about…so much; but he has so much fun with it that I don’t begrudge him his pleasure, and I still recall how enjoyable I found this book, lo so many years ago.

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