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A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance - Portrait of an Age [Kindle Edition]

William Manchester
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (317 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $16.00
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Sold by: Hachette Book Group


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Book Description

William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire is the preeminent popular history of civilization's rebirth after the Dark Ages.

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Editorial Reviews Review

It speaks to the failure of medieval Europe, writes popular historian William Manchester, that "in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the continent." European powers were so absorbed in destroying each other and in suppressing peasant revolts and religious reform that they never quite got around to realizing the possibilities of contemporary innovations in public health, civil engineering, and other peaceful pursuits. Instead, they waged war in faraway lands, created and lost fortunes, and squandered millions of lives. For all the wastefulness of medieval societies, however, Manchester notes, the era created the foundation for the extraordinary creative explosion of the Renaissance. Drawing on a cast of characters numbering in the hundreds, Manchester does a solid job of reconstructing the medieval world, although some scholars may disagree with his interpretations.

From Publishers Weekly

Manchester's marvelously vivid popular history humanizes the tumultuous span from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. A one-week PW bestseller in cloth. Illustrations.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2205 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st edition (September 26, 2009)
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000SEWJ0M
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #32,011 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
103 of 113 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A book lit only by fame May 22, 2008
I read this book when it first appeared, and have since carried pleasant if rather vague memories of it. Rereading it some 16 years later, I'm horrified by how bad it is in places, and wonder what in the world I saw in it the first time around.

The opening section entitled "The Medieval Mind" is especially, embarrassingly, bad. In it, Manchester reduces an entire millennium to a quick and spotty sketch (this must account in part for the vagueness of my memories) which is full of over-generalizations (the medieval world wasn't a bona fide "civilization"), simplifications ("there was no room in the medieval mind for doubt; the possibility of skepticism simply did not exist"), and absolute howlers (medieval peasants went naked in the summer; the medieval mind had no spatial and temporal awareness or self-consciousness).

Less bad--but still bad--are the succeeding two sections, both much longer than the opening one on the medieval period (this, despite the book's subtitle). One of the sections is on the Renaissance and Reformation, the other focuses on Magellan and the European "discovery" of the New World (which Manchester tells us was the germ from which the entire book grew). There are some interesting biographical vignettes in the Renaissance section that probably account for my pleasant memories--Savonarola, da Vinci, and Erasmus in particular--but there's no real effort on Manchester's part to wrestle with the meaning of the new humanism that fueled the Renaissance or to explore the intricacies of the Reform revolt against Rome. Instead, he falls back on tired stereotypes; his long account of Martin Luther is especially hackneyed.
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119 of 144 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Manchester's Reign of Error October 19, 1999
By A Customer
Any work of history is bound to have a few errors of fact or interpretation, but "A World Lit Only By Fire" is riddled with astonishing inaccuracies. At one point, Manchester claims that Copernicus was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. In fact, Copernicus died of natural causes (cerebral haemorrhage) in 1543! Publication of his "Book of Revolutions" was actually encouraged by certain Church officials during his lifetime, and the book was not proscribed by the Church until 73 years after it was published. Perhaps Manchester was thinking of Giordano Bruno, or perhaps he was not thinking at all. Another example: His description of John Calvin's bloodthirsty doings relies on heavily biased secondary sources, many of which have been discredited by serious historians. There's no need to bring up further examples, since Manchester himself claims in his introduction that a historian who read the manuscript disagreed with statements on almost every page of this book. It seems safe to assume that Manchester's unwillingness to correct or qualify these statements was the result of his having an axe to grind. If you have even a glancing acquaintance with medieval history, you'll be shocked by Manchester's willful disregard for basic facts. If you're new to the subject and want a good introduction, try Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" or Norman Cohn's "Pursuit of the Millennium."
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A pathetic pretense of a history book July 29, 2013
By te
People who defend this pathetic pretense of a history book, keep pointing out that lots of critical reviews of the book talk about all the historical errors in the book, but don't name them. This review is purely to address that perceived lack. What I have done is pulled out the errors on Page 3, where the text begins, and where the historical errors begin. On my personal count, there are at least 4 errors on the first page of text of this book. And this page isn't the worst, by any means.

"Intellectual life vanished from Europe." If that is so, how does one explain the founding of so many universities in the Middle Ages?

"Charlemagne ... was illiterate." That's doubtful. It depends on your definition of illiterate AND your interpretation of what is known. One of his biographers said he tried to learn to write in his old age. This suggests to me that he COULD already read. What would be the use of trying to learn to write if he couldn't read? Of course, opinions do differ and some scholars have concluded he was illiterate. His attempt to learn to write does not suggest he thought poorly of literacy; indeed he founded schools and patronized scholars, even importing them to his kingdom from other areas.

"Indeed throughout the Middle Ages ... literacy was scorned..." If so, why didn't the arts of reading and writing completely die out? Because literacy was not scorned. It was a valuable, elite skill, and only a small portion of the population was literate. It was a time when the idea of universal literacy would have been laughed at, but that is because it WAS an elite skill. The average person did not need to be literate to function effectively.
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70 of 86 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Known among medievalists merely as "that book," Manchester's "World Lit Only by Fire" vividly tells a compelling story; the only problem is that the story he tells bears little to no resemblance to the realities of medieval Europe. Manchester gets facts wrong (for instance, being a century off in dating Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"), commits logical fallacies (for instance, comparing the quality of life of medieval peasants to that of Renaissance lords, and concluding that society as a whole became richer), and seems more interested in writing polemic than history. The reason seems obvious. Manchester, in lionizing Magellan, wishes to make his readers feel good about colonialism, materialism, and European expansionism; in doing so, he must try at all costs to discredit any other form of Western civilization, particularly the insular, spiritually-based outlook of medieval Europe. Manchester's book is not medieval history but colonialist propaganda. If historians were subject to malpractise law, this book would have lost Manchester his license.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great shape
Published 13 days ago by guppie
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Everyone should read this book and put our history in perspective.
Published 16 days ago by Michael G.
5.0 out of 5 stars Its still dark
This was a pretty swell book that captured the sort of miserable state of western civilization coming out of the middle ages and into the renaissance. Read more
Published 21 days ago by super pica
3.0 out of 5 stars Very readable - but how trustworthy?
There was a book in the history section of Barnes and Noble when I worked there, which I admit to fondling a little every time I straightened that section, called <em>A World... Read more
Published 24 days ago by Tracey
5.0 out of 5 stars Nonfiction Game of Thrones
Like a non fiction Game of Thrones. A lively read. Loved the Magellen adventure. Shocking information about the Curia etc.
Published 1 month ago by Marc Swerdloff
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed, but informative
This obviously biased, anti-church book nevertheless does an excellent job of explaining that pivotal period in history (spanning several centuries, actually) when human thinking... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ann E. Markle
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Manchester guides you through history with not a dry passage in the book. The significance of events unfolds like a mystery novel.
Published 2 months ago by Ronald Ferrar
5.0 out of 5 stars Book
read it in one sitting, what a book and it rounded out the knowledge I have for this period of time.
Published 2 months ago by typenut
5.0 out of 5 stars Now I understand!
Very clearly written, and very informative. I never understood the European cultural of that time after reading other historian's writings.
Published 3 months ago by ruth barr
2.0 out of 5 stars Tarnishes A Brilliant Historian's Reputation
Most of the reviewers who gave this book 1 or 2 stars have offered very cogent (and justified) reasons why. Read more
Published 3 months ago by strega2
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More About the Author

William Manchester is Professor of History Emeritus at Wesleyan University. His bestselling books include The Last Lion, a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill; American Caesar, a biography of Douglas MacArthur; The Death of a President, The Arms of Krupp, and A World Lit Only by Fire. He lives in Connecticut.

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#76 in Books > History
#76 in Books > History

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Topic From this Discussion
Why all the controversy?
Manchester puts together a masterful compendium of how-not-to-write-a-history-book errors. He throws every cliche plus the kitchen sink, then compounds the error by assuming an unchanging monotony of primitive ignorance for a thousand years, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance.

He likes... Read More
Sep 12, 2008 by gerold firl |  See all 7 posts
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