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

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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 9, 2009)
  • Publication Date: September 26, 2009
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000SEWJ0M
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,196 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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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.

Customer Reviews

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132 of 146 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on May 22, 2008
Format: Paperback
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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137 of 165 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
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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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By JoAnn Turner on October 13, 2012
Format: Paperback
I'm a big fan of medieval history, of many cultures, and this book was a disappointment. Manchester has a huge bias about medieval history that is not borne out by the facts. He clearly does not ascribe to most of the current thinking among scholars of the era. This book is misleading and does not belong on anyone's reading list. While Roman roads may have been better than anything built later, much of our modern infrastructure actually began in the Middle Ages, from new methods of ploughing to new trade routes. Massive changes took place in the world, including Europe, during the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, including industrial revolutions that changed the way woven fabric was made and traded, new social relationships, and new ways of thinking. How people told time and thought about time changed drastically, just as one example. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment did not spring forth out of nothing. The groundwork for those changes was laid in the Middle Ages, which is sort of Manchester's point, but he overstates the backwardness of the Middle Ages by so much, it comes close to satire. I really wanted to like this book, but it's so far off the mark I feel it does not belong in any library. If it shows up on any university reading list, it should only be as a bad example.
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129 of 160 people found the following review helpful By James V. Sylvester on August 3, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Is this some kind of joke?

As a young man, William Manchester served in WWII. He then pursued a career in journalism, spending time overseas. At some point he shifted to an academic career and compiled, probably in part from experience, biographies of Churchill, McArthur, and J. F. Kennedy -- safe territory for a journalist. His list of works include some fiction and essays; we can surmise that first and foremost, he is a writer, not an analyst, and certainly not a researcher.

As his "Author's Note" reveals, at the age of 70 during a convalesence, he decided to write a "portrait" of the 16th Century as a backdrop to a study of Magellan. In roughly two years he churned out "AWLOBF," notwithstanding the fact that his background in the 16th Century was no more than "the general familiarity of an educated man." As a result, his efforts to deposit ink on paper yielded a work that has an uncanny resemblance to recently used toilet paper.

Anyone should be suspicious of a book that provides firm dates for the death of Arthur and Robin Hood. (Chronology, p. X). Carless mistakes such as misidentifying Grand Duke Ivan III as the first Tsar of Russia (p. 35; Ivan IV (1533-1584) = first Tsar) serve only to shred its credibility.

As Manchester himself states, the book is "a slight work with no scholarly pretensions. All the sources are secondary, few are new. I have not mastered recent scholarship on the early sixteenth century." In fact, turning to his "Acknowledgements and Sources," we find that he gives credit above all to the Will Durant's "Story of Civilization" (ca. 1954) and the Encylopaedia Brittanica. In other words, we are blessed with a careless synthesis of dated general compilations, themselves compiled from dated secondary sources.
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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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