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A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance - Portrait of an Age Hardcover – April 30, 1992

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st edition (April 30, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316545317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316545310
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (317 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #161,251 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Using only secondary sources, Manchester plunges readers into the medieval mind-set in a captivating, marvelously vivid popular history that humanizes the tumultuous span from the Dark Ages to the dawn of the Renaissance. He delineates an age when invisible spirits infested the air, when tolerance was seen as treachery and "a mafia of profane popes desecrated Christianity." Besides re-creating the arduous lives of ordinary people, the Wesleyan professor of history peoples his tapestry with such figures as Leonardo, Machiavelli, Lucrezia Borgia, Erasmus, Luther, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Manchester ( The Arms of Krupp ) devotes much attention to Magellan, whose globe-straddling voyage shattered Christendom's implicit belief in Europe as the center of the universe. His portrayal of the Middle Ages as a time when the strong and the shrewd flourished, while the imaginative, the cerebral and the unfortunate suffered, rings true. Illustrations.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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.

Amazon Author Rankbeta 

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#82 in Books > History
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Customer Reviews

Manchester's book reads much like a 300 page attack on the Catholic Church.
Whether you are looking for a spectacular read, are a student or just a history buff, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
doc peterson
Rather than detailing events in chronological order as many historical books do, Manchester takes us through subject by subject.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

102 of 112 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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119 of 144 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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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By te on July 29, 2013
Format: Paperback
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 on June 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
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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