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A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age Paperback – June 1, 1993


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 322 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (June 1, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316545562
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316545563
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (341 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,540 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.

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.

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

This is one of those books that is endlessly fascinating - it can be read every year and it's still surprising every time!
jerry k.
Any author who manages to wrack up THAT many errors on the main subject of his book on the FIRST PAGE is not to be trusted on that subject.
te
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about life in Medieval Europe.
Monika

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

110 of 121 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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127 of 153 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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77 of 94 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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115 of 144 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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