Customer Reviews: A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance Portrait of an Age
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VINE VOICEon 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. Manchester's concluding account of Magellan's voyage, with its brief nod to Renaissance astronomy and the science of navigation, is enthusiastic and lively, and is probably the best--or least bad--part of the book. But again, it's sketchy and breathless.

So what accounts for the remarkable popularity of this book? Its quality should've landed it on the out-of-print shelve long ago. My only guess is that Manchester's well-deserved fame for his contemporaneous histories (WWII, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur) bestows a borrowed and undeserved aura of authority on this one. But authors (and their agents and editors) really ought to know when they're in over their heads, and refrain from writing bad copy just because they know they can get it published.
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on October 13, 2012
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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on October 19, 1999
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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on August 3, 2003
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. The lack of attribution makes it impossible to discern the basis for Manchester's vast array of brazen assertions. Further, the engrafting of his "portrait of the age" upon the material concerning Magellan yields a singularly disjointed work.

It is particularly reprehensible that Manchester unquestioningly accepts scholarship that is invariably two or three generations old. The most prominent theme, repeated ad nauseam, is that someone turned the lights out in Europe in the latter part of the 5th Century and it was only through the sudden and blessed intervention of Humanists who re-discovered the ancients in the 15th century that the world was saved from the "Dark Ages." Yes, he liberally applies that hackneyed and questionable term -- to the entire period.

Contradictory evidence such as the writings of Petrarch and Dante are only "lonely execeptions" to the total dearth of anything valuable in the long night that gripped Europe in the rather simple mind of William Manchester. (Augustine, Abelard, Acquinas, Chaucer?) Accordinly, the first 28 pages which purport to summarize the history of the Medieval world should be summarily removed from each copy and thrown away.

Even a cursory review of medieval studies since say, 1950, puts the lie to Manchester's basic premise. (For the story of this development in the 20th C., see Cantor's "Inventing the Middle Ages"). For an Emeritus Professor of History at Wesleyan, the lack of effort is astounding. Any old source is a good source. For example, as to Davis' "Life on a Medieval Barony" (1924!!), he says: "Davis was writing about the thirteenth century, but his picture of a medieval community is valid in depicting the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries." How Manchester would know is a mystery. What changes the Black Death (mid-14th C.) might have occasioned must have been just too inconvenient.

As so many have commented, no salacious detail is missed by the priapic pen of Bill "Horndog" Manchester: "lore [always a reliable source!!] has it that he was coupling with the older woman when he was distracted by the sight of her adolescent daughter laying beside them . . . [the passage gets much more graphic from here]"

Dr. Manchester, if he merits that title, has only succeeded in unbuttoning the fabric to expose the withering envy of old age for the sexual potency of youth. Wesleyan should be embarrassed; even casual readers should move on to something more intellectually honest.
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on January 4, 2006
I was going to title this review "A Mind Lit Only by Stereotypes." William Manchester repeats the old clichés about the ignorance and crudity of the Medieval Mind - and how it was shattered by casting off the restrictions of religious dogma. For example, he states that the "menace of Copernicus" was that "if the earth were shrunken to a mere speck in the universe, mankind would also be diminished." This, according to Manchester, challenged the Scriptures which "assumed that everything had been created for the use of man." Not quite. The Bible asks what worth man has in comparison to the majesty of the heavens (cf. Ps. 8) and the standard medieval textbook on astronomy states: "The earth in relation to the distance of the fixed stars has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point." (*Almagest,* bk. I, ch. v) Manchester would have done well to have read *Those Terrible Middle Ages* by the renowned French historian Regine Pernoud which debunks the common myths about that historical period.

Still, I must say that Manchester told a darn good story. I found myself comparing it with a popular novel which claims to recount history - *The DaVinci Code.* They were both fun to read, but neither went very deep into their characters. For example, Manchester devotes about fifty pages to Martin Luther but mainly focuses on colorful details such as his reported farting matches with devil. He never gets inside Luther or helps a reader understand why his theology continues to have such an impact almost five centuries later. Likewise, the other people he depicts - including his hero Magellan - come across as two-dimensional characters. Nevertheless, they were more believable than the cardboard characters in *The DaVinci Code.* And, unlike Dan Brown, Manchester uses fairly respectable sources for his tale.

*A World Lit Only By Fire* will provide a few evenings of fun reading. Hopefully, it might lead the reader to more substantial books such as the works of Regine Pernoud or the recent book by Thomas E. Wood, Ph.D., *How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.* And if you really want to understand the Medieval Mind, it is time to read (or re-read) *The Divine Comedy.*
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on March 6, 2004
One reviewer here, the author of a rather scathing evalutaion, asked that high school students submit their reviews of this book. I'll happily comply (I'm currently a college student, but read 'A World Lit Only By Fire' for the fist time while in high school), though I doubt my review will please her, as I found this book absolutely fascinating, highly enjoyable, and very easy to read. As far as I'm aware, no one else in my AP European History class had trouble with it either.
Rather than detailing events in chronological order as many historical books do, Manchester takes us through subject by subject. Beginning with an explanation of the Medieval mind and how it came to be, Manchester goes on to address every possible aspect of life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. In addition to recounting events of historic significance and discussing prominent people of the times, he takes us to the very core of Medieval being, describing in vivid detail the dress, eating habits, beliefs, and living conditions of all classes, from peasantry to nobility. The book closes with a section devoted to the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, telling of his voyage to circumnavigate the globe by which he inadvertantly helped bring about the twilight of an age.
There are some things which set this book apart from the bulk of scholarly historical texts I have read. Perhaps the most unique is its organization. Most historical texts begin at one point in time and continue on, year by year, until they reach the end of the period they are covering. Manchester has done things differently. He does not stick to a chronological line in his writing, but rather begins with one aspect of Medieval life and winds his way back and forth through each topic until everything has been told to satisfaction. Now, such a system might prove choppy if not for Manchester's great skill in weaving topics together. The crossover between one subject and the next is sometimes all but imperceptible. He takes one idea and, when finished with it, shows precisely how it ties in with the next. The writing is seamless. Manchester develops a beautiful literary illustration of the interconnectedness of different aspects of Medieval life. As he himself states in his note at the beginning of the book, "each event [leads] inexorably to another, then another..." (pg. XV).
The organization and fluency of the writing makes this book easy and pleasurable to read, but there is yet another feature which makes 'A World Lit Only By Fire' special. Manchester's tone brings the author to life. It is plain to see that he has his own opinions on what he is writing, and lets them come through with an easy humor that pokes fun at history's idiosyncrasies without being vicious. While one can see that he has some biases (and everyone does), he covers all aspects of an issue without letting his feelings distort it, but still managing to make his opinion known.
It is these characteristics, and a meticulous attention to detail, that separate Manchester's work from the ordinary, cut-and-dried textbook writing we see so often. It draws the reader in just as a novel might. The book is thorough and comprehensive, but the presentation makes it seem almost as if a story is being told. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about life in Medieval Europe.
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on May 18, 2010
William Manchester is Professor of History Emeritus at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Over the years he has written many popular works on history; this is his contribution to the medieval period.

Manchester's particular interest and area of expertise is the life and accomplishments of Ferdinand Magellan. This book sets up the picture of Magellan's world, beginning with the Dark Ages and moving to the beginning of the sixteenth century. He sees in Magellan a symbolic figure--the personification of the end of the medieval mind and the beginning of the modern age. The last major section of the book is about Magellan himself.

After discussing the medieval mind in general, Manchester proceeds to show how their world progressed and then came to an end. He traces the major events in Europe over a five hundred-year period. He conceives of the medieval mind as being superstitious, subject to the authority of the church, and full of erroneous ideas. One notes throughout the book a pronounced dislike of religion, especially of Christianity and the institutional church. His sharpest barbs are reserved for popes and Protestant reformers. With the coming of the scientific age, he sees the intellectual demise of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Religion is relegated to ethical values and encouraging legends. It is disappointing to see how he ignores the fact that Christianity, and Protestant Christianity in particular, spurred the modern scientific method.

Manchester admits that he depends almost exclusively on secondary sources. This is a major weakness of the book. While writing in my own field (Reformed theology) Manchester betrays an abysmal ignorance of Calvin's ideas and positions and history, accepting the most common stereotypes. He gives a very unbalanced picture of Calvin, and I think of Luther as well.

I would rate this book as two stars, except that his excellent discussion of Magellan's life, adventures, and significance raises it up in my opinion to three stars.

This book is written for a popular audience, and one can see while reading it that he is used to college students. He writes in a quick, racy style that is easy to read and often entertaining. He often writes about sexual topics, more often it seems than called for and giving more detailed information than necessary; but then maybe this was necessary in his lectures to keep his college students listening.
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on June 10, 1999
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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on July 29, 2013
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. From a medieval point of view, what need would a peasant farmer have for literacy when there was no printing presses and thus no cheap books? What would he or she have to read?

" ... when a cardinal corrected the Latin of the emperor Sigismund , Charlemagne's forty-seventh successor, Sigismund rudely replied, "Ego sum rex Romanus et super grammatical" - as "king of Rome," he was "above grammar."" To me, this is NOT proof that intellectual life ceased in Europe or that literacy was scorned. First of all, the conversation was in Latin, the language of international literacy, diplomacy and debate in the Middle Ages. Secondly, there is the distinct flavor of a boss slapping down a subordinate for correcting his grammar, possibly in public. "Don't correct MY grammar you impertinent jackass!" is the message I am getting from this vignette. I am not well versed in 15th century church history (apparently the conversation occurred during the Council of Constance) so there may be more valid interpretations out there, but I don't think it illustrates that literacy was scorned.

"After all the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait that emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths and an almost impenetrable mindlessness." This statement manages to be so general that it can't be disproved point by point AND it could be applied with equal truth to the just about any historical era, including the 20th century. As for the "impenetrable mindlessness", the real problem with this book is that Manchester didn't bother to read any up to date scholarship on the Middle Ages to even begin to try to understand the medieval mind. He proves that again and again throughout the book.

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. There are more errors throughout the book, of course, which I am not going on to explain, mainly because if 4 errors on the first page don't persuade someone that there is something hinky about this book, neither is 10 errors explained or 40 errors or 100 errors.

Manchester may have written this book in an engaging style, and exhibits a certain prurient interest in historical gossip that appeals to the common reader, but that doesn't mean this is good history.
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on January 19, 2000
Upon reading the collection of negative and indignant reviews of _A World Lit Only By Fire_ it seems obvious to me that many readers completely misunderstood Manchester's purpose in writing it. If you are looking to pass a pop quiz on medieval history or to find the standard party line on the Middle Ages, don't look to Manchester's daring piece. If you are interested in an observant, insightful, juicy, and imaginative portrait of the Western World in upheaval, this book certainly qualifies. The book is anything but clinical and objective. That fact has obviously ruffled the feathers of dusty, party-line medieval history buffs who want a 300-page series of facts and dates. But the book's honest subjectivity and willingness to judge the important people of the past are what make it worth reading. Anyone who believes historical writing is anything but the author's opinion about the past is fooling themselves, and at least Manchester does not attempt to cloak his conjecture in a stodgy air of authority. _A World Lit Only By Fire_ is a fascinating and colorful take on the transition from Roman Empire to Renaissance and Reformation, written by a superbly intelligent, articulate, and bold historian. It is not a historical reference manual and does not pretend to be. Hopefully, you wouldn't want to read one of those things, anyway.
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