Book Review: “A World Lit Only by Fire”, by William Manchester

Wanting to both learn more about the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as take a short break from Civil War and WWII studies, I picked up William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (Back Bay Books; 1992) at a recent book sale. Having a bad habit of starting books, getting engrossed and breezing through the first half, before getting preoccupied with something else and never completing it, I was not sure if I would ever end up reading this. However, one day, as I pondered something to do in my free time, I just decided to flip it open and read a random page, which had to do with the Inquisition, therefore it intrigued me (anything involving Church corruption is more often than not going to alert and keep my attention). I started reading it that day, and I do not think I have ever been so into a historical narrative, not from any other subject. This book had me in its grip the entire time and would not let go until I was finished. I will be quick to say that this is the best narrative I have ever read, hands down.

A lightning tour through human civilization from the Fall of Rome until the Age of Exploration, William Manchester’s work leaves no stone unturned. It is a complete history of the time period, jumping from event to event, person to person. No page is wasted. There are no unfruitful paragraphs inserted for filler; everything is there for an important reason. The book is subtitled, “Portrait of an Age”, and it will leave you with exactly that.

The book is broken down into three parts: Part I: The Medieval Mind, takes a psychological and sociological approach into understanding why people behaved in the way they did during the time, giving us insight into why they were referred to as the “Dark Ages”. A superstitious people and an overbearing, iron-fist ruling Church law digressed the flow and development of the human race to a complete standstill. There were no new ideas and no new inventions (Manchester notes that the only important invention during the entire 400 year time period was a simple mill for grain). The world we lived in was truly one lit only by fire, in that strict, most primitive sense. Religion and the punishment for thinking “heretical” ideas caused no enlightenment of any kind or bright ideas to be born, and put a choke-hold on our evolution as thinkers.

Part II: The Shattering explores Church corruption, most of which is completely shocking. Sex, murder, theft, deception of the masses; it’s all there. It then leads into the Protestant Reformation, which showed that as ungodly as the Catholic Church might have behaved, some of the sects that broke off were even more barbaric, even for the time. It was a brutal era to be alive, with heretics being tortured and killed like there was no tomorrow. In fact, it kind of makes one wonder how we actually made it to tomorrow, without killing each other off systematically. Plenty of time is also devoted to the Borgias, their preceding and succeeding popes, Martin Luther, Niccolo Machiavelli, as well as an extensive view of the Humanists, including the most preeminent, Erasmus.

The final section, Part III: One Man Alone, focuses on the Age of Exploration, and the one explorer who Manchester deems the most important and relevant to our world today: Ferdinand Magellan. Alternating back and forth between his most famous (and final) voyage, the failures and superstitions of previous explorers, and what is going in Europe, Asia, and Arabia at the time, this final part was a lot more exciting than I thought it would be. Some of it read like an action thrill-ride—a voyage that Hollywood would have a hard time doctoring up. It was a flowing fountain of knowledge.

Written with very little opinion, except for the final couple of subsections, where the author shares his observations on religion and society, this fact-based work would serve as a great introduction for anyone wanting to read about this time period, as well as become the go-to reference if one is writing a research paper. Despite his unbiased opinion, there is, however, an underlying sense of sly sarcasm and wit behind some of his sentences. Whether or not this was intentional, I am unsure, but I certainly found some of his quips and factoids humorous. Hats off, kudos, and a great big thumbs up to William Manchester and A World Lit Only by Fire.

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