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

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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.

Chronicles the historical transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and focuses on riveting figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Lucrezia Borgia, Henry VIII, and others. By the author of Death of a President. Reprint. PW.

Customer Reviews:

  • When The Capitalist World Was Young
    The last time that the name of the late well-know journalist and history writer William Manchester was mentioned in this space was in a review of his biography of World War II and Korean War General Douglas MacArthur,the self-promoting American Caesar. Previously Manchester had also done an analysis of the John F. Kennedy assassination so that he is well versed in the meaning of history and the importance of particular historical facts-as opposed to the self-serving and fraudulent press releases.

    The central story of Manchester's effort here, that takes up about one third of the book, also concerns one of those larger than life historical figures from an earlier period in Western history, the career of the Portuguese explorer extraordinaire Ferdinand Magellan. However, if this was solely Manchester's purpose that might be worthily satisfied by an extended monogram. He has provided as well, despite his penchant for great heroic figures, a very readable look at the dawn of capitalism as it emerged out of the mire of what used to be known in historical studies as the "Dark Ages".

    In the process of that exposition Manchester has done an interesting job of detailing much of the history of those dark ages- a period of history that today's readers may not be familiar with but which was an important precursor to the development of European capitalism and to the history of the international labor movement that Karl Marx wrote about in the 19th century. Manchester runs quickly through the decline of the Roman Empire, the rise and stabilization of the Christian church in the wake of that decline and its role as the international (at least for Europe) arbiter of the political, economic and social world of the times. With the understanding that Manchester's effort here is of a piece with his general theory about the role of heroes in history those of us more familiar with the period can begin to understand something of the nature of the changes that were occurring at the time that his protagonist Magellan was accomplishing his feat in the early 16th century (circumnavigating the earth and therefore empirically proving that the earth was a sphere).

    The heart of the book for us, however, is the detailed description that he provides for the bulk of the 16th century an extraordinary period that saw the breakthrough of international trade westward as well as eastward, the rise of nation-states as segments of society gained literacy and began to express themselves in their home languages, the development of cities as centers of commerce creating the conditions for a division of labor that would later form the basis for industrial capitalism, the struggle between the secular and the sacred in determining the course of social life including some very saucy stories about Popes, princes and their ladies(the Borgias in particular), the feuding between various religious factions most notably between the Roman Church and Martin Luther of Germany and Henry VIII of England and the flowering of artistic culture and learning that we can observe remnants of today in any major art museum.

    Historical materialists look at the history of any period to determine its main thrust. Manchester has done a more than adequate job of detailing those events and movements that caused the decline of Europe for approximately one thousand years from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. The most important aspect of this book and the one that makes me want to recommend it to today's readers is its study of the late 15th and early 16th century- a time when dramatic changes were occurring that would begin the long process of accumulating the expertise to create the progressive capitalist system. Without the changes in the manner of religious thinking, ways of producing goods and notions of culture it is possible that Europe, and through it the world might be very different today- and not for the better.

    That is true as long as we don't forget in that content the down side of this spurt in human culture- the rise of colonialism that accompanied international exploration, the religious wars that torn apart families and nations and the rise of a middle class cultural ethos that has placed more than its fair share on individual self-fulfillment at the expense of the social and gone some distance to slow the struggle for socialism down. If you need a quick look at the broad picture of what happened to make Europe a central cog in world history from the 15th century on read this little work to whet your appetite. Then go out and get some more specialized books to appease it.
    ...more info
  • A Great way to be introduced to the Middle Ages
    Toynbee it is'nt but I really enjoyed it! If one wants to get a great overview of how our ancestors went from what was basically a slum to making Europe the premiere continent for several centuries. Then heres is a great place to start off from. The Authors cast of Characters from Attilla, The various Popes, Henry VIII, Luther, Magellion et al is well chosen and covered. Like the fact the so called two pillars of the Protestant Reformation Henry VIII and Luthor really hated each other with a passion. A real good to go!...more info
  • Highly Entertaining
    What an entertaining review of history. Manchester accomplishes what he said he set out to do(read the authors note); that is, produce a review of almost two thousand years of history in a single volume. Necessarily that means the focus is limited; he picks various elements of European history in the dark ages and includes a more substantial section devoted to Magellan's Great Voyage.
    Every popular history book I have ever read has come under withering criticism on Amazon from some "expert" who invariably asserts that the author got 5 or 6 "facts" of history wrong; thereby in their mind discrediting the entire book. Don't listen to them here.
    I am a 48 year old father who runs a business and has three kids in college. This is the history I have time for. I lack the time and scholarly credentials to go the the original sources. What Manchester does for me is exactly what I need him to do- boil it down to a manageable number of topics, provide the anecdotes and personality quirks that bring the history to life, and above all- give me the perspective that his trained historians mind can.
    My only complaint is that in the end, the title is inaccurate; huge advances in science, theology, philosophy and technology all occurred in this period that was illuminated by much more than just fire.
    For those who enjoy this book, I would strongly recommend Tom Hollands work on Rome (Rubicon) and the Greek/Persian conflicts (Persian Fire)....more info
  • Readable, and informative! Great book
    This book was twofold: readable and informative. The book had a nicely paced flow to it. For me, A World Lit Only by Fire flew by. I've read many a history book and this is up there as one of the more better written ones.
    I have to point out that it did a great job of fitting a lot of information in fewer pages than most books on the subject.
    Manchester balances flow and facts to create a readable and accessible history of the era. A World Lit Only by Fire compares to a lot of the more recent history books written by pure journalists (cite: Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and a ton of fall out from the Da Vinci Code, i.e. renaissance history books written for an uneducated audience)however it manages to provide the educational experience most readers of history desire....more info
  • Amazing Read!
    A World Lit Only By Fire is a very interesting and well written book. I usually don't like history books but this book is so well written that I enjoy every minute of it. This book doesn't even have a main story line it's just a ton of interesting historical facts cleverly written to interest you. This book is amazing from start to finish. I suggest that you order this book right away because it is the most interesting and amazing book that I have ever read....more info
  • Read and test everything
    Once I got over the missing end notes and misleading fact-bending throughout, I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through Europe 500 years ago. "Tabloid History" [as one other reviewer calls it] indeed.

    Christians be wary of taking offense at Manchester's many jabs. I prefer to think he is scaring us out of our demonizing tendencies. In the end, you will have a better view of the reformation than most college courses in the subject provide AND you may even wonder how the same popes that appreciated Michelangelo could get their politics and economics so badly wrong.

    Read "Pillars of the Earth" for a slightly darker view and "Van Loon's Lives" for an even better take on Erasmus. However, Manchester's Luther is worth the price of the book. ...more info
  • Required reading for American Students
    The real history of Medieval times and the beginning of the Renaissance. I found this book so enlightening, informative and interesting. I've read medieval histories before, but none have ever left me feeling like I knew more than I did after Art 101 in college.

    High School students should be required to read this to get a real idea of what Medieval times were like, and why the reformation came!...more info
  • Awful
    This book came highly reccommended, so I was expecting something at least factually accurate - but it was abysmal. His analysis of the just-post-Roman Christian Church in particular was PAINFUL to read. It was quite clear from his writing that he had not bothered to return to the source documents themselves but had simply stuck with others' interpretation of Christianity. He perpetuated several urban myths about the history of Christianity, and his interpretations of medieval life seemed to assume, frequently, that medieval people not just thought about the world differently than we do (a valid assumption) but that they were substantially dumber than we are (invalid).

    A student who turned in a paper to me citing this book as fact would probably get points off automatically for lack of ability to adequately analyze sources for factual accuracy. I only finished it out of morbid curiosity....more info
  • A Great Read !!
    In my book, "Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins", I devote a number of chapters to the astronomical symbols that were depicted on medieval coinage as signs of divine right to sovereignty. As part of my research, I read numerous books on medieval history, and I found that Manchester's book, "A World Lit Only By Fire," was of great value.

    In additon to many items of interest that added to my understanding of the history of this period, I found that the book was also a great read. It was hard to put down.

    I recommend this book to all who are interested in reading about medieval history.

    Marshall Faintich
    ...more info
  • A good book
    This is pretty good general description of Renaissance put into historical context. And the part of detail account of Magellan is marvellous and very informative to an amateur like me who is now trying to delve into complex middle-age history....more info
  • Very entertaining read - "tabloid news" view of the middle ages
    I am not a historian. I read quite a bit about history but rarely do I read about the time period covered in the book. I feel that many of the people who reviewed this book probably missed the point of the work. As Manchester clearly stated in the intro this is not a work of scholarship, it is a distillation of a variety of historical accounts that he read. I suppose the critique is that Manchester chose the most provocative topics to discuss. Judging by the pure emotion poured into a number of the scathing reviews of this book, he apparently offended many with his point of view.

    Whatever the facts are about this book there is one fact that is important from my perspective. This book is very entertaining. Unlike many historians I have read Manchester essentially compares the life and times of people in the Middle Ages by looking backward critically. It is this perspective which makes the people seem incredibly primitive and makes you wonder how the human race survived so long. His subjective review of the actions of the clergy and Papacy are mind numbingly inflammatory and tantalizing.

    If you can look past that or do not have a problem with that point of view I suggest reading this work. If you feel like reading a book about history that is fun and wildly entertaining I would definitely read this.

    The author's distain for organized religion and the clergy of the Middle Ages and Renaissance clearly comes out in the book. If you consider yourself highly religious or a pedantic historian I would probably go some place else, you might be offended by this work.
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  • Not even wrong -- the "Chariots of the Gods" of mediaeval history
    Manchester admits to being no historian and admits he is writing no history, so it is a wonder that this collection of salacious misinformation, distortion, exaggeration, out-of-context quoting and uncited, unattributed lies made it into print -- still less that it became a standard of the genre. Every cliche and long-debunked tale gets a fresh airing in Manchester's strangely ideological zeal to depict mediaeval times and people as backward, devoid of innovation or even intelligence. He is quite willing to contradict himself in a single sentence if he can find another way to show mediaeval lives as barbaric, ignorant and foreign. His complete failure to understand basic concepts of feudalism and religious devotion is simply wilfull and inexcusable; his slobbering fascination with the grand guignol of the papacy's worst excesses and the more outre myths and legends is simply perverse. Here we have a writer so purposefully, determinedly ignorant that he sincerely posits that Magellan's voyage "proved the world was round". Magellan! Even Washington Irving said it was Columbus! That Robin Hood really existed -- but was a brutal thug, that the Pied Piper of Hamlyn also existed, but was a pederast who raped, slaughtered and butchered 140 children, all on his own, one day. There is no limit to Manchester's depravity and his enthusiasm for wallowing in the ugliest end of every mediaeval myth, and there is no beginning to any actual research he has done or knowledge he has. Ignorant, baseless rumour-mongering, a sordid and inaccurate depiction of a society that the author does not understand that tells us far more about his own twisted worldview than it does about the age in question. It is not even fake scholarship, there is no attempt at scholarship.

    "A World Lit Only By Fire" is valuable to the student of mediaeval history as a perfect distillation of the worst misunderstandings, rumours, myths, and misinformation that people believe about the period. Everything from the "jus primae noctis" to the preposterous idea that subsistence farmers who are forced to eat spoiled meat can only tolerate it if it has the most expensive substances in the world --spices -- sprinkled on it. Every clueless, titillating rumour and half-baked theory of belief in a flat earth is here indulged. The existence and popularity of this stupid, ridiculous book tells us much of the woeful historiography of the late mediaeval period. But it tells us nothing about the period itself, because its author knows nothing about it and never had any interest in learning about it....more info
  • The Shattering: Finally a History is really Interesting
    This book is really a good way to make history fun. It is not way intended to be an academic tome. Think of a good historical film like "The Messenger", "Luther", or "Saving Private Ryan": these movies were all great to watch and yes you probably learned something by watching them, but they weren't the most accurate films either. This is how I see "The World Lit Only By Fire". The bottom line is this book is a fun introduction into the middle ages - renaissance, which up to the point that it was written, had rarely been written in such a brilliant and accessible manner.

    The accessibility to this book is its greatest feature. From page one on the reader is delighted with interesting writing great anecdotes and a modest portion of what keeps prime-time television going (sex and violence). It is also a quick read with just over 200 pages in small paperback format, it does not require a huge investment of time and energy by the reader.

    I highly recommend this book to interested people of all ages. I especially would like the younger readers to pick this one up. It isn't difficult and you will history can be fun and exciting to read. Though an introductory work, you will feel better informed about life in the middle ages and the enlightenment. Give it a shot!

    -- Ted Murena ...more info
  • Interesting -- but not conclusive
    This book was assigned summer reading for one of my classes, and I found it to be a quick read.

    Manchester's book on the trends of thinking during the medieval and Renaissance periods has certainly provoked a great deal of thought, and continues to sell well and provide for entertaining reading.

    Beginning with the fall of Rome, Manchester takes a subject-by-subject approach to dissecting these historical times. He examines areas such as the mind of the medieval layperson, the Church, the events leading up to the Protestant Reformation and Church of England, and the journey of Magellan.

    As Manchester himself states (and other reviews often mention), this is not meant to be a definitive historical volume. Many details are left out for the sake of keeping a compelling narrative. And compelling it certainly is -- most readers will be shocked by the barbaric tales of goings on in the Vatican as well as in other places. Magellan's saga is equally gripping at times. Who knew how he died?

    The difficulty of sacrificing detail for expediency, of course, is that it can present a distorted concept of history. Such distortion does not seem intentional by Manchester -- but by compressing the continent's 1000-year history into an appropriate book, some of the characters in this drama have been flattened into two-dimensional caricatures. Manchester is so effective at describing the outrageous transgressions of the Church that the reader wonders if the Church did anything right during those thousand years. Little time is spent on feudalism and its effect on the world. Tales of Robin Hood and the Pied Piper seem to be presented as mythic legends of real people, though the history is far from clear. And Magellan's journey is narrated as proving for the continent that the world was round, though his trek was hardly the first nor conclusive indication of the globe's true shape.

    It's a difficult line to walk -- if Manchester had allowed more space to tell the history more fully, the book would have spanned more volumes, been much less interesting to read, and hardly anybody would have read it! I still think Manchester has taken some unnecessary shortcuts and liberties, but his World here is certainly one that readers will want to learn more about. ...more info
  • Excellent book for the reader with a casual interest
    I thoroughly enjoyed Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire. The book provides a good synopsis of medieval Europe. Manchester manages to incorporate important details without bogging down the text. Doubtless, there are more comprehensive works on this subject, but the author manages to condense this information into an accessible book. While A World Lit Only by Fire isn't exactly a page-turner, it is easy to read. Manchester understands how to capture his audience.

    I'm not a historian and I felt as though I learned from Manchester's book. From what I can tell, it isn't meant to be a scholarly work on the medieval period. It is clear that some feel as though it has an outdated perspective on medieval Europe. For me, the lay reader, it was an excellent overview.

    The book is broken into three sections.

    The first section discusses the origins and effects of Roman Empire's disintegration in the 5th century.

    The second section covers the Middle Ages, leading up to the Renaissance. This is the most comprehensive part of the book. It discusses the Borgia family's rise to power, changes in the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, and artistic and scholarly developments during this period.

    The final section chronicles Magellan's voyage. While this part is linked to the book both by the voyage's timing and by Manchester's theme of the medieval mind, it seems somewhat out of place. This part details Magellan's life and his voyage. The rest of the book provides a broader overview of Europe, with some attention to the personal lives of important figures.

    The bottom line: If you are looking for a cursory look at medieval Europe and don't know much about the subject, this is the perfect book for you. ...more info
  • The flavor of the middle ages
    I was expecting a history book. I love history books. This was more of a history story, a fireside tale of history. That's ok -- I can take that. It reminds me of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose -- about the Lewis and Clark expedition.

    While *not* a comprehensive history of the Middle Ages, this was a great read. Manchester sketched the time period so clearly. And through this portrait, he brings some of the major thinkers and ideas that quickened into the Renaissance.

    The book gives you context for all else you may read about the fall of Rome, the crusaders, the Moors, the scientists, and the explorers. I thought the most memorable character highlighted was Magellan.

    And throughout, I considered the book very aptly titled: a world lit only by fire. What can human imagination, human passion, human determination not accomplish?

    ...more info
  • Separation Between Church and State!!!
    If you want to know the real horrors of a theocracy, then read this book! Though the book covers many areas, including exploration, great art, and everyday life, the real subject here is the incredible nastiness of so much 15th-16th century Christianity, culminating in horrors of beheading or burning "heretics", torturing of scientists,debaucheries even beyond those so well advertised in the present era, and tons more. Calvin's Church-State in Geneva was apparently as depraved as their Catholic enemies in Rome, etc. The story of Luther is among the best I've encountered, not to mention the Renaissance popes. This book is a great read, by one of our finest popular historians, and though it's subject is somewhat unusual for the late great Mr. Manchester, the notes and research amply give proof to his text! ...more info
  • Christianity and A World Lit Only by Fire
    In William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance - Portrait of an Age, Christianity underwent many events crucial to European history: an achievement of reuniting a struggling Europe in its Dark Ages, its decreasing power in the Renaissance, and the finding of new lands for Christian monarchs and the greater glory of God. The book begins with describing a weak Europe, which suffered greatly because of depopulation as a result of the Black Death. However, Christianity helped to rebuild Europe and a "renaissance", or rebirth, began. Renaissance popes became corrupt and reformations of Christianity were led. Nevertheless, that did not stop Magellan in circumnavigating the whole world to become a hero.

    Manchester explains that in this upheaval in Europe, Christianity triumphed in bringing an age of "light" rather than "darkness" after its Dark Ages. Europe suffered a plague that swept all over the continent: "the Black death and its recurring pandemics repeatedly thinned the population" (5). Also, Germanic tribes became bloodthirsty and invaded regions all over Europe. However, despite their bloodthirstiness...all were devout Christians (6). The spread of Christianity enabled the rulers to enforce the faith upon pagans, but that was not the only reason why many people believed. The people in that era stayed faithful because "there was no room in the medieval mind for doubt" (20). To be faithless was to be doomed, and so the Catholic Church taught that there is no salvation outside of it, and it found its strength in total resistance to change.

    Though Christianity helped a struggling Europe, it seemed to change once Europe went through its "rebirth." Many factors contributed to a "shattering" of Christianity in Europe. In an era in which papacy ruled and monarchs forced faith upon their people, faith was really all they knew. However, this all changed once the papacy, as Manchester implies, became corrupted. With all this corruption, Christianity began to lose its authority over the Europe it once helped revived. "[Both] piety and hostility toward the papacy coexisted among central Europeans since the fifth century" (160). This hostility began to increase as the European people continued to hear about "wild stories of Vatican orgies, the poisoning of pontiffs" (160) and overall "corruptness" of the Church; many wanted to reform. Both Martin Luther and King Henry VIII of England led a reformation. However, they both had separate reasons to do so. Luther was a theological rebel (206), but Henry was still Catholic in all aspects except one - he desired to divorce, which is against the Catholic Church's teachings. The Renaissance was not only an intellectual revolution, but a religious one as well.

    Christendom was coming to a schism, yet Ferdinand Magellan had no awareness of it. During the time of Luther's reform, he would already be out at sea: "Thus he will die ignorant of Christendom's coming schism, a tragedy for devout Catholics like him; he would have readily sacrificed his life defending the Church" (228). Little did he know that he, one man alone, would sail around the world. He sailed the Pacific Ocean, with much distress of not knowing what was ahead of him. He ended up in the Philippines, which gave him hope after months of anxiety. The Filipinos welcomed him, and Magellan "decided to make amends [between the Moluccas and Portugal] by staking another claim in the name of the Spanish king...to be the property of his Christian Majesty, the sovereign of Castile and Aragon" (267-268). He had converted the Filipinos to Christianity and decided to stay on the islands to assure the loyalty of the Philippines to Spain and their new religion. This led to conflict between the indigenous people of the Philippines and his crew that resulted to his death. Juan Sebasti¨¢n del Cano led the voage back home and received all the honor and glory. "But he, like Christ, was also a hero. He still is. He always will be" (289).

    Manchester addresses many ideas in European history, but as an author, he gives off a little bias here and there, especially when it comes to terms of the Catholic Church. When writing about history, it is important to show only facts. Manchester, along with anyone, is entitled to his own opinion, but it seemed that he mainly focuses on the bad aspects of Christianity and not how it improved the Europeans through its age of rebirth and discovery. Also, Manchester backtracks and jumps around multiple times when dealing with history. He does not go chronologically, which may get confusing at times. He also focuses too much on corruptness and promiscuity. If only he held off a little more of his bias and wrote clearly, I would have enjoyed it more. Overall, it was an insightful read that grabs a modern Westerner's attention to understanding "a world lit only by fire." ...more info
  • "Behind-the-scenes" Portrait, but subjective and confusing...
    A World Lit Only By Fire, written by William Manchester exposes the truth behind two distinct periods in the history of Europe: the Medieval Age and the Renaissance. Manchester first starts with the fall of the Romans and the emergence of the Germanic tribes. He then continues into the golden age of all things intellectual, the Renaissance. Manchester concludes his journey into European history with Magellan's triumphant but tragic voyage around the world. Manchester's bold portrait of these two ages unveils the truth behind the stark, trivial Dark Age that Christianity could not revitalize, the enlightened yet controversial Renaissance, and Magellan's single voyage that changed how the world is viewed today.
    The Dark Age, the period that stretched from 400 AD - 1000 AD, was an era of chaos that even the Holy Catholic Church could not revive. Manchester wrote, "Intellectual life had vanished from Europe," (3). After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe became greatly distressed. Violence and the Black Death plagued Europe and left it a disaster. In times of trouble, the Catholic Church is depended upon, but in this case, it only caused more turmoil. Although Medieval popes and rulers were completely committed to Christendom, they often had difficulty ruling according to Christ's teachings, as seen in the use of the death penalty for almost every possible offense. The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, "....gave them [Saxon rebels] a choice between baptism and immediate execution," (7). Christians killed fellow Christians in the debate at the Nicea Council over the divinity of Jesus. "Christ's missionary commandment had been clearly set forth in Matthew 28:19-20, but in the early centuries after his crucifixion the flame flickered low," (8) is an exact depiction of Medieval Christianity which carried on to the Renaissance, the golden age of the intellect.
    The Renaissance was the intellectual and artistic movement in Europe, but it was also a time of corruption in the Church. While renowned artists such as Leonardo da Vinci was painting beautiful pieces of artwork, the papacy was busy with sexual impurities. On page 37 Manchester describes the papacy: "At any given moment the most dangerous enemy in Europe was the reigning pope." The popes and other leaders of Christianity were influential and powerful, but in actuality they were the least devout, compassionate, and especially chaste men that could ever have been expected. An example would be Pope Alexander VI who was notorious for committing incest with his own daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. He was also known for having outrageous banquets in which guests were praised for engaging in sexual intercourse with prostitutes. Manchester states, "Ironically, the purity of Christ's vision had been contaminated by it's very popularity,"(40). Popes even engaged in indulgences, the selling of pardons for sins, which abused of the sacred sacrament of reconciliation. Although the Renaissance was an age of gold for the intellect, it was a declining moral stage for Christianity.
    The last section of Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire describes Magellan's rough journey that upset the Church's belief and amazed the world. Magellan "...was nothing if not stubborn," (255) and he was determined to find a passage to the west through or around South America. What his crew learned after his tragic death in the Filipino Islands was a shocking discovery. When the crew sojourned in Santiago, they believed "...that the date was Wednesday, July 9, 1522. But crewmen who landed to pick up supplies reported that in Santiago it was Thursday, July 10," (290). This first puzzled the man who kept record of the dates on board, but he came to a conclusion that Copernicus' theory that the earth was revolving around the sun was right. The earth was moving, completing a full cycle every day. By circling the earth, Magellan's crew had gained another twenty-four hours. This completely defied the Church's belief that the earth was the center of the universe, geocentrism. "In many ways it was the crowning triumph of the age, the final, decisive blow to the dead past," (291). Manchester persistently implied Magellan's significance by mentioning him several times throughout the course of the book. Manchester believes that Magellan is the "one man alone" who paved the way for the future and diminished the medieval mind, seen in his statement: "The power of the medieval mind was forever broken," (291). According to Manchester, it was the one defining moment of the Dark Age and the Renaissance.
    A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester is not exactly a favorite of mine because the information he presented seemed subjective which made me question the validity of his statements as facts. However, it was an eye-opening book that revealed all the controversy behind each major event or figure of the Renaissance. Manchester did a fine job including meticulous details, but his writing style was a bit confusing because the events in which he described were not in chronological order. Manchester often used the phrase "...and yet..." which puzzled me because he continuously jumped from idea to idea. On the other hand, this book was helpful in the sense that it taught me several things I did not know before, such as the corruption and deception of the papacy and kings. It was a good preview for a European History course. When I began studying the Renaissance in my AP European History class, I recognized several of the people I read about in . "Oh, I remember that!" came up frequently while reading about the Renaissance for class. When you come down it, I do recommend A World Lit Only By Fire to history-lovers because it was a comprehensive, insightful book that presented a thorough portrait of "The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance". For those who are not, think about picking up another book before taking this one off the shelf because it most probably will only be a bore....more info
  • Great Book
    I am not a big reader of non-fiction, however this book grabbed me from the first page. It is very well written and interesting, giving an excellent look into the politics and history of the "dark ages".
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  • History that shaped the modern world
    A blockbuster of a story about the roots of Western Civilization. Manchester is an entertaining writer with amazing depth and intellectual range. Anyone with interest in history, especially the dark and sordid history of medieval religion should read this one....more info
  • Catalyst to learn more
    I am not a historian, so I hesitate from passing judgement on the accuracy and completeness of fact, or the integrity of Manchester's interpretations. I am skeptical by nature, so as much of this book might be provacative to some, it has sparked my curiosity.

    I did find the book an easy, interesting, and at times amusing read, and a catalyst for my additional reading on the era.

    ...more info
  • "In the Medieval mind, there was also no awareness of time."
    "In the Medieval mind, there was also no awareness of time." This breathtakingly ludicrous statement appears on page 22, and it represents everything that is horrifying about this book. (Just for starters, try telling any farmer of any era that he has "no awareness of time" and you'll end up in the manure pile, literally or figuratively.)
    Read Regine Pernoud's "Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths" (published in May 2000) or go to the library and pull out the 38-year-old "Horizon book of the Middle Ages" instead. Manchester's vituperation of the era borders on hysteria. ...more info
  • Not for the squeamish
    This is an excellent book in many ways. However, the author goes into far more detail that the average reader will want to know regarding the depravity of the age and methods of torture in use back then. The title is not just about illuminating a room. It also refers to the numerous people in this book who are burned at the stake....more info
  • Not the Brightest Light
    William Manchester was a brilliant writer. He prefaced this book by saying he intended to write a third volume of The Last Lion (Winston Churchill) but became too ill to undertake such an intense project, so he opted to write something of slightly less weight. While an interesting read, it do not have the same substance as The Last Lion or American Caesar. Because Manchester had such a interesting writing style, the book is worthy of your time, so that you can take a look into the medieval mind and the renaissance. Expect to be fascinated, as always, by Manchester's delivery, but be prepared to be a little disappointed in the thoroughness and depth of his coverage of the subject matter. It might have been too big a project for too few pages. This book does no diminish Manchester as a great writer, however....more info
  • Insightful
    Mr. Manchester's single volume of history presents the evidence of history which establishes the corruption of the apparent task of all organized religions by their assimiluation into civil government.

    Mr. Manchester's opinion of the time from 400AD - 1500AD is, "After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait [of the era] which emerges is a melange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness."

    My opinion is we do not seem to have learned the lessons of history.

    I have a blog at "BookTalk.com" under the name lawrenceindestin where my essay attempts to develope this topic further. ...more info
  • A good, wrong read!
    I'm a medievalist. Yes, Manchester got a lot of the Middle Ages stuff wrong, or at least very distorted. He doesn't make facts up, but he presents some *highly* selected facts and bases fairly wild conclusions on that selection.

    He says, for instance, that no technological progress happened in the Middle Ages, but reading even the title of the book "Horsecollar, Waterwheel, and Cathedral" proves otherwise. For another instance, he professes to believe that medieval man had no sense of self, "a total lack of ego," because there are no signatures or records of those who built the cathedrals. Yet if we look at any modern construction project -- bridge, skyscraper, or jet plane -- we likewise find no signatures, no egos except those of the corporation which built it. Are we modern people, then, also without ego? Not exactly.

    Furthermore, it's true that Manchester seems to thoroughly enjoy the R-rated aspects of the medieval church, so much so that's it's hard to believe this is the same man who wrote the somber, dignified "Death of a President" or most of Churchill's biography, "The Last Lion." I can only assume that, having survived the serious illness that he mentions at the start of this book, Manchester was in a "what the hell!" mood, and just let 'er rip.

    For the record, medieval society did make advances in the lives of common folks; for just one example, the invention of the horse-collar, which sounds mundane now, enabled animals to pull loads and heavy plows so much more easily that whole areas of Europe were opened up for agriculture for the first time.

    And the medieval church, while it surely had its bad apples, also kept literacy and science alive and provided all the social services that governments struggle to provide today.

    Furthermore, the great Renaissance men he admires weren't always all that great. Manchester here uses the familiar trick of criticising the "enemy" for what he *does," while praising the "good guys" for what they *think.* For instance, Galileo's science was indeed wonderful, but the way he treated his two young daughters -- forcing them unwilling into a convent at ages 12 and 10, so that the younger went insane -- might be reasonably set alongside the antics of rotten old Pope Alexander VI as a way *not* to treat your children.

    So, yes, Manchester's wrong about a lot of things. But he has so much fun with it that I, for one medievalist, don't grudge him his pleasure. The book is lively and entertaining, which most medieval histories are not. Those readers who go away thinking that the Middle Ages was stagnant and the popes were evil will at least have learned a few things about Renaissance advances in science. Other readers may be tempted, by this spicy taste of history, to look further and deeper. Either way, it's good....more info
  • Informative, entertaining, quick
    Most of us have been taught to believe that the Middle Ages do not offer much that is significant or interesting. Manchester will show you otherwise. This is not, nor was it meant to be, a definitive volume or scholarly treatise. It is, however, an informative, entertaining, and quick survey of a critical but often neglected part of western history.

    The book reads like a novel. It's a page turner that will have you dashing to the internet to dive deeper into a endless string of historical figures, events, and discoveries.

    If you enjoy history you will enjoy this read. ...more info
  • Not as wonderful as it sounded
    This book was not everything that I thought or hoped it would be. It was more about the religious upheavals (for the lack of a better description) than about the people. It focused on the bad behavior of the clergy and major figures of the latter middle ages who changed the religious landscape. And it focused more on the last two or three centuries of the middle ages than it did on the entire of span of the middle ages.
    ...more info
  • History Brought Alive
    I read a lot of history, but not much on the Medieval-Renaissance period. I'm sure many of these critical reviews have a point. For an expert it would be annoying to have some facts oversimplified or misrepresented. But that is inevitable for a little book by someone who admits he is not a scholar of the times.

    I was mesmerized from beginning to end. Manchester transports the reader to an era (lit only by fire) that is almost incomprehensible to our take-it-for-granted society. Yes, we get interesting sketches of the monarchs, popes, artists and explorers, but the real treat is simply learning what life was like in those days.

    He spends considerable space discussing the "shattering" of the Catholic clergy's corrupt hold on all aspects of European life. Erasmus, Martin Luther and other humanists finally broke through in the 16th Century, challenging, among many other contradictions between theory and practice, the church's sale of indulgences--the absolution of past, present and future sin for the payment of money.

    But Manchester's account of Magellan's astounding circumnavigation is alone worth the price of admission. Do you know the derivation of the first person who went around the world (hint: he's not European)?

    For those of you unfamilar with William Manchester, this book was essentially written on his death bed as a break from his arduous work on the final volume of his Churchill trilogy, which unfortunately remained unfinished at his death. He is the greatest narrative historian I have read. Although his politics (liberal) are different from mine (conservative), his writings are rarely biased in that sense. He is controversal in his historical judgments, but backs it up with facts and reason. But above all his writing at its best is simply beautiful to behold. I also highly recommend American Caesar, The Glory and the Dream, Visions of Glory and Alone. ...more info
  • Run, don't walk
    When a friend recommended this book to me, I looked at the cover and thought she must hate me. I put off reading it for months because I imagined it would be dry and dull. I could not have been more mistaken.

    Is this the book you need to read to pass a college history class? Absolutely not. But is it the book you need to read to learn about the atmosphere and characters of the Renaissance? Absolutely yes.

    Manchester's book reads like a novel. The Renaissance was an age full of the interesting and fascinating, from artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo to the murdering, philandering and utterly debauched Borgia clan to crooked Popes to the curious and single-minded Magellan.

    Far from being dry and scholarly, this book is ripe, verdant and informative in a witty, chatty way. I loved every page....more info
  • The Demise of the Dark Ages
    Oh what a wonderful read! The late William Manchester has produced a work that is a joy to all readers of general history. I can recommend this book to all persons who seek a better understanding of the modern world and its emergence.

    A brief synopsis of the book would be the change the world experienced as it gradually moved from the darkness and superstition of the dark ages to the springboard for growth and enlightenment of the renaissance. We see the narrow mindedness of the religious hierarchy and its intolerance for anything that challenged the bible as literal truth. Today, no one but the most na?ve or blinkered would see the world as the centre of the universe or that Noah saved the planet with his ark. Yet these views were widely held for centuries. We owe a great deal to the courageous men and women who pushed forward with trust in science rather than faith in superstition.

    Manchester's book is not a work of great originality. He would have been the first to admit this fact. Rather, it is a work that encapsulates the flood of events that were unfolding. We begin in the later stages of the dark ages and finish with the renaissance, the reformation and finally, the exploration of Magellan which put the final nail in the coffin of the remaining flat earth believers.

    I suspect that many will see this work as being driven by the hand of the devil. This is ignorance of the highest order. It is, instead, a work of enlightenment that should be read by all adults.
    ...more info
  • It made me very grateful
    to be living in this country and especially at this time. This was one fascinating read. The horror that people of that time had to endure is absolutely unbelievable. This is good stuff, believe me....more info
  • A Medievalist's Worst Nightmare.
    The good part about this book is also its worst aspect; it's entertaining. That means that people will remember it, and will more readily retain its content.

    This is a disaster because the content is almost completely false, as well as horrifically biased. Manchester uses nearly every outdated misunderstanding and simplistic notion about the Middle Ages that could be possibly crammed into a single book.

    I will be honest and admit that I did not read the last quarter of the book. I did not actually want to continue past the first quarter, appalled as I was by completely inaccurate 'facts' such as commoners not having last names (even the most casual research of period village documents clearly shows that commoners started using proper last names only very shortly after nobles did), and unfounded, insanely biased statements about eras being 'good' and 'bad' that would not have passed muster in my first undergrad essays.

    Why did I keep reading it? I wanted to find out why people thought this book was so wonderful. There HAD to be something of value in it.

    I gave up finally, since I'm no masochist and the realization that this book was going to be used as a source of information for countless Americans began to make me physically ill.

    Medieval scholars have enough difficulty in overcoming the prejudices and fallacies that are prevalent about this time period without the unwanted 'assistance' of this irresponsible author.

    One can only wonder how a person could write a book about history that would be read by millions (and used in schools!) while admitting they know nothing about their subject, that they did not do their research, and that experts disagreed with nearly everything in the book, and then sleep soundly at night.

    I can only conclude that it must have something to do with hubris and making money.

    ...more info
  • Borrrring
    I usually like books that i have to read for school but this one made me want to yell at my teacher. There were some interesting things in it. Unless you absoloutly have to read it....dont....more info
  • Thoroughly enjoyable
    Manchester is readable, which helps many of us who try to see this era through modern eyes, and struggle.

    Without question, he has little regard for the papacy during this period, and one wonders how many of the two and one star reviews here are from Catholics.

    But I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The title suggests something close to genius, and there are many moments in the book that approached that. We need more books like this....more info
  • Definately four and a half stars
    The question that begs an answer...has anything changed much?

    "History is not a random sequence of unrelated events. Everything affects and is affected by everything else." This of course we know is very clear!!!

    Taking place shortly after the downfall of the roman empire, Europe was in kaos from the medieval age to the renaissance. However during that time there was a continuation of the Greco-roman empire, (Europes most advanced civilization) thru the renaissance of more of the same. This age was as barbaric as any could get...the interpretation of Christianity was flawed in scope and where applied was brutal, reckless, domineering. The aristocracy was corrupt, greedy incestrous, murderous...the general populace, diseased, savage, ignorant, starving. The order of the day, warlords attacking each other for assets in every portion of the euro vicinity...the author describes the time from 400 ad to 1500 ad, an awful long time to be in this condition...Prison, well no, execution by way of burning at the stake, slash and quarter, beheadings, the use of the jungfer (this sent a 1000 chills up my spine) was the norm. Some of the most evolved individuals, such as Martin Luther, Leonardo di Vinci, Nicolus Copernicus, Sir Thomas Moore, Eramas, exploring advances and taking the church to task were murdered, discredited, assassinated banished. OH MY EUROPE WUZZ OFF THA CHAIN...For anthing different beyond their world was inconceivable. The once awesome pied piper was actually a psychopathic child dismembering murderer, robin hood was actually a cold blooded rogue and guinevere, well it is questionable as to whether she was even real. During their age of reconnaissance folk like Magellen sailing to the east and the Medici's sailing to the south for merchandise (they had the monopoly on slavery) took this whipa@#&s attitude all over once they discovered how to navigate by trial and error...If you are very sensitive about your Christianity, this one is not for you,if you are a feminist, well you will be offended by the fact that women and children were ranked near the bottom next to the dead dog buried in the back yard. However, if you are up to a mind boggling history that borders on the unbelievable, well William Manchester is your man.........more info
  • Great Book
    Buy it , you won't be dissapointed. One of those books you wish to be longer....more info
  • Oh Dear god
    This book is really bad. It plays on every sterotype possible.

    I can see why people like it because the author is a good writer. BUT, there is so much wrong with this book its absurd. I literally wanted to rip some of the pages out of this book....more info
  • Review of yesterday or thesis about today?
    This book stirs up a great deal of controversy, especially its analysis of the Papacy and Lutheranism. Some facts in this text are uncontroversial while others can and often are interpreted differently. However, this book presents a light scholarly approach that is easy to read and certainly provides the reader with a picture of the territory discussed. The most fascinating aspect discussed is the ferocity that many groups defended the ignorance that guarded their power. Heretics were burnt at the stake not because they were considered wrong but because they were a danger to the powers that were (be).
    This book will open your mind if it is read as a hypothesis of the impact of the control of information and the impact that has on the powerful and the powerless. Also, it is indisputable that written language, dissemination of knowledge, and the rising merchant class (and thus non-state controlled wealth) were the downfall of the dark ages. If Leonardo had been born 2 centuries earlier, his ideas and thoughts would have been lost among the illiteracy of the age. Gutenberg's invention freed humanity from the oppressing darkness of ignorance and now, as the world becomes more complicated, so many are reaching for the easy solution of ignorance and fundamentalism. Seeing the world as it is can be frightening, but to blindly follow those who wield power only results in the tyranny of the majority. So truly, did Mr. Manchester write this text as a true historical work of medieval history and the birth of intelligence or as an allegory for today's world?
    ...more info
  • Good Information
    A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester is a good read about the late mediveal times through the Remaissance. The book is a pretty easy read with a ton of information on Magellan (a third of the book)

    The book is divided into three sections. The first one is an introduction. The second one focuses on the religious sector. The third focuses on Magellan.

    Manchester is openly hostile toward the Renaissance clergy. He likes people like Erasmas. The author is very opininated and has some false information. "The peasants of Europe felt it was cooler to work clothless during the summer months." Yeah right.

    There are some "adult" scenes in the book were Manchester talks about intercourse in detail. Some people might find this book a little racy.

    Overall it is a good introduction to studying the Renaissance....more info
  • A book lit only by fame
    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. ...more info
  • Fictional Thoughts of a lunatic
    The book is poorly written, full of fictional rantings and generally liberal recapping of other historial history books. The author rants like a lunatic and how this book was ever published is a mystery to me. ...more info
  • An excellent historian, but not for this period
    Cantor's book on the Medieval Mind is worth reading if you want a professional's amateur opinion. The facts that he presents are not wrong, but but they are narrow. A previous reviewer characterized Cantor's interpretation as "imaginative." I certainly agree, but I don't use the term as a compliment in this case. If you're already familiar with this period of history, read "A World Lit Only by Fire" for entertainment or for a different view. If you are just getting interested in medieval history, don't take Cantor's conclusions to heart until you've read a few more works by historians whose work is focused on this difficult period....more info
  • The Ashley Book of Knots
    I have been a Scouter for 12 years and don't know why it took this long to find this book. It is clear and has good history. Not necessarily something that I would give to to boys but for the older scouts and as a book to make you look good. This is great. This book is not intended for people who are new at knot tying but for those of us who are well beyond the square knot, what a resource. ...more info


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