Though not an historian, the author intends to shed light on the medieval era - basic living conditions and thinking - and on its transition to a perhaps more humanistic, less rigid society. Unfortunately, the book is scattershot in its approach - chronologically, geographically, and thematically. The author is highly selective in his choice of topics and subjects, spending an inordinate amount of time on some, while leaving gaping holes about the era. For example, there is no discussion of feudalism, guilds, pre-capitalistic developments, etc. In addition, it is bothersome that the author includes no notes, raising issues of believability.
Though the book begins with the sacking of the Roman Empire in 300-400 AD, the main theme of the entire book is the dominance of the Christian church hierarchy, headquartered in the Vatican and lead by a succession of popes, over all of European society. Even the barbarians quickly fell in line. The Church was not so much about religion as it was about power – the ability to dictate thought processes in the masses and to demand unequivocal allegiance. The fact that average Europeans had no knowledge of Latin, the official language of the Church and the nobility, kept them suitably ignorant. The Church kept society in a static state, actually quite backward compared to the Romans, for nearly one thousand years by using its capacity to prevent new thinking and developments through intimidation.
The author details at length the shocking dissoluteness of the entire Church officialdom – the debauchery and hedonism of even the popes is hardly to be believed. Equally disturbing is the incredible resort to butchery by all officials perpetrated on people for even the pettiest of crimes, let alone those who questioned the authority and wisdom of the Church. Indicative of the barbarity of the times, the author tells of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor, circa 800 AD, promptly beheading 4500 Saxons who demurred from baptism. Despite the heavy-handedness of the Church, cracks in its control of knowledge appeared. For one, there was an artistic and humanistic rejuvenation in the 1400s. Individuals such as Erasmus and Leonardo da Vinci appeared, whose focus on the reasoning ability of individual men, though not directly challenging to the Church, did erode its claim to all knowledge. In the author’s account, it was Martin Luther’s disgust with the oppressiveness of the Church hierarchy and his push to lead an independent religious movement that was most significant in undermining the Church. Of course, the reaction of the Church to Martin Luther and the rise of Protestantism, at times equally unforgiving to deviants, resulted in yet more massive killings for the crimes of independence.
One of the primary claims of the Church was that the Earth is the center of the universe, essentially flat with Hell below and Heaven above. But gathering evidence collected by worldly explorers and fledgling scientists demonstrated that the Earth had to be a sphere, although the dissemination of that knowledge triggered suppression by the Church. The author elevates Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailor who led a small fleet of five Spanish ships westward in 1519, in an attempt to reach the Spice Islands, as the exemplar of the changes underway in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. One of his ships and eighteen men did make it back to Spain three years later having completed the first journey around the world; however, Magellan very incautiously provoked a battle with natives in the Philippines that resulted in his death. The author covers Magellan’s journey extensively, primarily based on a diary kept by a crewman, though again no notes are included. While it was a daring journey with obvious scientific ramifications, it seems somewhat arbitrary to view Magellan as the epitome of men who challenged the dominance of the Church, directly or indirectly.
Some reviewers have dismissed the book as being totally useless. That seems to be an immoderate view. The book is vague, hard to follow, and hardly comprehensive. Yet, it does capture the flavor of the times to some degree. And the author’s depictions of the power and hypocrisy of the Church, Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Erasmus, and Magellan are worthy. In some ways, the book may lend some insights in some areas that a more comprehensive, yet conservative, historical approach would eschew. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see a five star rating.
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terrible book, August 16, 2007 (view all comments by terrible book)
This book in my opinion was terrible. I would much rather read a text book about this information. It had absoutly no story line at all. It skipped from one group of people in one paragraph, to a completely different group in another. I had to read it for school, but if it were not required, their would have been no way I'd have read past page twenty. Its a shame such an interesting time period could have been made so boring.
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stefs2bv, October 10, 2006 (view all comments by stefs2bv)
Because the author chose to write the book as he did, it reads much more like a popular dramatic novel. It is not at all like the dry factual history books found in schools.
His story has dimensionality. The locations and the lives of the people are visual. Religion, politics, habits and commonly held beliefs of the times are woven together to show how and why events evolved as they did.
If only all history books could be so engaging while enlightening.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly.
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World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance Portrait of an Age
Used Trade Paper
0 stars -
Back Bay Books -
With more than 200,000 copies sold in hardcover and paperback, William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire is the preeminent popular history of civilization's rebirth after the Dark Ages. Though the paperback edition remains available, this durable hardcover is an indispensable volume for any Manchester fan or history buff with a serious home library.
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