From tales of chivalrous knights to the barbarity of trial by ordeal, no era has been a greater source of awe, horror, and wonder than the Middle Ages. In handsomely crafted prose, and with the grace and authority of his extraordinary gift for narrative history, William Manchester leads us from a civilization tottering on the brink of collapse to the grandeur of its rebirth - the dense explosion of energy that spawned some of history's greatest poets, philosophers, painters, adventurers, and reformers, as well as some of its most spectacular villains - the Renaissance.
William Raymond Manchester was an American author and biographer, notable as the bestselling author of 18 books that have been translated into 20 languages.He was awarded the National Humanities Medal and the Abraham Lincoln Literary Award.
I didn't finish this book. As I basically study the middle ages, all the information was not new or its credibility was highly questionable. Seriously, this guy HATES the middle ages and this book is a one sided rant on how completely dumb and primitive the people were before the Rennaissance saved everyone.
One such random fact that the author gets stuck on is that silverware wasn't introduced until the end of the 16th (maybe 15th...errr) century. Gasp! How can they be so uncivilized??? Using their hands to eat? There seem to be plenty of world cultures that get along fine today using their hands as utensils...
Basically, a civilization that doesn't strive for progress for the sake of progress is not worthy of existing. Granted, lots of external things lead up to the supposed stoppage in progress...plagues, famines, the collapse of rome. Yet, most of Europe, while part of the Roman empire, never had the technology that Rome was known for.
Most importantly, in his one sided attack, he gloriously praises people like Magellan for proving that the world was round (even though people had known this for centuries) while completely glossing over the nameless people of the middle ages who also strove for progress. Their namelessness, to him, makes them less worthy. Still, learning went on in monasteries if of a different kind than today. He even slights the great cathedrals built by these nameless workers despite the new discoveries in architecture that have kept them standing even today. Ok...I could go on...but I'm gonna stop.
I haven’t read anything else by William Manchester, but he’s a good writer, and I’m sure he’s a smart guy. He’s written several biographies on Churchill, and one on JFK, and a memoir detailing his experiences during World War II in the Pacific. But Manchester is a reporter and a chronicler of modern history, and his rather sudden attempt to catalogue the medieval and early modern era in about three hundred pages is – at best – a very misguided effort that paints a terribly artificial and superficial picture of the Middle Ages. At worst, it’s a willfully ignorant piece of polemic that, despite the title of his book’s first section, makes absolutely no attempt at truly understanding the medieval mind.
The problem boils down to the fact that there wasn’t nearly enough research done by the author to allow him to write a book like this. Apparently, Manchester literally wrote this book as he was researching it, and based it entirely on secondary literature. Instead of spending a few years researching and getting a feel for the era, the complexities and viewpoints and the historically fuzzy spots, he just sat down, picked up some (often outdated) secondary sources and wrote a book as he was reading them.
It would be one thing if Manchester had simply come to his conclusions through genuine scholarship. It’s certainly a conclusion you could make from looking at some medieval primary sources, though I’d argue it’s a superficial one. But Manchester doesn’t bother. And the idea of writing a history book that spans about 1200 years without picking up a primary source is, honestly, kind of reprehensible to me. It’s not that Manchester misinterpreted these people, it’s that he seemed to genuinely not particularly care how they viewed their own world, at least not enough to pick up a book and read a few of their own words. To write a general history book on an era that spanned a millennium and then to harshly condemn that era without reading a primary source written by the people who lived through it is genuinely irresponsible.
Early on, Manchester makes the kind of astounding statement that “in the medieval mind, there was no conception of time.” In microcosm, that represents everything that is wrong with this book. On a superficial level, sure, there’s some truth in the statement – people didn’t keep track of time in the same way that we do today. But the idea that a predominantly agricultural society had no conception of time doesn’t make any kind of logical sense, and from a theological or philosophical standpoint, it’s hugely wrong, and once again serves to show that Manchester seems entirely unaware of the underpinnings of the era. And when you’re writing a history book like this one, that’s exactly what you need to get right.
This was a fantastic book that is highly readable for fans of art and history alike. It describes the way the world was on the cusp of modernity as we moved from the Middle Ages towards the Renaissance. It is similar to other books on the subject (Panofksy comes to mind), but this one is written a bit more with a less erudite style and yet is engaging and interesting. Highly recommended.
William Manchester characterizes the Middle Ages as one of "obsession with strange myths and almost impenetrable mindlessness." In fact, this is a perfect description of the flaws of his book, which is among the worst works of history I have ever read. Full disclosure: I put it down in disgust after page 102 and did not pick it up again.
Still, the book did contain the following favorite howlers, which made it so bad that at times it was almost good: • Medieval people had no sense of time: "Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless timeless blur." (I wonder how they figured out when to plant their crops or how to show up for church on the right day of the week?) • In summertime, peasants went about naked. (I don't remember seeing a lot of naked peasants in medieval art. Perhaps the author is thinking about cherubim and seraphim.) • Prostitutes were the cleanest people in Europe during the Middle Ages, because they had to expose their entire bodies. (It's nice to hear something good about the Middle Ages for a change.) • Teenage peasant girls were well-behaved on Sundays, but on weekdays "opened their blouses, hiked their skirts and romped the fields in search of phalli." (Apparently this was to avoid the dreaded fate of spinsterhood.) • The English of both sexes were known even then for their insolence. Their women were so foul-mouthed that Joan of Arc called them the "goddamns". (He's probably thinking of New Yorkers). • Adultery amongst the nobility was typical and usually took place with the agreement of both spouses. (Very civilized of them, no?) • The basic cause of the moral loosening of Europe during the early years of the Renaissance was the growth of wealth. During the early sixteenth century, lust seethed throughout Europe. Rome, the capital of Christendom, was the capital of sin. (I believe the author was raised in a stern Protestant New England household in the early part of the last century, although the mindset seems more 19th century than anything else.)
Manchester starts off writing a biography of Magellan, but in his attempt to put a context to his life, motivations and adventures, ends up expanding his scope until some six centuries of the medieval period are swallowed up by the story. Manchester then repackages the book as a book about the Renaissance and lets it fade into the Magellan biography.
It was interesting to see this process at work. I am not sure why all biographies don't become a record of an age, in fact of all history. Can any life be examined independent of context? Take for example the Steve Jobs biography industry. Not one of them takes us back to the beginning of electronics and sketches the exciting journey to personal computing and then plops the Steve Jobs story into that context, showing us his role in shaping that context for the next guy who is to be plopped into it. Instead most such books almost manage to leave an impression that its subjects were sui generis and not one among a teaming multitude with similar ambitions, aims, etc out of which he/she rose to the surface and shined for a while, due to an arresting set of circumstances, most of it do with plain dumb randomness -- otherwise known as luck.
That would be a true biography.
Manchester has stumbled on the outline for one here. But he probably did not see what he had and aims too low, giving us a mish-mash of movements, ideas and events, not coherently presented and not tying in well with the core Magellen biography. Still, it was exciting to think of the possibilities of such a history-biography.
Inconsistencies and half truths make for an interesting narrative, but not a good history.
This book attempts to cover a lot of ground. However, several things in the book made me suspicious of the reliability of the information. For instance, Manchester references the events of the Pied Piper, depicting him as an actual historical character and the murderer of 130 children.
I found this intriguing and went online to learn more -- I found a "Straight Dope" column that refuted Manchester's speculation.
In a portrait of an Italian clergyman, Girolamo Savonarola, who defied a decadent Pope (and was excommunicated and burned for his trouble), Manchester describes a man of the people, beloved by the common folk. He then describes how these followers turn against the priest (out of fear from the all-powerful pope) when the pope brought the hammer down. A little digging reveals that the priest was not as popular as Manchester asserts -- taking from them the equivalent of TV, movies, and video games.
I found I didn't want to read any more of the book, since I could no longer trust the veracity of the author.
My daughter brought this book to my attention about 10 years ago. "WHAT?!? You haven't read this?!? Here!" with a forceful thrust, causing the book to thump into my chest rather painfully. (The bruises have since healed.)
Since that copy, I have given to others eleven more; I seem to be able to keep the book for about six months before someone just *has* to read it and *now*, so out it goes again. Weeks go by, and I fretfully search the used bookeries for another copy; always one shows up, usually in very good to unread condition (philistines! Imagine having this book and not reading it!), and spend the buck or so to bring it home *for the last time* as I will keep *this* one forever.
Uh-huh. As we see, that resolve is doomed. I'm sending this one to that soldier who wanted history books. He'll like this one, I bet!
It's a leap of imagination that I feel 21st-century people have small success at making, but the time when the world was lit only by fire didn't end until late in the 19th century. No flipping switches for instant light. No reading lamp that just needs a little flick to provide bright, shadowless (unless you sited it in a funny place) light for as long as you like. No street illumination worth a damn.
A world of shadows. A world of unseen details. A world that gave us fabulous artistic achievements, amazing literary joys, and most of our modern ideas about religion, which I for one could do without.
Manchester makes this world shimmer into focus, bronze-gold candleflame coloring each and every idea, achievement, material object he describes. We really see what he's talking about through their eyes, if we possess even a hint of imagination.
I love this book, and I think everyone in the least bit interested in history should read it because it's beautifully written and conceived. It's a pleasure to pass it on to another initiate. I hope he falls in love the way I did. Please try it. It's worth your time to sink without a ripple into a world long vanished.
If you are looking for a well researched and reasoned history of the Dark Ages and the Renaissance do not read this book. If you are looking for a starting point for the Intellectual History of Europe during the Dark Ages and Renaissance; this book might be a good way to go.
The historical accuracy of this book is to be strongly questioned and doubted. However, I still like this book. The reason I like this book is that it is about ideas. What the author does is take a very one sided argumentative stance. His basic theses are. 1. The Medieval common man was an unthinking idiot. 2. Intellectual thought and innovation were non existent. 3. The Church is primarily responsible for the lack of innovation. 4. Rebellious free thinkers were able to throw open doors that could not be closed once opened. All of these premises are far too extreme to be true.
However, by taking these extreme view points, he sets the stage for the reader to research and learn about the Dark Ages and come up with his/her own arguments. One must start somewhere when learning about Intellectual History, and this book, precisely because of it's extremism, gives the reader ideas to challenge or agree with.
Also, I found his views to be entertaining. I think it's a good read. I also loved his depiction of Erasmus; made him quite heroic in my eyes.
In the end, I agree with him. The Medieval Age was a very stagnant time for Europe.Later triumphs for Europe are in spite of the Middle Ages, not because of them. The efforts of the Church were far more hurtful then helpful to people at large. In spite of the myriad of restrictions, Europe was able to overcome these circumstances and embark on a very fruitful epoch (which, of course ,brought it's on problems, but that is another story).
NOTE: I use the terms Dark Ages, Medieval and Middle Ages interchangeably in this review; my apologies to those who take issue with the use of these terms in this way.
Little primary research and a whole lot of assumptions and judgments about medieval thought made this book repellent. I wondered if it was written fast to gain the popular reader who wants sensational history with a large dose of "We're so much smarter, we moderns."
Didn't finish this. Manchester sees the middle ages as a dark age of ignorance and stagnation the antithesis of the Renaissince. Its a pretty out of date attitude as the current belief is that people invneted and disvoered lots of stuff during the middle ages and that it was the plant that supported the flowering of the Renaissance. Also he's a believer in the Great man view of history also pretty old hat since behind every great man are the toilers who made all his discoveries possible and the events which allowed him to express his greatness. However I just read a review talking about serious debauchery and am considering giving it another go.
I studied History of Art so spent many years looking at the Renaissance, not just the paintings themselves but the cultural context, the political and religious events at the time. That does not make me an expert but I know a fair bit. What I know less about is the Middle Ages before this rebirth. I thought this book would inform me of life and the political landscape of a time where, perspectival art, questioning the church, contemplating the earth as part of a cosmos all seemed to be so far away as to be impossible. How did a continent ravaged by the Black Death resurrect itself within 50 years to be the greatest period of change and artistic energy in history? I can’t answer and, possibly, neither can William Manchester as he makes no attempt to explain it. Manchester has no time for the period before the rebirth. He devotes very little space in his 300 pages to it and the only thing I took away from it was that apparently peasants worked naked. I cannot decide if this is his attempt to show the middle ages as even more backward than Neanderthals who at least had the nous to cover up their most vulnerable parts with a bit of mammoth skin, or he is under a grave misconception as to the climate of most of Europe. As he is American I shall generously ascribe him the second explanation. I did learn a lot about Martin Luther and Magellan – who has the hero status in the book – but was frequently disconcerted by the tone and authorial voice. I am not sure if the flippant asides to some quite shocking incidents was to show how unshockable he himself is or because he didn’t want the meat of the book to be lost amid the sprinkling of spice provided by the Borgias or Henry VIII’s worst sexual exploits. Whatever the reason I found it somewhat jarring and the whole style over conversational. The book did succeed in giving me the biggest laugh I’ve had in a while. As a woman with feet larger than the average (I am also taller than average for context; I don’t shop for footwear in Circus world) among the descriptions of fantastical creatures that inhabited undiscovered lands this one was the best, “…of people who created their own shade by lying down and blotting out the sun with an enormous single foot…”
More propaganda for those who believe everything old is bad and everything new is good. You know what? I'd rather live in a world lit only by fire. Our technology is polluting the skies, polluting the earth, and destroying our landbase. There are more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history - but, but, the Crusades, right? Well, no, let's throw out all our achievements because of our own War on Terror. We have taken the worst from Europe during the Middle Ages, rearranged it, abandoned all the wonderful things, and are now prancing about like the Emperor With No Clothes.
If you want to use the term medieval as an insult, at least read something besides this nonsense. Someone who actually, you know, studied medieval history, read the source material. Not this second-hand, ill-informed tripe which may as well have been written by a hack paid to promote the enclosure movement and industrialization and deny climate change and write anything else which would turn readers into good little consumers without voices.
I understand Manchester's works on Churchill and MacArthur are considered to be very solid, and that he knew that tackling a medieval topic was stretching out of his comfort zone. I wish he had, therefore, decided to leave it the hell alone, instead of writing this useless and misleading book. It's not a good resource for anything, and if you really want a good papal orgy story, there are better places to find them. I abandoned this book midway through a flight to Rome, and was happier reading leftover magazines for the rest of the flight. A sad collection of assumptions and half-baked pronouncements, with no real insight to be gained.
I feel guilty for enjoying this book. I'm no expert on the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance but I remember enough from college courses taken a millennia ago to know that this book has problems. Manchester interprets the "Dark" Ages (he prefers "Dark" to "Middle" and certainly doesn't subdivide it into Early, High, and Late) as a long stretch of paralyzed time during which dirty, violent, religious (read: superstitious) people did very little thinking and accomplished even less. Then lo! Renaissance-y things started happening, and suddenly people started to think! Bam! They accomplished a variety of things that altered Western civilization better than it was ever altered before! Or since! (Although people were still dirty and violent; that didn't change much.) Time was un-paralyzed and progress began. Now, if this interpretation seems awfully simple and suspect that's because it is. Manchester does better than a high school textbook by not suggesting that there is a clear demarcation in time between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but not by much. He drips scorn and derision on a period of time that is apparently only worth discussing in terms of what it was not (that is, Classical civilization and the Renaissance). This was the interpretation popular during the Victorian period but scholars have come a long way since then. A very odd line to be taken in a history first published in 1992. Hmmm.
So I should hate the thing, right? Should've stopped at the get-go. And to be honest I'm not all that interested in either the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. But...but...damnit, I couldn't put this stupid book down! Manchester is a great storyteller. It was engaging; kept me hanging and even a little bit in suspense; plenty scandalous and horrifying; and wonderfully descriptive. The last chapter, on Magellan's voyage (half-way) around the world, was excellent. I liked how the book ended. As a history geek it felt to me like a cheap thrill. I had fun reading about those "facts" based on hear-say (Lucrezia Borgia's incestuous relationships), or just plain made up (the famous Piped Piper bit), and outdated analysis even while I knew that for the most part it was a bunch of crap.
I feel ashamed giving it three stars. It really only deserves two. I would never recommend to anyone. But even though I don't really like this book...*sigh* I cannot lie, I really enjoyed reading it. Hey, every once in a blue moon a book will do that to you. I'll make sure to hang my head in shame while I'm shelving it in my permanent library.
I would be lying to you if I didn't admit that I was bitter about this book before I read the first chapter. I made the mistake of reading the preface where Mr. Manchester explained that he wrote this book as a break from writing the final volume to my favorite Winston Churchill biography. He died before he could finish the final volume so his brilliant biography ends in 1945...that's right, at the height of World War II. Useless, but still brilliant.
I think this book lacks on several fronts: not an engaging read, tries to cover too much with little explanation for how it all fits and let's be honest: I found it dull. Subjects discussed include Henry VIII (finally know where he got defender of the faith), Martin Luther (poor chap on the run), Magellan (Determined chap), Erasmus (coward), Tyndale (rebel with a cause) and several revolutionary thinkers who defied their time. I suggest this reading for those who need to write a research paper, suffer from insomnia or for some strange reason interested in the Middle Ages or the beginnings of the Catholic church. My favorite part: knowing that prostitutes were the cleanest people of their time, probably the only thing I will remember.
(my second star is me trying to forgive him for the Churchill fiasco)
Manchester tells us the the early 16th century is not his specialty, that he had written up a short book on Magellan's voyage, then he wanted to put that in a background context of the times. It would have been nice if he had told us that up front instead of in the afterword.
What comes out has little to do with the title or subtitle. It jumps around quite a bit but spends most of its time hovering around the early 16th century reminding us over and over how corrupt the Papacy was, with lengthy sections on Cesare & Lucretia Borgia, Martin Luther, finally Magellan's voyage. The reader is left wondering what context this should be read in and how it all ties together...until the afterword.
Perhaps Manchester's books on Churchill are enlightening, but this one is nothing special.
"Never let the truth get in the way of a good story" (M. Twain) Until now, this author wrote 17 books on contemporary history (including bio's of Churchil), but after a short illness he devoted himself to the for him largely unknown 16th century. The result is a collection of gruesome stories, stupid generalizations, platitudes that have been around for decades (for instance about the obscurity of medieval thinking) and so on. Especially the scenes about the Renaissance popes are tedious. Unfortunately, Manchester has a very captivating writing style, misleading a lot of people. But from a scientific point of view, this is an absolute letdown.
I had been meaning to read this book for a long time. Every time I mentioned reading a book about the Middle Ages, this title seemed to come up, so off to the library I went.
I was very unimpressed. The organization of the book seemed poor almost from the very start. There are no chapter divisions and, seemingly because of this, the author felt free to roam around with little direction. The tone of the entire work is condescending, both to the reader (occasionally), and to the subject matter (always, with one or two exceptions). The middle of the book devolves into a sort of Renaissance gossip rag - not a difficult task, perhaps, but it seemed that the author was intent on peppering the book with salacious and maybe even spurious accounts of the sex lives of many of the people he discussed. He seems to revel in ripping away what he seems to perceive as Medieval rose-tinted glasses in doing so. Many of the most scandalous and juicy events he recounts are the subjects of books filled with scholarly debate, yet he pronounces sentence on nearly every prominent figure of the broad span he covers (c.500-1500). (Lucrezia Borgia's fabled sex life, The Pied Piper of Hamlin as a serial killer, the use of the Iron Maiden, to name only a few of his confidently asserted opinions.)
The book looks at all the eras discussed through modern eyes. It does not account for the thinking of the time, the progress of history, nor does it find anything positive to say about anyone save the emerging humanists and Ferdinand Magellan - clearly the idol of the author. At many points I was so angry, I almost didn't finish. The only balanced portrayals he manages are written about various characters in the Reformation, but even these are approached from a clearly anti-religious (not just anti-Catholic) perspective. Even here he rejoices in informing readers of Martin Luther of aspects of Luther's life that he feels are embarrassing to Luther: uses of crude language, changes in stance/inconsistencies, character weaknesses, etc. Magellan is the only person who escapes with almost no criticism, but the amount of praise heaped on him hardly seems justified. Not that I believe that Magellan's accomplishments are small, but hardly worth attributing the culmination of the Renaissance to him... the final dispelling of all the "damage" done by the Middle Ages. "Like [the Magellanic Clouds], his memory shines down upon the world his voyage opened, illuminating it from infinity to eternity." (p290) Really?
The book "illuminates" those of us who are Medieval historians to nothing. We know that people were dirty. We know that people were superstitious, and we know that the Church was corrupt. What then is there left to read about in this book. Not much. This is the most negative review I have ever written about a book and I'm not sorry.
‘[...] if value judgments are made, it is undeniable that most of what is known about the period is unlovely. After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait which emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.’
This description, not of the George W. Bush administration but of the Middle Ages, opens a collection of three related essays: on the medieval mind, on the Renaissance, and on the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan.
The book generated over 10-years-worth of boisterous discussion on amazon.com (187 reviews, when I wrote this), which (should you be short of time) I will now summarise for you.
The Nays say that Mr. Manchester’s account is unscholarly, inaccurate, sloppy, prejudiced and uses out-of-date sources.
The Yeas say that, be that as it may, Mr. Manchester makes a damned good story of it.
After due consideration, I find both for the prosecution and for the defence.
Although acknowledgments and sources are given at the end, the lack of specific references makes it hard indeed to track the source of any of the assertions given herein; but such spot-checks as I was able to carry out bore out many of the expostulations of the critics.
The book’s supreme virtue, however, is the author’s ability to pull together ideas, information and viewpoint and weave them into a coherent and entertaining whole; and from this stand-point, criticising errors of detail, while valid, is a bit like criticising a Constable landscape because each leaf isn’t painted accurately on each tree.
As an introduction to the Middle Ages — for example, for any American schoolchild who may be wondering why no history happened before 1620 — I recommend it, then. It’s short, digestible, thought-provoking and eminently readable, and thus superior to any eyeball-glazing procession of facts, however accurate. Just be sure not to take it too seriously.
Firstly I must admit that I have very little knowledge of the Renaissance (I found it a boring subject at school!) but I found this book to be a very interesting and entertaining account of that period. The author makes clear at the start of the book that it was not going to be a scholarly masterpiece. Fair enough, he produced what I think was a good book that got you thinking about the subject he was presenting. Now that he has sparked your interest you can go and find some scholarly tome to get the rest of the story. This book was an easy to read and lively account of that period and I found it a joy to read.
Manchester is highly opinionated, and seldom hesitates to state his opinions as fact. Occasionally those statements border on being flatly wrong. Take this passage on p.12:
"The early Christians, believing that their Lord's return was imminent, celebrated Easter every Sunday. After three hundred years their descendants became reconciled to a delay. In an attempt to link Easter with the Passion, it was scheduled on Passover, the Jewish feast observing the Exodus from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C."
This is at best incoherent. Why would you need to "attempt to link Easter with the Passion?" Easter is the celebration of the resurrection, as Manchester points out just before this passage. The crucifixion is recounted in all four gospels, and Mark probably dates from around 60 or 70 CE. All four gospels link the Passion story with Passover, even if John puts the last supper on the day before instead of making it a seder. Clearly this association dates to well before 300 CE in any case.
His treatment of Giordano Bruno is superficial as well -- he says he was burned at the stake for being a pantheist. Bruno was probably a pantheist, but he also denied the authority of priests, which is most likely the thing that really got him toasted. He was, in fact, a pretty strange character all around, and Manchester has, as he does throughout, selected his facts to make the church look as bad as possible.
There are many more examples, but my point is that this is a very readable and interesting book, but I just found its polemic anti-clerical stance a bit overdone.
There was a book in the history section of Barnes and Noble when I worked there, which I admit to fondling a little every time I straightened that section, called A World Lit Only by Fire. It's a superb title - it put that sort of glazed light in my eyes as I thought about just what it meant, or what I took it to mean. It does an excellent job of encapsulating the huge gap between now and the Middle Ages in just a few words. And part of that gap is my misunderstanding of the meaning of the title. My definition was always that apart from the sun, moon, and stars, the only illumination available to humanity was fire: the only man-made illumination was what could be scraped from flint and steel. Which ... is true, but not, apparently, what Mr. Manchester meant, given that the title phrase is used in reference to the flames of the pyres on which heretics were burned. Many, many fires, and many, many heretics. Which, pardon the pun, puts a different light on things.
We - being those addicted to fantasy novels and the Renaissance Faire, and especially the younger and more naive among us - tend to romanticize the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It's easy to do, given that we're all of us brought up on Robin Hood (who, if you watch Errol Flynn and the like, had a fully functioning bath in the greenwood) and fairy tales (bowdlerized) and ... well, things like the New York Renaissance Faire (which actually has more validity to it than it might get credit for). Shiny happy peasants and the occasional despot and villain existing only to be vanquished by the noble hero. It didn't really take a book like Only by Fire to make me realize how Disneyfied this image is - no one with half an ounce of scholarship in history can resist pointing out how drafty castles are and how there was an almost complete lack of sanitation everywhere from the meanest hovel (and they were very mean) to the aforementioned castle, and how if you lived to the age of forty you were doing pretty well, though you probably would look about sixty... Knights in shining armor? To be called that was basically an insult, from what I've read, as if your armor is shiny and undented it means you haven't been in battle: you're all show. Or, I posit, you have a really good squire, but what do I know. There's just something about pretty bubbles that make people long to burst them (I've been guilty of wanting to do this myself, though I usually try to have mercy, having had so many of my own bubbles popped).
In case I had any illusions left, though, I'm reading AWLObF. That squishy popping sound? That was the last of those illusions, going very much away. The Middle Ages were hell. The Renaissance? Better - but not for everyone, and not in all ways.
One thing I have to say - this book certainly puts things into perspective. I started this over a weekend, reading for several hours on the Sunday ... And that sentence sums up a lot of the things I should be grateful for. Whatever else can be said about this society, the fact that I, a single woman of my age, had the leisure to curl up with a book for several hours - switching on a light by the bed I don't have to share (in a room I don't have to share) when the sun went down – on the Sabbath - is something that would have been a) impossible in so many ways and b) almost satanic a few hundred years ago. Sloth. And a woman who can read? A book? A book in English? With pictures, on high quality paper, and yet which did not cost an astronomical sum? Warm indoors with no fire in the middle of winter (as it was when I started)? I should realize more often: I'm in heaven. Comparatively.
Seriously, even if I didn't learn a single fact - and I have; for one thing I'm never going to be able to shake the memory of the connection between Martin Luther and excrement - this book would be amazing for one thing: perspective. There's the perspective that, while it's human nature to complain about one's lot, given where the human race has come from we should all walk through our luxurious lives with smiles on our faces. And there's the wider angle perspective that everything is moving faster and faster. I don't of course mean simply that cars and trains and planes are faster than horses or shank's mare, the sole means of locomotion until the last couple of centuries, though that's related. I mean that for a full millennium, the Dark Ages, there were according to Manchester two innovations of note. Two, in a thousand years. Life was fragile and all but meaningless; the mass of men - meaning men, women, and children old enough to walk and older - rose before dawn, went out to the fields, worked all day in a manner that very few 21st century denizens have ever had to work, ate terrible food and that sparingly, returned at darkfall to their hovels (which might be dignifying most of their shelters a little too much), and collapsed on vermin-ridden straw-strewn dirt floors with, if they were lucky, a vermin-ridden blanket to sleep until dawn got them out to work again. Repeat, ad nauseam.
Objectively, I know it can't have been so very bleak every minute of every day. Human nature won't stand for it. They knew nothing else, and found their joys when and where they could. (My one note as I read this - apart from a prayer of thanksgiving when I finished - was "I can't tell if I'm depressed because people never change or given hope because though people never change we hardly ever burn people to death anymore.") It just wasn't easy. And as for the complete lack of innovation ... it's a little hard to swallow. Two words: Notre Dame.
As things changed with the onset of the Renaissance, most men's lives didn't change very much, not for a while - but some aspects did: mandatory education for all children spread. Literacy rose. People began to get ideas. The philosophies and histories of ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered, and this opened minds. Art began to rise - partly to lend patrons culture and prestige, but also for art's sake. Invention and innovation became the norm, and competitive. But still, one institution, or one man, could own a copy of every book there was (what a happy dream), and read every book there was (even happier), and make a claim to be familiar with all bodies of knowledge without anyone laughing in his face. It took something like a month to travel from Rome to Germany, two months to reach London, so news and innovation didn't exactly move at lightning speeds. The Renaissance was a time of change, to say the least - but even the most extreme news and innovation took time to spread.
Today ... illiteracy rates in the U.S. are probably not a great deal better now than in Europe in the Renaissance, sadly - when I did my literacy volunteers training, the percentage quoted for functional illiteracy was 30%, which I believe was national ... But a minimum of elementary education is compulsory, and free, for every child; the learning is available, but not every child (or adult) has the other resources apart from money to take advantage of it. The population has grown to a degree that would shock a citizen of the Renaissance ... it shocks me. (I just saw an article warning that in the next 40 years this planet will need to produce more food than it did in the past 8000 years. In other words, we're in trouble. Isaac Asimov scared me with much the same warning many years ago; I was apparently the only one so troubled by it, because things have only gotten worse since then.) But the population isn't the only thing that has grown exponentially; the speed of communication has dwindled to almost nothing. Telephone, internet, satellites - I heard about an earthquake in New Zealand first thing in the morning, checked The Board Which Shall Remain Nameless next thing to see if Kiwis I used to know had checked in, was reassured that they had, sent an email to someone I used to know, and heard back from her within a couple of hours. So small a time ago as twenty-five years ago I not only would not have been able to receive news before days if not weeks had passed unless I had telephone numbers (assuming telephones are working there), I wouldn't have had any reason to want news - I wouldn't have had the means to know anyone in New Zealand.
A simile struck me, and I think it's a good one, so bear with me a minute. Years ago, I used to play D&D (go ahead, I know) with my cousin and a few of his friends. The one I had a crush on had a little brother who usually also played with us; he was probably about 13 when I met him. The games sort of petered out after a while, and months went by without my seeing the brothers, until one day they and my cousin, I believe, for some reason I don't remember, showed up at my work - and I slammed instantly and unprecedentedly into mother-hen mode over the younger brother. My cousin used to call him "the kender" because he wasn't all that tall, he was curly-haired, and he had a mischievous streak. He wasn't a kender anymore. He had shot up dramatically - I want to say about a foot, but it probably wasn't, quite; the reason he worried me, and the reason I still remember it, is that while he had shot up, he hadn't expanded in any other direction - he looked like someone had grabbed him by the feet and someone else had grabbed him by the curly hair and had pulled, hard, in opposite directions - not grown so much as stretched. It did not look healthy - he scared me a little. A child learns with Legos or blocks that just putting one brick on top of another on top of another will only get you so high; sooner or later the inherent instability will topple the whole thing. Growing too tall too fast puts a strain on organs and bones. And that is, basically, what has happened with humanity. In the past couple of hundred years, we have shot up vertically without much growth at the base. We are basically the same people we were two hundred years ago - or five hundred - but we have freedoms and technologies and opportunities that weren't dreamt of then. In some ways we're medieval people trying to adapt to the bridge of the Enterprise.
Or try this: often when some of us are talking about computers or iPods or what-have-you, my 84-year-old mother will joke "Yes, just like we had when we were kids." She was born in 1927. When she actually was a kid she lived on a farm in Newfoundland without any form of central heating, without electricity, without indoor plumbing. In the years she has been alive technology has hit a growth spurt that makes the kender's look like nothing. Again, in the first millennium of the common era Manchester says there were exactly two innovations worth notice: the windmill and the water wheel. Apart from that, humanity was too busy just staying alive to get creative. It looks like after perhaps 1100, 1200? the number of inventions and innovations began to compound exponentially, and has continued to do so.
From the graph I found on Wiki it shows a tiny number of patents in the 1830's - 1850's. Maybe 25,000 in the 1880's. The 1910's look like in the 40,000 range. Around WWII it topped 50,000. Then in the late 60's it started to skyrocket. Hello, computer. More specific numbers:
Wow. In 46 years the number has more than tripled - 2009 saw 33.3 times more patents than 1963. (It's nice when the research bears out my theories so dramatically.) And that increase has been mostly steady. Obviously, the 80's saw a bit of a dip, but after that - skyrocket.
Back to the book.
The writing is very approachable and remarkably un-footnoted, but still not altogether easy. The prologue discusses how the book as a whole grew from the plan to write a paper on Magellan, and this becomes obvious as the book closes with its homage to the great explorer. In between, the book hops and skips and jumps from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and back again, 1200's to 1500's to 1400's, England to Germany to Rome to Portugal, Magellan to Erasmus to all the popes of the age(s) to Calvin to Magellan again... The disjointed peripatetic style of the writing, with a deep concentration on one place and time here and a skimming over of a century or two there, was a bit difficult and disheartening at times, though in retrospect I understand the necessity of it. In the beginning and the end it was the story of Magellan, and the rest of it was just the background necessary to understand all that went into the first circumnavigation of the globe. That's the warp and weft of the book: the shrinking of the planet, in many ways - the growth of the population, making "civilized" areas more numerous and less inaccessible; the proliferation of the printed word, leading slowly but inevitably to the phenomenon known as "public opinion" as well as a wildly increased speed of the dissemination of news and information; exploration changing the way the world, and religion, were viewed. Still ... it feels like he took on a great deal too much, and could not do justice to all of it, and in the end seems to have filled in some of the gaps with generalization and myth.
A little research shows that some of what he presents with utmost certainty isn't at all certain. His brief discussion of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is only one of several explanations for the origins of the legend, and the most tabloid-worthy; apparently the tales of Francis I's sexual exploits are a bit shaky. A review on Amazon says it's "known among medievalists merely as 'that book'"; there's a wide divergence of opinion on it, with both five-star and one-star reviews rather passionately defended. I value what I learned from it - especially about Magellan, which was straight-forward and clear, and more than I remember ever learning before, thank you very much grades 1-10 history ... but overall I'm a little relieved to be finished with it at last. It's not a textbook on the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, but I believe it did what it set out to do: it made me think.
A well written book on a fascinating subject, "A World Lit Only By Fire" is a history of the sixteenth century with a focus on Magellan. Unfortunately it ultimately skewers itself on its biases. The prose flows, the characters are interesting, and the paragraphs full of interesting details. But having just come off of Tuchman's opus "A Distant Mirror" and its profound look at the fourteenth century- ending 100 years or so before this book takes up the thread - Manchester's basic conceit that the medieval era was truly the Dark Ages and a low point in human (read "European") learning and culture is a matter of opinion, and counter to much research. That Manchester treats this opinion as fact makes this book dangerous. Too many impressionable minds will read only this easy volume and not explore further, thus writing off the rich cultural legacy of the era and the momentous forces that shaped it as well as our own era. This attitude is prevalent in many disciplines, most strikingly to me in music where classical music is generally regarded to have started with the Baroque era, discounting centuries of documented and orally preserved compositions of courtly and liturgical music that shaped subsequent eras as surely as Vivaldi and Bach. Only in the last few decades has the recreation of early music been taken up with academic rigor. What this attitude really does is divorce Europe and by extension Western culture from its debt to other cultures by claiming that western civilization lay "dormant" between the fall of Rome and "rediscovery" of those old Greek and Roman texts by Europeans. Never mind that on the one hand, Europeans themselves advanced areas of classical learning such as architecture during the era, and on the other hand, different nearby cultures were preserving, translating and studying classical Greek texts and advancing their ideas. Much is owed to these efforts and their influence cannot be understated. It is a disservice to the presentation of an overview of the Middle Ages in Europe not to account for them. The result here is a book that is easy to read and full of interesting facts, but that to me does not succeed in conveying a sense of context for the magnitude of the changes that took place in Europe during the sixteenth century. Perhaps this lack of context explains why Manchester's characterization of Magellan as a hero, in spite of his many flaws, comes across as forced. Magellan's feat was truly astonishing and the hardships faced unimaginable to most, and often his negative characteristics were what pushed him through very trying circumstances that would have broken others. But with context, it is hard to view him as a hero so much as an inevitability.
A crime against history. Assigning this to a student is pedagogical malpractice. Anyone knowing almost nothing about the Middle Ages or the Renaissance should avoid this. Where to start? Factual errors abound, almost one per paragraph. Manchester asserts in the span of 2 pages that Robin Hood, the Pied Piper, and King Arthur existed, and that their existence is somehow evidence of the barbarity of the age and limitation of the medieval mind. He repeats that old bugbear about the age of exploration dispelling the purported belief that the earth was flat—and while Manchester mentions that Bede, e.g., did not hold this view, he never unpacks it, this cavalier treatment of facts being typical and intensely frustrating. He conflates Renaissance with Reformation with Humanism. He intimates Luther was some enlightened challenger to medieval Catholic hegemony, as if Luther were the light from the dawn of rationalism. Manchester seethes with horniness, writing awfully detailed paragraphs about some libertine conception of medieval sexuality. This book is written off vibes, hence the frequency of factual errors beaten out of most undergrads and the brutally sloppy structure. A bizarre, prudish Protestant read a biography of Magellan like a child would read Horatio Hornblower books and slammed that together with a thesis that the medieval era was all that was ignorant and wrong and the Renaissance was a deliverance from... something, ignorance or indecency or unreason. He furnishes this with just enough detail from secondary sources (only secondary sources!) to supply dates and names but doesn't engage enough to challenge his thesis or fashion consistency or command of his own ideology, appearing credulous and buffoonish as he reads every detail in the most sensationalist way possible. Arrogant and condescending, sneering with contempt at the subject, like if Richard Dawkins wrote an Introduction to Religious Studies textbook. What a piece of shit.
Takeaway: "Most young Frenchwomen are said to have been delighted when conscripted to receive the king in all his manly glory, and in their appearances at court they competed for his attention. Opening their bodices, they displayed swelling bosoms down to, and sometimes below, their nipples (unless the bosoms were inadequate, in which case padding had been inserted under the stays). Their backs had been cut down to the last vertebra, sleeves billowed, gowns were pinched at the waits and tightened under the breasts, hidden wires spread out the skirt, and high heels gave each hopeful candidate a prancing, sexy walk."
William Manchester's book is really an ode to his hero, Magellan. He's not a bad hero to have, but I think Manchester gives him far too much credit. The real value however, is that Manchester is far more interested in establishing the world he lived in than examining the man. Considering how often it is difficult to get anyone willing to have the feel of a time period as their main subject, it raises the book a bit in my estimation.
However, 'The Medieval Mind' in the subtitle is an overstatement. There's a brief establishment of his look at the medieval world at the start of the book, but most of it is really on the transition into the Renaissance. It's well written, and tackles the subject fairly well, but there are problems. Most of the contemporary authors he quotes were probably doing so for moralizing purposes in the first place, and a lot of what is cited has a very distinct tone of 'kids these days!'. So, the book paints a picture of a static society that was breaking down into license and abuse of power that is unlikely to be very accurate in either direction.
Its worth noting that he covers the earliest parts of the Reformation, and within limits, covers it better than Diarmaid MacCulloch's large volume on the subject. He doesn't go into the threads of intellectual thought that is the primary focus of the latter, but he covers the more temporal aspects of the early power struggle in a more readable, and I think, more complete, format.
The final section is on Magellan's voyage, including a good grounding in what the original plan was, and where it went wrong: At the time, the Rio de Plata was known, and from its size, was assumed to be a passage to the Pacific, as it had been too large to explore thoroughly. It's a very good summary of one of the great sea voyages of history.
In general, A World Lit Only by Fire is a good readable starting point for the history of the Renaissance, but a lot of nuance is decidedly not there. The general learned opinion is that his scholarship is too out date (I'll note that Durant's Story of Civilization looks to be the primary starting point of his opinions, which while great, is well over half a century old), though I don't know of a more current 'alternative'.
Manchester did an amazing job taking a very convoluted period of time from history and presenting it in an easy-to-read manner. Material rolled out smoothly and was peppered with amazingly specific details that really enhanced my ability to experience medieval times and the nature and plight of the human experience during that era.
For instance, during the times of Henry VII and Henry VII the per capita allowance was a gallon of beer a day - even for nuns and eight year old children. The English "drink no water, unless at certain times upon religious score, or by way of doing penance." Which means there must have been an exceptional degree of intoxication, for people then were small. The average man stood a few inches over five feet and weighted about 135 pounds. His wife was shorter and lighter.....A young girls life expectancy was twenty-four. On her wedding day, traditionally, her mother gaver her a piece of fine cloth which could be made into a frock. Six or seven years later it would become her shroud. (pgs 54-55)
Manchester does a fine job of weaving political, religious and scientific development in such a way that the text never becomes boring or dry. An astonishing feat considering the large span of time he covered in history.
Manchester pummels catholicism as he treads through its early development and expansion. I would be interested in hearing reaction from faithful catholic readers as to how they reconcile the widespread corruption of early church history with their current perspective.
This is an excellent book on the rise of Christian Europe from the Dark Ages to Medieval times and the Renaissance.
Manchester pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the corruption of the Papal church, its policies of granting indulgences for a price and how the common people of Europe were actually "Christianized."
He then delves into the Reformation and how it went from a simple religious protest for change back to piety to the fanatical revolution leading to the inquisition and interfaith bloodbaths.
I found it to be an honest look at the time, the royal leadership of Europe and their relationship with the church, the suppression of science and learning that wasn't in line with the churches dogma.
Never before have I had such a glimpse into the Medieval train of thought and what motivated those historical figures that have reached almost mythical proportions: The Borgia's, Martin Luther, Henry VII, et al.
A wonderful book for the history buff, the Renaissance Faire patron and the casual reader.
Until the last year or so, I had not often chosen to read books about history. I think I was just too put off by memorizing dates and names in high school. But I've been impressed with the books I've read recently and my interest is piqued. And this book came highly recommended to me by my hubby's professor, so I figured I'd check it out. Full of intrigue, treachery, lust and greed, it was almost as unbelievable and filled with subplots as a soap opera. They do say that truth is stranger than fiction, right? I have read that abuses in the name of religion have been rampant throughout the ages, but from what I read in this book, no other age was nearly as corrupt and devoid of principles and morality as this time period. Scandals abound and this book illustrates the axiom that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of life during these times. Many fictional tales about this time period overly romanticize the chivalry and courtliness and gloss over the ugly realities. But life 600 years ago was short, violent and dirty. It was fascinating to read how different members of society lived, what they ate, and even how they were (or weren't) named or clothed. I especially liked the background on some of the more familiar literary figures and where truth and fiction separate (like the Pied Piper, Lancelot, Leonardo da Vinci and Lucretia Borgia.)
The section on Magellan and his adventure against all odds to attempt to circumnavigate the globe is very interesting, though a bit disjointed with the rest of the book. As an aviator and navigator, I am in awe of those who were able to travel so far and navigate so precisely without the tools, tables and computers we have available today. And they did it without an clock able to keep precise time at sea (they hadn't been invented yet,) which makes the task even more monumental! [For more information about that discovery, read [book:Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time|4806] by Dava Sobel.] Prior to reading this book I knew that Magellan's epic journey had accomplished something no one else had before - circumnavigating the globe and proving conclusively that the world is round - but I knew very little about the details of his trip.
My only complaint would be that at times it was pretty dense reading and it took over a week to get through the book. It didn't help that the copy I was loaned was missing the last 14 pages, but luckily our local library had a copy so I was able to finish in a timely fashion.
Finally, when I first read the title, my thoughts ran to the idea of the lack of electricity and the need for fire and torches to light the night. I shudder now to think about the underlying meaning of this title, the sheer number of people who were burned at the stake for heresy in this very brutal age. I am so fortunate to live in these times!
new words: prurient, martinet, harquebus, meretricious,obloquy, exculpation
A good companion to medieval historical fiction, Robin Hood, fantasy lit, etc., as well as an aide to church and religious history. He gives a warts-and-all picture of peasant, artisan, clerical and noble life, mostly in the 15th and 16th centuries (little being known about life before then). Actually, make that a wart, pockmark, scrofula, arthritis, and dungheap-and-all picture.
For those loyal to (and innocent about) the Church, here's a bit of a caveat: You won't like the part about the behavior of popes and cardinals in the late Middle Ages, which makes the recent sex-abuse scandals look like Aunt Nellie hitching up her bra in the sanctuary. And as for Martin Luther--he had his great spiritual insights on the potty. Salvation by grace? The Spirit gave him that gift while he was doing Number Two. (READ IT YOURSELF!)
The Reformation started out with the humanists and the Lutherans standing up bravely to the Catholic loyalists. Then it seems to have deteriorated into a bloodbath. The Catholics burned the Lutherans. The Lutherans burned the Catholics. They tortured each other, cut off noses and hands, ears and genitals, hanged and drew and quartered. And they all killed the humanists, all over Europe.
Set against this, there was Capitan-General Ferdinand Magellan. Sailing out past Gibraltar while Luther was preparing to defend himself against Pope Leo's unenthusiastic questioning, in 5 refurbished ships, with 4 mutinous nobles to sail them, 5 mulitnational crews, inadequate maps, very little idea of where he was going, and the Portuguese navy ready to board him if they could. It took most of a year to discover the southern strait that led to the Pacific, by which time he had already survived a mutiny, and he lost two ships before he reached the Philippines. Manchester's portrait of Magellan--his heroism, his tragic flaws, his death, and his resurrected reputation--is a ray of sunlight in the dark squalor of the Middle Ages.
What was Europe like then? A vast, trackless forest, with here and there a tiny, nameless settlement, whose dialect might be incomprehensible to people 100 miles away. You didn't have a surname because you didn't need one--everyone knew who you were. The medievals were notable for their complete lack of ego. A cathedral took 200 years to build, yet how many of their builders are known? Today, if we spend 4 hours writing something we want our names on it. (I've spent ten minutes on this and I expect credit for it.) Peasants went naked in the summer and slept all together, whole families in one big bed, even if mom and dad were getting it on together. Famine was common, and so was cannibalism, and farming was unrecognizably primitive. All knowledge was known and nothing remained to be invented.
A thousand years from now, if there are people and they remember us, what will they think of us? What will stand out? How will they describe our civilization?
In high school, college or university, most of us have run across the teacher/professor (typically an older white man) who could be prompted to go off on lengthy tangents on a favored topic despite little to no relation to the matter at hand. For example, in your Geology/Geography course on climate, in response to a question about frozen podzolic soil in the Ukraine, your professor launches into a lengthy monologue on the terrible conditions in a foxhole on the Russian Front during WW2. Fascinating, but not likely to be on the Final.
Anyway, “A World Lit Only by Fire” seems to me like a lecture that has gone wildly off the track. Fabulous and interesting stories (that may or may not be true) tied together only in the most tenuous manner. Let's face it; it's much more interesting to read about the Pied Piper of Hamelin or the sexcapades of Lucretia Borgia and her family than the building of the Kölner Dom.
But the thing that left me scratching my head the most was the final quarter of the book where we're suddenly treated to a much deeper study of Ferdinand Magellan. OK, I understand Magellan was a very important figure, but does he deserve being placed on such a lofty pedestal, and in the book as well? I think not. Manchester either pasted on the Magellan portion or more likely, he had been working a biography of Magellan and realized he had to flesh out some background. While there is space for the 'great man' studies in history, it should not be in a book such as this. One is far better off reading Barbara Tuchman's “A Distant Mirror” to learn about the Middle Ages. This is a dynamic lecture that unfortunately has some serious technical errors. OK as long as you keep that in mind.