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

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  10,724 ratings  ·  877 reviews
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 rebirt ...more
Paperback, 322 pages
Published June 1st 1993 by Back Bay Books (first published April 30th 1992)
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Randy It's written by an academic in a somewhat formal style for the adult reader of popular history. It's not an academic treatise; the book seeks to enter…moreIt's written by an academic in a somewhat formal style for the adult reader of popular history. It's not an academic treatise; the book seeks to entertain as much as inform, to introduce the lay reader to the very different personal personal perspective on the world that was typical of those times. I think it succeeds in doing this.(less)

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Sarah Fisher
Aug 04, 2007 rated it did not like it
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 th
...more
Katie
Jul 16, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: medieval, history
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 superfi ...more
Michael Finocchiaro
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.
Riku Sayuj

Magellan in Context

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
...more
Valerie
Oct 16, 2007 rated it did not like it
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 specula
...more
Richard Derus
Dec 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
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, usual
...more
Gordon
Jun 03, 2012 rated it did not like it
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: "Genera
...more
Christian
Aug 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 argumentativ
...more
Sherwood Smith
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."
Jane Routley
Jul 12, 2009 rated it did not like it
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 ...more
Tara
Jul 23, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: the-middle-ages
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, aban ...more
Genevieve
Oct 14, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: traumatized-me
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 l ...more
Jessica
Jul 09, 2009 rated it it was ok
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: no
...more
Christa
Mar 10, 2012 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: no one
Recommended to Christa by: several people
Shelves: history
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 (al
...more
ariane
Dec 20, 2012 rated it liked it
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! Ren ...more
'Aussie Rick'
Nov 28, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history

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 ge
...more
Diego González
Feb 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Allen
Jun 01, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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 centu
...more
Chris Webber
Aug 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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
...more
Jack
Nov 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: History Buffs, Renaissance Faire Patrons and those interested in the history of The Church
Recommended to Jack by: Saw it in Borders at BWI Airport. Manchester is a favorite auth
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 inquisi
...more
Sense Of  History
Apr 24, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: modern-times
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, mislea ...more
Dolly
Jan 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs
Recommended to Dolly by: Dr. Tom Christ
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 fi ...more
Katie
Sep 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who likes history or historical fiction
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 behav
...more
Rindis
Jan 15, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, renaissance
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
...more
Edwin B
Jun 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
When the Roman empire fell in 5th century AD, Western Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. For a thousand years, barbarian invasions, despotic kings, mercenary knights, corrupt popes, unreasoning Church dogma, intolerance, brute force, superstition, greed, strife and violence ruled the land.

It was from this millenium of darkness that humanism emerged, and against this backdrop of backwardness that the Renaissance shone. In the 15th century, Western Europe rediscovered the Greek classics. The use o
...more
Jack
Aug 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people who think the 21st century sucks.
This is a great book to have on your shelf for those times when an iPhone isn't available and you need to find out what Henry the Navigator was like. Or when tou think it sucks that you don't have an iPhone, you can look into this book and see why you don't have it all that bad. Things really sucked when the world was LIT ONLY BY FIRE
Tracey
Aug 17, 2008 rated it liked it
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 ti ...more
K.M. Weiland
Nov 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Insightful and entertaining an every turn. A great and thought-provoking overview of the Renaissance period.
Kathryn Wilmotte
Sep 12, 2016 rated it did not like it
A World Lit Only by Fire claims to give a portrait of an age.

If so, it is the darkest, most impressionistic portrait I have ever seen. Though in some ways, Manchester does get the general form and outline correct, he then fills his canvas with the harshest colors in the cruelest medium, dabbing a bit of this here and that there when he doesn't know what else to fill it with. Then the entire painting is dipped in a wash of flagrant anti-medievalist and anti-religious bias and hung up for the mod
...more
James Holloway
Jan 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
This semester Reading the book a world lit only by fire by William Manchester was fun. A book about the history and mindset man through medieval times and the renaissance. Manchester divides the book into 3 parts: The medieval mind, the shattering, and one man alone. And Manchester goes into great detail in the longest section of the book, the shattering. He goes on and on about the renaissance and the protestant reformation and how it was a “shattering” of the medieval mindset that was in place ...more
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Why's Magellan so special? 4 52 Jan 09, 2013 08:34AM  

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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.

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