Tabitha's Reviews > A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age

A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester
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's review
Aug 19, 2011

it was ok
Read from August 19 to September 06, 2011

This book started out so interestingly so I developed high hopes for it. The first part of Manchester's book paints a very detailed picture of what the average person experienced during the Medieval period. In this portion, he focuses on the end of that era and the beginnings of the Renasissance. Manchester includes interesting information that really sets the Medieval scene (for instance, the average Germanic peasant consumed a gallon of beer a day (this being the drink of choice) and, given that the average male stood at 5'6", its a logical conclusion that people lived most of their lives in varying levels of intoxication). Though he has interesting facts, I wish he listed where all he gathered them. Some of his assertions he lets hang out there, with little information on where or how we gathered information to make them.

This section ends all too quickly, however, and Manchester moves into his second section. He begins this section with Magellan, asserting that Magellan ended the Medieval era and began the Renaissance. Manchester then abandons Magellan (who we do not meet again until part three) and gives an exhaustive recitation of the Protestant Reformation. I wanted more analysis of the age and events, rather than the shallow overview of the religious upheaval. It was halfway through this section that the book became more tedious than interesting.

We finally return to Magellan in part three, in which we again return to basic regurgitation of facts for long passages. It is the conclusion of the book, however, which is the most unbearable. First of all, Manchester waxes philosophic on heroism, using language that leads the reader to assume that all heros in history were men. Second of all, the way in which Manchester puts Magellan on a pedestal in this section would lead the reader to believe that the book had been, in its entirety, about Magellan. On top of these affronts, the reader is also subjected to awful, over-the-top prose about Magellan. We are also asked to buy his innocence "Yet the distortion in him was slight when measured against other chief figures of his time. The hands of contemporary popes, kings, and reformers were drenched with innocent blood. His were spotless....His character was, of course, imperfect. But heroes need not be admirable, and indeed most have not been." This goes on ad nauseum, and we are expected to buy a Magellan that is the only true hero in all the world. Not to mention, Magellan's death, which Manchester had just written about pages earlier, involved the needless slaughter of tens of his crew, the youngest and most novice of those that sailed with him, all for religious fervor. Is this Manchester's defintion of bloodless??

My advice? The first portion of this book is well worth reading. Read it, skip the rest.

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