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A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind…

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait… (1992)

by William Manchester

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2,069413,207 (3.61)1 / 57



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Only got a short way into this book. The bias, inaccuracies and narrow focus put me off. I gather from other reviews that it is not well regarded by many historians.
  ritaer | Mar 11, 2015 |
I had wanted to read this book for years. It's about the Middle Ages! And with such a beautiful title! Had heard reviews saying there are factual errors, but with a time so long gone and so little recorded (I mean, it is called the Dark Ages, after all), you'd have to expect some disagreement. In exchange for a good overview of the era, I'd call it worthwhile.

I gave up on page 12-13: "In an attempt to link Easter with the Passion, it was scheduled on Passover... The decision had no historical validity, but neither did the event..." I've never heard any definition of Easter that did not include the Passion of Christ (nor does Manchester elaborate on this hypothetical event), and since all four gospels say this coincided with Passover, the scheduling seems much more slam-dunk than scheming.

Also, page 11 "The crafty but benevolent pagan gods - whose caprice and intransigence existed only in the imagination of Christian theologians". How did Manchester read Homer without seeing gods behaving capriciously and intransigently?

More importantly, how could someone so totally ignorant of either the ancient traditions that preceded it, or the modern Christian tradition which succeeded it, ever hope to write a book about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that came between, especially without taking a very scholarly approach to it? ( )
2 vote Heduanna | Feb 15, 2015 |
It is useful as a compendium of every stereotype you can think of about the Middle Ages, most of them wrong ( )
2 vote auldtwa1 | Mar 14, 2014 |
A great narrative of the 16th century in Europe ( )
  deblemrc | Mar 1, 2014 |
This was an engagingly written book, and a very fast read. However, it suffered from a number of issues.

For one, it was too fast, and seemed to hop-scotch around; for instance, the last chapter on Magellan seems to just be tacked on. It seems that half of the the book before the Magellan chapter is bracket with "Durant says, "; Manchester obviously relied very heavily on this one source.

Then, there are logical "errors." I put "errors" in quotes because I am not an expert in Medieval history or the lives of the various figures, but there are a number of places where Manchester will, over the course of a few sentences or a paragraph, say something like, "Commonly, A is labeled as B; but this is not true because C ... Now, certainly A was B, and so..." This may be his writing style, but I found it distracting and it has left me wondering about the veracity of what I read. Consulting Wikipedia, I see that in fact the book did spark controversy for its supposed errors and invalid conclusions, and that it was out of date. Going back to what I noticed, the book was published in 1992 but references very heavily books written between the 1930's and the 1960's (the Durants' series), which presumably itself was based on research from decades earlier...


Reading this very well may have been a waste of time. Check out From "Dawn to Decadence" or "The Civilization of the Middle Ages" The are both longer, but also both very good reads; and I trust them more. ( )
  dcunning11235 | Jan 20, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
"This is an infuriating book. The present reviewer hoped that it would simply fade away, as its intellectual qualities (too strong a word) deserved.... Manchester makes it clear in the early pages of this Portrait that he had never thought much about the Middle Ages.... Fair enough... But when this mind-set unfolds itself through some of the most gratuitous errors of fact and eccentricities of judgment this reviewer has read (or heard) in quite some time, one must protest."
added by Taphophile13 | editSpeculum, Jeremy DuQuesnay Adams (pay site) (Jan 1, 1995)
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Eine Kugel kam geflogen: Gilt es mire oder gilt es dir? Ihn hat es weggerissen; Er liegt mir vor den Fussen Als wars ein Stuck von mir.
To Tim Joyner - Athlete - Comrade - Scholar - Friend
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The densest of the medieval centuries - the six hundred years between, roughly, A.D. 400 and A.D. 1000 - are still widely known as the Dark Ages.
Heroism is always deliberate, never mindless. (Page 287)
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Wikipedia in English (4)

Book description
"A World Lit Only by Fire" (1992) became a New York Times bestseller and was praised for its lively storytelling in some journalistic reviews. Ron Grossman of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, wrote that “by taking readers along on Magellan`s voyage, Manchester provides them with easy access to a fascinating age when our modern mentality was just being born.”

Professional historians, however, have dismissed or ignored the book because of its numerous factual errors and its dependence on interpretations that have not been accepted by experts since the 1930s at the latest. In a review for Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, Jeremy duQuesnay Adams remarked that Manchester’s work contained “some of the most gratuitous errors of fact and eccentricities of judgment this reviewer has read (or heard) in quite some time.” In particular, Adams pointed out that Manchester’s claims about diet, clothing, and medieval people’s views of time and their sense of self, all ran counter to the conclusions of 20th-century historians of the Middle Ages. Manchester’s views on the transition from medieval to modern civilization, though they were popular in the 19th and early 20th century (and still are current in some segments of contemporary culture), have long been rejected by professional scholars in the relevant fields. 

Haiku summary
Intriguing title.
The rest is tabloid fodder;
unsupported tripe.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316545562, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:57 -0400)

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"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 villans--the Renaissance"--Cover, p. 4.… (more)

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