A World Lit Only By Fire

What is the summary for A World Lit Only by Fire?

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For some critics, A World Lit Only By Fire is at best a pop history book. At worst, it is poorly researched and reviled by most historians. The book is about the birth of the Renaissance and how different this period was from the Middle Ages, which Manchester refers to...

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For some critics, A World Lit Only By Fire is at best a pop history book. At worst, it is poorly researched and reviled by most historians. The book is about the birth of the Renaissance and how different this period was from the Middle Ages, which Manchester refers to as the Dark Ages.

Manchester spends the first third of the book describing the Middle Ages as a time of no scientific or philosophical advancement (a claim most historians contest). He paints the entirety of medieval Europe as superstitious and cruel, "disciplined in fear and sheathed in superstition" by the Roman Catholic Church. Peasants are described as not being aware of the passage of the years (some critics have observed that this makes no sense considering the peasant farmers must have known about the seasons in order to plant and harvest crops properly). Peasant women are described as having sex before marriage constantly ("[romping] through the fields in search of phalli," as Manchester puts it), and it is suggested that peasants were so used to bad odor that perfumes nauseated them. He emphasizes the social and psychological control the medieval church held over almost every aspect of daily life, even down to when it was morally permissible for a married couple to have sexual relations.

The second section is about the Reformation and how it challenged the power of the medieval church. He brings up Henry VIII's break with Catholicism as well as the political intrigue of Pope Alexander VI and his family the Borgias in Italy. Manchester describes the church as debauched and corrupt, indulging in promiscuity (he relays an anecdote which claimed one medieval convent to be little more than a brothel) which in effect causes the rise of Protestantism as a reaction to such behavior. He emphasizes Martin Luther's 95 Theses and his break from the Catholic Church in this section.

The last third of the book is dedicated to Ferdinand Magellan, an explorer most notable as the first person to circumnavigate the globe in the sixteenth century. Manchester sees Magellan as a true hero, breaking the rules of the limited medieval worldview through his work. He holds him up as a symbol of the Renaissance as a whole.

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Most historians consider this book to be little more than a pop history version of the journey of Europe from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the start of the Enlightenment. It provides outdated views of the "Dark Ages" as a time in which progress stalled due to the influence of the Catholic Church. In modern scholarship, the term "Dark Ages" is no longer commonly used to describe the Middle Ages, as science and society continued to advance despite the fall of Rome (after all, the Eastern half of the Roman empire would continue for another thousand years, and the Islamic Golden age was about to begin). 

William Manchester then claims that the excesses of the papacy resulted in the galvanization of Europe into action. Essentially, he argues that the church had become so intolerable that all of Europe moved toward progress and the Enlightenment began. Here, he emphasizes a conflict between the Church and secularism and talks about the rise of humanism. 

The final section focuses on Magellan as a symbol of the Enlightenment. It goes into great detail about his life and voyages, and Manchester argues that Magellan's voyages are both symbolic and symptomatic of the Enlightenment. Most scholars disagree with this overemphasis on Magellan and feel that he was symbolic more of the age of exploration than the Enlightenment. 

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A World Lit Only by Fire is a book that is essentially universally reviled by professional historians of the Middle Ages.  They believe that it is badly researched and that it relies on interpretations of the Middle Ages that are no longer accepted by mainstream historians.  The book argues that the Middle Ages in Europe were a time of unremitting ignorance and brutality and that this all changed when the Renaissance came about.  It identifies Ferdinand Magellan as a very important figure (Manchester calls him the “era’s greatest hero”) in bringing Europe out of these “Dark Ages” (a term Manchester uses but which mainstream historians generally do not).

A World Lit Only by Fire is divided into three parts.  The first part is called “The Medieval Mind.”  It argues that people of this time were terribly superstitious and were under the thumb of the Catholic Church which stunted their desire to gain any knowledge.  Because the Church did not want anyone doing any thinking, essentially no innovation occurred during the entire period, Manchester says.  For example, Manchester says (I cannot give a page number as I have this book on Kindle.  This quote is at Location 568 in my copy.)

In all that time nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined. Except for theintroduction of waterwheels in the 800s and windmills in the late 1100s, there had been no inventionsof significance.

The second part is called “The Shattering.”  It argues that the corruption of the Church helped bring about the end of this period of ignorance.  Manchester dwells at length on the corruption of Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family who is infamous for his actions as pope.  Manchester argues that the sordidness of the Church caused a backlash among people, one that led to major changes in Europe.

These changes are discussed in the third part of the book, “One Man Alone.”  Here, Manchester focuses on Magellan.  He says that Magellan epitomized the change in thinking that was going on as the Renaissance began.  He says that Magellan’s voyage of circumnavigation showed how much the European mindset had changed since the Middle Ages.

Again, this book is not very well-received among mainstream historians of Medieval Europe.  You can find links to two rather negative reviews below.

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