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...
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.