A World Lit Only By Fire

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

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

imperator eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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