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William Manchester’s 1992 history of the Middle Ages, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age, is an admittedly bleak depiction of medieval Europe, especially with respect to the religious conflicts that characterized much of that period. It is that bleakness that inspired his choice of a title. In his preface to the book, Manchester draws a distinction between the portrait of the Middle Ages provided by an earlier historian of the period, Henry Osborn Taylor, whose depiction of Medieval Europe was decidedly more positive than his own, and that provided by his own assessment. As Manchester wrote, contrasting his approach to important figures of the Middle Ages with that of Taylor, “I do not see how that [Taylor’s ‘just appreciation of their aspirations and ideals’] can be achieved without a careful study of brutality, ignorance, and delusions in the Middle Ages, not just among the laity, but also at the highest Christian altars.” Manchester’s history of the Middle Ages is replete with examples of the brutality, ignorance and delusions of which he refers.
A World Lit By Fire includes numerous descriptions of the barbaric practices common to the Middle Ages, whether in the context of ferreting out heretics during the Spanish Inquisition or in testing the purity of individuals accused of mysticism or witchcraft. It also includes numerous descriptions of the use of fire for demonstrative purposes, such as when members of the clergy tossed pornographic or otherwise unchristian material into the flames of a roaring fire established for that purpose:
“The friar’s protests took the form of annual “bonfires of the vanities”—carnivals in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, where he tossed lewd pictures, pornography, personal ornaments, cards, and gaming tables on the flames.”
Manchester’s depiction of the Middle Ages is a somber and scathing portrait of that period in history. While he was not blind to the cultural attributes and positive political developments that occurred, it he refused to pretend that those attributes could cancel out the negative developments that dominated. As he write in A World Lit By Fire:
“And the Church’s reflexive responses to dissent matched those of the schismatics. The same doom, in the same guise, awaited those who had betrayed Rome: torture, drawing and quartering, the noose, the ax, and, most often, the stake. In that age the world was still lit only by fire. At times it seemed that the true saints of Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike, had become blackened martyrs enveloped in flames.”
“Fire” is used as a metaphor for what are commonly referred to as “the Dark Ages.” Fire was the only form of unnatural light, but it was also a means of destruction of all thoughts and materials to which the powers that be objected.
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