A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind And The Renaissance: Portrait Of An Age, by William Manchester
At the outset, let’s make it clear that William Manchester clearly aligns himself with the Renaissance thinkers and secular humanists, is not a man of faith, and has a pretty limited understanding of true Christianity (and that is putting it rather charitably). That said, this book remains one of my favorite books about the late Middle Ages to read, because it is written by someone who, despite being on opposite sides of Western Civilization’s long culture war (he being a secular humanist and I being a pretty open fundamentalist, at least as he defines it), he has a great deal of sympathy for the world that was destroyed by the Renaissance.
It was really a combination of factors that brought the Medieval period to the end. Most of them have to do with overreach on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, assuming (falsely) a universal belief in Christianity, assuming a wooden “literal” translation of the Bible concerning the place of the earth in the universe and the shape of the world from the wrong places in scripture. These were not weaknesses in the Bible, but rather came from an overconfidence in our ability to understand the world and God’s word. Had popes and scholars remained humble in the face of their ignorance, they may not have made these blunders, or made them so defiantly. It is worthy of note, though, that on Mancester’s side, if you will, the same sort of errors are made defiantly–such as belief in the efficacy of Darwinian evolution. My biggest problem with the Renaissance scholars was their unadulterated paganism and their unreasonable confidence in the capabilities of their own reason. This was what destroyed the Medieval mind, which probably needed to be drastically changed anyway.
Though this book speaks a lot about religion, and shows that the author is not a particularly profound student of religion, the real strength of the book is in the ironic approach of the author and the author’s solid grounding in secondary sources (like Will Durant’s history of Western civilization). William Manchester makes no pretensions of being a medievalist (and he’s not), but at the same time his awareness and humility allow him to draw some worthwhile connections between the Sixteenth century and our own .
There are a few notable aspects of this book that are worthy of comment. For one, the book is organized in such a way that is not very systematic, having a short introduction on the Medieval mind (where the author shows his knowledge of original Christianity to be pretty minimal), a long chapter on the “unraveling,” showing how a drastic connection of religious and cultural changes destroyed the medieval certainty of the world, a certainty that was built on the sand and so probably needed to be destroyed, though it could have been done in a less violent and ineffective fashion, that is to be sure. The book then closes on a look at how Ferdinand Magellan, to the author, represents the quintessential character of his times.
This book is a flawed and fairly short masterpiece. It succeeds wonderfully at painting a picture of the savage and brutal sixteenth century, gives the astute reader a glimpse into the unsettling fact that the past and present are not all that difference, with ominous implications for the near future. And at the base of all of it are worldviews, the very deepest aspect of our religion and culture. Most people will find plenty to disagree with in a book like this, but the book is a masterpiece, despite its flaws, because it shows a wise approach to history from an outsider, freed from the shackles of narrow context and free to see the broader context of a period full of crises and danger, and rampant immorality (and sexually transmitted disease). The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.