A Review of a World Lit Only by Fire Essay

A World Lit Only by Fire (1992) by American historian William Manchester, is an informal history of the European Middle Ages, structured into three sections: The Medieval Mind, The Shattering, and One Man Alone. In the book, Manchester scathingly posits, as the title suggests, that the Middle Ages were ten centuries of technological stagnation, short-sightedness, bloodshed, feudalism, and an oppressive Church wedged between the golden ages of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. “The Medieval Mind” extensively covers notable occurrences centered in approximately the year 500, including a description of the fall of the Roman Empire.

The book further delineates the Dark Ages that immediately followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, including details regarding a number of adverse events that were characteristic of what Manchester regards as a “stark” era. It includes commentary on St. Augustine and the effects he had on medieval civilization. The second section of the book, “The Shattering”, is the book’s longest section, expanding upon a number of events that Manchester regards as embodying the end of the Middle Ages as well as the early period of the Renaissance.

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It relates extensive anecdotes regarding a pope from the formidable medieval Borgia family, Pope Alexander VI, focusing on his “wild” celebrations and extensive nepotism. Continuing with his focus in regard to spirituality, Manchester writes on the rise of humanism in the early Renaissance days and its celebration of secularism over piety. The section further covers humanist scholars, and concentrates upon the humanist tendencies of Renaissance leaders such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. The European nobility of the era are also touched upon in chapters elaborately describing the life and decisions made by England’s King Henry VIII.

Henry’s wives and eventual separation from the Church despite his being once an “ardent Catholic” are treated extensively. The final section of the work, “One Man Alone”, is a description of the voyage of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who circumnavigated the globe. The section expands upon the life and personality of Magellan and his eventual death in the Philippines in an attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism there. Manchester’s argument is ultimately that Magellan’s voyage was concurrent with and, on several levels, symptomatic of changing ways in which Renaissance people thought.


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