Book Review: World Lit Only By Fire

History is a tricky affair. Popular history is trickier yet. So here are some thoughts on a history of the Middle Ages written for a popular audience: William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire. (Who doesn't like a beer-soaked book review? I know I sure do. Recommended: mead. Or an IPA. IPA goes with, like literally, everything.)

Things to know about Manchester's history of the medieval period, in brief, and assisted by hops:

1.) Much like Churchill's History of the British People, vol. 1, this is a book written in an authorial voice which conjures the animal world, in the best way. Reading Churchill's take on pre-history through late-Medieval period (BCE through 1200-1300 CE) is like taking a course from a pleasantly stuffy and chortling Badger (filter history through the lens of Wind in the Willows and there you have it). Charming, engaging, avuncular. Like the post-Thanksgiving historical discourse from your favorite uncle— if your uncle hails from Ye Olde English Woode. It's a pleasant sort of narrative, smelling a bit of dust, lavender, tobacco, and wet fur, couched in a gruff and scruffy genteel voice. It's all fireplaces, brandy, and heraldry. Very personal, very steeped in books. And not the freshest scholarship you'll find. But nice all the same. Which is exactly the experience one gets from reading William Manchester's tome.

2.) Manchester has minimal references in his bibilography that post-date 1968. He used two (or so) biographies from the late 1980s and early 90s. Other than that, Manchester's scholarship outdates the crop of Wonder Bread on 1992's shelf. By a generation. He lists Will Durant in his bibliography, but he should possibly dedicate the whole thing to ol' Durant (Story of Civilization): to read Manchester is to read Durant's take on the ages. This is both good and bad. Hell, if nothing else, it saves you reading Durant, who can be long-winded. The Durant part is no problem, but if you're a casual sort of reader who is only following a passing interest in the Middle Ages, you'd be better off with something that isn't so (a) capitalistic on the prurient (more to come), (b) reliant on the “Dark Age” theory of the centuries between Antiquity and Renaissance, and (c) just read Durant. Though Durant sounds like a librarian and not, say, a woodchuck or badger. And there's something to be said about the filter of wise and kindly woodland creature, in tie, with snifter.

3.) Prurient! Manchester likes legends and scandals. Sex in cathedrals! Wanton sex on straw mattresses! Borgias! More Borgias! Recent scholarship has done a pretty good job of making short shrift of the Black Legend. But then, Manchester consulted precious little that would lead him to exculpate the Borgias. Of course, believing the worst of the Borgias (incest! poison!) is infinitely less dull than to go with the chaste-Lucrezia-made-a-city-state-profitable-and-probably-did-not-sleep-with-her-dad-or-brother version of history. Let's just say that Manchester both gives credence to the low-morals version of medieval people and morally excoriates it. It doesn't do to read this history without remembering that some (all) of the primary sources and most of the secondary have had agendas and purposes and reasons of their own— truth not always being the point. And Manchester, more than other authors of histories for the general public, is (diplomatically speaking) less discriminating in his vision of the era, its people, and their imagined (and, to be fair, very real) sins.

4.) Skip to the last third of the book. Manchester is at his best when he's discussing Luther and, to a lesser extent, Erasmus and Magellan. His last third begins with the best summary/explanation/introduction to Luther I have yet read: strong on both person/personality (Luther) and context. This is the best portion of the book, well-balanced between folklore, fact, biography, and scholarship. Worth reading, whether you skip the rest of the book or not.

Summary! (Scumps! At last!): If you are a general reader, who is looking for a gist of “say, what were the Middle Ages?,” then your best bet is a combination of small books on general “life in the age of” and biographies of figures from the period plus the estimable Norman Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages. Manchester's World Lit Only by Fire is a good third or fourth take on the Medieval period but it should never be the introductory or only take you, the general reader, should have on the era. Manchester's strongest on biography, less so (and a dated and judgmental, if genial, take) on general history of the Middle Ages (to be fair, this is not surprising as Manchester was an historian and a scholar but not one who spent his life specializing in medieval history).

Read on, armchair historians, with warning and discrimination.

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance. Portrait of an Age. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1992. ISBN 0-316-54531-7

(All links lead to Amazon.)



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