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“A World Lit Only By Fire” : Part 1

I find as I get older, I enjoy history more and more. I don’t know if that’s the age-wisdom thing kicking-in or if it’s just because I’m getting close to being history myself. Whatever the case, I can see more clearly the importance of understanding history in today’s world.

I recently finished reading William Manchester‘s “A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance; Portrait of an Age,” (Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 1993). I’ve referenced it in previous posts, one on Robin Hood in particular. I believe I wrote at one point that I wasn’t sure I was going to attempt a review of this book because of the sheer density of information and illustration that Manchester packs into it.

Yet here I am.

William Manchester was a renaissance man in his own way. His medium was words. He was journalist, a biographer, an essayist, an historian and a novelist. He is probably best remembered for his book, “The Death of a President: November 20 – November 25, 1963,” in which he recounts and analyzes the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Manchester’s writing is straightforward, but with a clarity and immediacy which puts the reader into whatever situation he describes. This talent serves him well in the telling of history.

“A World Lit Only by Fire” is divided into three sections, or essays, rather than chapters. The first and shortest concerns The Medieval Mind, the second and longest recounts The Shattering, and the final essay, One Man Alone, is his vivid telling of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.

In The Medieval Mind, Manchester gives an idea of what the common person’s mind and worldview were like in the earliest days of the Middle Ages (between about 400 A.D. and 1000 A.D.), also known as the Dark Ages. (Interestingly, Manchester tweaks the politically correct historians who dislike the term “Dark Ages” because of the perceived value judgement implied, noting that “there are no survivors to be offended.” Good man!)

Try to imagine living in this world, people.

The collapse of the Roman Empire had plunged Europe into darkness indeed. It was a time of “incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.” The common person usually lived in a nameless village or hamlet, with no sense of location save some landmark such as a large tree or a stream. There were no maps available for them. If someone went off to a war or wandered away, they would likely not find their way back home.

There were no watches or clocks or what we would recognize as a calendar, so there was no real sense of time save the passing of the day and the seasons. There was no news media to keep the people informed and aware of what was happening in the world around them. The “mindlessness” Manchester writes of is an almost total absence of a sense of “self.” People for the most part harbored no personal hopes and dreams. The ego which we today are so familiar with was minimal then.

Before Rome fell, it spread Christianity over much of Europe but few people really understood the new faith. Consequently, during the Dark Ages paganism remained dominant and actually influenced the Christianity of the day. Some churches were even built where pagan temples once stood. But the Church was not without its power and purpose. Despite their lack of understanding, many people looked to the Church for a sense of stability and order during chaotic times.

Thus the stage is set for The Shattering, the onslaught of change carried by the Renaissance and the Reformation. This is the longest section of Manchester’s book and because I don’t want anyone’s eyes to permanently cross or have anyone fall asleep, I’ll continue this review in Part 2. Because it is so long, I’ll try to draw more of sketch rather than present a detailed photograph of the events that follow.

These events which we often forget or ignore in these high-tech times are still shaping who we are now and will continue to influence us in the decades ahead. It is important for all of us to understand them and I hope you will join me again in Part 2.

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Posted by on August 10, 2012 in Book Review, History

 

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A Postcard From A.D. 1247

Cropped screenshot of Olivia de Havilland and ...

Cropped screenshot of Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn from the trailer for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently gave you a brief overview of my reading so far in “A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester. Now I’ll give you a taste, a postcard from the book so to speak.

Hear underneath dis laihl stean

las Robert earl of Huntingtun

neer arcir yer az hie sa geud

And pipl kauld in Robin Heud

This is an inscription on a gravestone in Yorkshire, England. The final line is “Obiit 24 kal Decembris 1247.” Robin Hood lived, folks. Now as to what he was really like, Manchester writes, “Everything we know about that period suggests that Robin was merely another wellborn cutthroat who hid in shrubbery by roadsides, waiting to rob helpless wayfarers. The possibility that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor is . . . highly unlikely.”

Visions of Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits.”

However, this two sentence brush-off does nothing to explain how the stories of Robin Hood developed and why he became such a large folk-hero to people then and now. Plain highway robbers wouldn’t have inspired John Keats:

So it is: yet let us sing,

Honour to the old bow-string!

Honour to the bugle-horn!

Honour to the woods unshorn!

Honour to the Lincoln green!

Honour to the archer keen!

Honour to tight little John,

And the horse he rode upon!

Honour to bold Robin Hood,

Sleeping in the underwood!

Honour to maid Marian,

And to all the Sherwood-clan!

Granted, the real Robin was probably nothing at all like Errol Flynn and was more than likely not a very nice man. But something is his life and exploits was tale-worthy. Something endeared him to the peasants who built his legend. A history made of facts alone and stripped of all lore tells us very little about the humans who lived in it. The facts and the stories must go together.

I have a copy of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” by Paul Creswick, who was one of England’s best children’s writers. According to the introductory material that came with the book, it has been in print ever since it came out in 1902. It is filled with the stories of Robin Hood. It also has gorgeous illustrations by a different legend, N.C. Wyeth. If you’ve ever seen any of Wyeth’s work you’ll understand why I used the word legend.

With due respect to William Manchester, I’ll be reading this book soon and hopefully learning more about Robin and life in the middle ages.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2012 in Grazing, History, Ideas, Poetry, What I'm Reading

 

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Like It Or Not, History Is Vital

A world lit only by fire

A world lit only by fire (Photo credit: One lucky guy)

Well, I’m still working my way through William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire, The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.” It’s slow going, but not because it’s boring. Manchester fills the book to bursting with a plethora of facts and observations that keep coming page after page until the mind spins. For people who like to think, it’s intoxicating stuff.I’m not going to attempt a review at this point. Heck, I may not even try when I’ve finished. There’s just too much material here to process. If I may, though, let me give you an idea of the broad story Manchester is trying to tell and why it is so important for all of us to hear.

He starts us in the Dark Ages, about A.D. 400 to A.D. 1000, after the Roman Empire had perished. Say what you will about Rome, it was the unifying force of civilization in the world at that time. Without it, order collapsed and chaos rushed in to fill the void.  Chillingly, Manchester points out that among the many reasons for Rome’s fall were “apathy and bureaucratic absolutism.” Sound familiar?

During this time the intellectual life of Europe was gone. Manchester describes the Dark Ages as a portrait of “incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.” At this point the future did not look any too bright.

Fortunately, we humans know how to push ahead. At about the halfway mark in the book, the story I see is humanity’s struggle to reclaim civilization and the battle for which ideas  will be its cornerstone. Yes, Christianity and humanism are the main combatants again. But in this arena neither side is attractive. As Manchester tells us, Christianity survived despite the medieval Christians, not because of them.

I’ll write more as I get further into this book, but so far it is an amazing story. The older I get, the more I come to realize how important history is and how poor a job our schools are doing teaching it.

Here’s a little thought experiment for you. Imagine that the United States collapses tomorrow, for whatever reason. Take your time and think. What would happen in the short-term and in the long-term? What would happen to the world?

Later.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2012 in Book Review, What I'm Reading

 

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A Miscellany for Monday

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, if there is such a thing, “Happy Monday!”I have finished the writing assignment about Johnny Appleseed that I posted on about a week or so ago. Not having written under a deadline in many years, I must say it went pretty well. Now it’s up to the editors. I’ll tell you more when I’m able.

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I was thinking about my previous post on Chesterton and the opening quote has stuck in my mind: “This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.”

It seems so obvious, yet everywhere one looks there is an emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, things that divide and separate us as a people.

In the “Dictionary of Phrase & Fable” there is an entry titled “Divide and Govern.” Here’s what it says: “Divide a nation into parties, or set your enemies at loggerheads, and you can have your own way. A maxim of Machiavelli. . .”

So, who’s having their own way?

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The book I’m currently reading is “A World Lit Only By Fire; The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance” by William Manchester (Back Bay Books, 1993).

Be glad you don’t live in the Dark Ages. It was a nasty, brutish time when human life was very cheap. Manchester is an excellent writer and brings to one’s attention many fascinating aspects of this time in history. Like this: “The most baffling, elusive, yet in many ways the most significant dimensions of the medieval mind were invisible and silent. One was the medieval man’s total lack of ego. Even those with creative powers had no sense of self.”

What a contrast with today, where even people with no creative powers are absolutely full of self!

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Quotations, Reading, What I'm Reading

 

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