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.