It’s back to history, folks. Sorry, but someone has to bring it up.
In part one of my review of William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire,” I covered the first of the three essays which make up the book. In The Medieval Mind, Manchester exposes us to the mental world of the medieval human. I won’t spend time reviewing that here. Go check out the first part of the review if you’d like to brush up.
The next essay, The Shattering, is the longest piece in the book, running over 190 pages. As I said in part one, I don’t plan on going into any detail here. I don’t want any glazed eyes out there. Let me draw a broad sketch for you.
As Manchester explains it, the “shattering” is the collapse of the medieval world over a period of about 500 years. From the Dark Ages we see the Renaissance, or renewal, blossom as various scholars begin to recover some of the forgotten knowledge and arts that were lost when the Roman Empire fell. We are introduced to the humanists, particularly Desiderius Erasmus, whose calm genius shines brightly in these pages. Humanism, with the help of certain practices of the Catholic Church, helped to bring about the religious revolution we know today as the Reformation. The religious upheaval of the Reformation effectively ended the Renaissance and set many of the historical patterns we see to this day, especially the conflict between the secular humanists and many fundamentalist believers.
Before I go on, let me just say that I am NOT an historian. The above outline is what I came to understand from reading Manchester. It’s entirely possible I’m mistaken. Indeed, in other reviews of this book, Manchester was sharply criticized regarding his facts. However, it wasn’t “facts” that kept me reading.
The strength of this book is Manchester’s portrayal of the key events and players in the long drama that was the Middle Ages. In clear, workman-like prose, Manchester draws fascinating portraits of such personages as Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, who was known as much for his depravity as for his famous daughter, Lucrezia. Then there is the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, whose genius was haunted by his father’s pagan superstitions. Luther not only believed in the devil, but saw him and engaged in, shall we say, foul competitions with him. Of course, even a cursory view of the Reformation has to include John Calvin, the brilliant but “humorless and short-tempered” theologian, whose obsession with rules and statutes belied his understanding of St. Paul’s epistles.
There are many more persons Manchester brings to light, but his main point is that whereas before the Reformation there was one Church and one Faith, after it there were many different religious leaders and doctrines which did not strengthen Christianity but made it more susceptible to the attacks of the humanists. While not a fan of the faith, Manchester none-the-less holds a certain regret at what he sees as its weakening. At the end of the book he writes, “The specter of skepticism haunts shrines and altars. Worshipers want to believe, and most of the time they persuade themselves that they do. But suppressing doubt is hard. Secular society makes it harder.”
The final essay, One Man Alone, is an absorbing account of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the earth, included primarily because by doing so, Magellan proved that the earth was round and further shattered the old worldview.
“A World Lit Only By Fire” is an absorbing read and will help you to understand some of the philosophical currents that still run through our world today. Manchester readily admits that the interpretation of history varies from person to person. What’s important to understand is that “History is not a random sequence of unrelated events. Everything affects, and is affected by, everything else. This is never clear in the present. Only time can sort out events. It is then, in perspective, that patterns emerge.”
I highly recommend this book.