The preeminent popular history of civilization’s rebirth after the Dark Ages
From tales of chivalrous knights to the barbarity of trial by ordeal, no era has been a greater source of awe, horror, and wonder than the Middle Ages. In handsomely crafted prose and with the grace and authority of his extraordinary gift for narrative history, William Manchester leads us from a civilization tottering on the brink of collapse to the grandeur of its rebirth, the Renaissance, a dense explosion of energy that spawned some of history’s greatest poets, philosophers, and painters, as well as some of its most spectacular villains.
One of the most volatile periods of western history witnessed the passing of the Dark Ages and the dawning of the Renaissance, illuminated by magnificent scientific and artistic achievements and spectacular leaps of thought and imagination. Manchester’s narrative weaves together extraordinary figures, varied elements, and accomplishments of the period.
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great for students!
I needed to read this for an advanced European history class, and found the the book to be tedious to read. It took too long, and I had other work that needed to be done. The audiobook saved me by allowing me to listen and keep up with the other things I needed to get done! Manchester's style is engaging, if at times meandering and lopsided (a single paragraph to explain the fall of knights, but four pages on Magellan), but he makes the period real and offers a concise look at the time and mind of the people.
“A World Lit Only By Fire” has been saddled with the “historically inaccurate” label since it was published in 1992. Yet few specifics are given as to WHAT, exactly, IS “historically inaccurate” about it. I like history and have studied it both formally and for pleasure, so I decided to read this and see what the fuss is about.
Not much, it turns out. The book is overwhelmingly accurate on hard historical facts. I think the issues with the book are mainly academic. The world of higher academics has enough large egos and turf marking to put any reality TV show to shame. The trend in the last two or three decades, has been to lighten up on the Dark Ages, to focus on the positive accomplishments of the time. I suspect Manchester ran afoul of the academic establishment when he started off his book with an almost comical, rapid-fire barrage of VERY unflattering information about the medieval period. But with a couple of exceptions, it’s all true and documented. (e.g. -one thing I’ve never heard is that Medieval peasants in middle Europe were apt to go around naked. Does he mean in their own homes or out in the streets? There’s no denying that poor Europeans of the time lived lives we can hardly imagine - but nekkidness??, I need some more info on that bit)
Once you get beyond that blistering first section though, Manchester settles down into a very documentable account of the Medieval and early Renaissance periods. He certainly hits the admirable and amazing accomplishments of the time. He also skips some major topics - like anti-Semitism, but that’s a whole history in itself.
Manchester had fun with this history - another affront to academia, I’m sure. He is in no way polite and he happily exposes the clay feet, warts and easy moral and political corruption of the time. He definitely revels in the salacious side of history, but it’s all documented in many sources and it’ll make you think better of our own times.
History isn’t something you can really learn from one book, one course or one scholar. Everyone examines it from their own set of interests - Manchesters’ is no less valid than any other. He seems to have no agenda other than to reveal history without romanticizing it and yet holding on to respect for the accomplishments of the past. He’s not out to defend anyone and if anyone gets trashed - well it’s kind of their own fault since it’s with their own words.
Manchester speaks freely in his afterword of how he was challenged at every step by his academic proofreader reader and of his intent with “A World Lit Only By Fire”. I thought he actually presented a very good, entertaining and accessible basic history lesson here.
One problem I had with the audiobook was the narrator. This is a juicy book and he’s a dry reader. I thought his pronunciation was inconsistent too. A more jaunty narrator could have helped bring out the spirit of the the book better. I’m taking one star off for that - it’s too bad.
But I’d certainly recommend the book. You’re in no danger of coming away with gross misinformation and you might even be inspired to do some further reading.