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A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age | [William Manchester]

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age

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.
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Publisher's Summary

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. The latter was 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.

Knight time: explore our list of titles about the Middle Ages.

©1979, 1980 William Manchester; (P)2007 Blackstone Audio Inc.

What the Critics Say

"An absorbing and readable history." (School Library Journal)
"Manchester provides easy access to a fascinating age when our modern mentality was just being born." (Chicago Tribune)
"Manchester has not forgotten the skills that, with invective, eloquence, and anecdote, make him a master storyteller."(Kirkus Reviews)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.9 (284 )
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4.0 (109 )
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Performance
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  •  
    Wallen Danderyd, Sweden 02-28-09
    Wallen Danderyd, Sweden 02-28-09 Member Since 2003
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Ruined by the narrator"

    Don't let yourself be fooled by the title of this book - it does not tell you anything about the middle ages and very little about the renaissance - it is focused on the years around 1500 AD. It deals with three basic topics - the downfall of papacy, Martin Luther and Magellan's circumnnavigation of the globe. In addition it is a rehash of what can read in any text book on the era. Nothing new is added and there is not a vestige of source criticism.
    The worst thing about this book is, however, the narrator's complete lack of knowledge in the pronounciation of foreign languages. In a book abundant with names, places and quotations in Latin, German, French, Spanish - to name but a few of the langauges - it is a mystery to me why the publishers chose a narrator so inept in pronouncing even a single word correctly. I speak German and French fluently - and have a good understanding of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, but I was at loss in understanding most of this narrator's efforts in reading the quotations in these languages. Instead of teaching me something of the period, it just made me laugh - I am sure this was not the author's intention.

    27 of 31 people found this review helpful
  •  
    H. Baber Chula Vista, CA USA 08-07-12
    H. Baber Chula Vista, CA USA 08-07-12 Member Since 2008

    LogicGuru

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Cliches and unreliable history"
    Would you try another book from William Manchester and/or Barrett Whitener?

    No.


    Would you ever listen to anything by William Manchester again?

    No.


    Have you listened to any of Barrett Whitener’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    No.


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Anger and disappointment.


    Any additional comments?

    The author is one of those history hacks who thinks the Dark Ages began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and only ended some time in the 15th century. He actually describes this period--and I quote verbatim--as "mired in ignorance and fettered by superstition." But don't think his man is Gibbon: the sources he cites are Will and Ariel Durant.

    Once the Middle Ages are over, there are of course endless stories about the debauchery and corruption of Renaissance popes and their families. OK, this is the history we learnt at our mothers' knees. But enough already.

    Though this is billed as medieval history, the author clearly hates the medieval period. About the only thing he warms to is Magellan's circumnavigation, about which I think he does a pretty decent job--but, of course, crowing that this showed all those benighted Christians that the world really wasn't flat. Ho-hum.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sandy F 08-03-08
    Sandy F 08-03-08 Member Since 2006
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    "Distorted and FIlled with Historical Erros"

    As an academic historian, I am appalled by the lack of historical accuracy and perspective supplied in this book. The author subjects his reads to the same tired historical misunderstandings that plagued 19th centruy historians who were trying to look back and come up with a history of different ages. AN uninformed reader of this work would leave it with the impression that scientific, cultural and social development had been completely arrested during this time period, and indeed that Europe had fallen into a world where death and destruction were the only companions. The contrasting richness of life during these times is completely ignored by the author.

    As an example, the writer presents the "Catholic" faith as monolithic and all-controlling of life in middle ages Europe. The CHurch exhibited, in his view, a coordinated and sinister effort to keep civilization down. In truth, Christianity was responsible for much of the cultural development of Europe during this time, and helped to enhance many cultural variations and innovations. The author erroneously and continuously uses the term "Catholic Church" to describe the Latin Christian Church. The term "Catholic" was not used until after the Council of Trent in 1555, and was coined to differentiate between traditional Christians and Protestants during the Reformation.

    Thus inaccuracy plagues the book. In another example, the writer characterizes both John abd Paul, two of the fathers of the early Latin Church as heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee, a man thoroughly trained in Jewish law that stood in stark contrast to Greek philosophical thought. John was a spiritual mystic and steeped in Jewish tradition. He was not in the mold of Pythagoras or Plato.

    Let the reader (or listener) beware. This book is for anyone with a serious interest in the so-called "Dark Ages".

    40 of 50 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eric San bernardino, CA, United States 09-01-11
    Eric San bernardino, CA, United States 09-01-11 Member Since 2003
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Ill informed and narrow"

    This book is written "entirely from secondary" or further removed sources and started as a preface to a book on Magellaen. It is Full of historical errors and bald suppositions touted as fact. They wore only wool, they used spices to hide the rotting food, peasants went around naked in summer, thought the world was flat, lived to be 25 and married at 9, the catholic church was horrible but the protesants were cool and enlightened (except for that whole antisemite thing)
    So many errors that You would have to rewrite the book to list them all. author should hav seriously done some research or simply relied on Non-Victorian sources.
    Don't Waste your Money. There are lots of good histories of the time period, this is not one of them.

    6 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    K.D. Keenan Northern California 09-27-07
    K.D. Keenan Northern California 09-27-07 Member Since 2004

    1emp

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    "The"

    I didn't think it was possible to make the Dark Ages sound worse, but Manchester has done it. I was hoping for well-researched and informative insights into this historical period, but the author seemed bent on reciting--with no particular structure--a list of habits, conditions, acts and beliefs that 21st Century people would find shocking and titillating. Take, for example, his assertion that the Pied Piper of Hamlin was a pedophilic monster who butchered Hamlin's children in an orgy of sadistic sexual perversion. I can find no evidence that this is what happened. It may have, but there is only a vague reference to "Calvary" in a verse written about it in the mid-1400s. The incident in question took place supposedly in the late 1200s. That's a pretty poor basis for the author's bold assertion. And how about his bald statement that in summer, the serfs of Europe went naked? I don't doubt that their clothes were well air-conditioned, but where did he get the notion that they went naked (other than children)? I haven't found anything fresh or interesting in this book, and the author's sloppy and leering approach to his subject casts doubt over anything he has to say.

    36 of 46 people found this review helpful
  •  
    John Silver Spring, MD, USA 08-01-09
    John Silver Spring, MD, USA 08-01-09 Member Since 2007
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    "out of his depth"

    Manchester is one of the great historians of the modern era. Unfortunately his ignorance of the medieval period made this simply a bad book. M. has a author's disclaimer at the end of the book where he admits he is out of his area of expertise. That he still chose to publish this book is a disservice to him. His editors should not have allowed a historian of such stature descend to a "history lite" approach. If you like watching celebrity gossip TV you might enjoy this book. If you like history, you won't.

    9 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Vincent Bethesda, Md, United States 04-02-12
    Vincent Bethesda, Md, United States 04-02-12 Member Since 2000
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    "Very tendentious reading of cultural history"
    What would have made A World Lit Only by Fire better?

    A more open approach to cultural views differing from his own might have made this book more interesting.


    What was most disappointing about William Manchester’s story?

    I was disappointed by his wholly dismissive approach to any achievement of art, technology, thought or law that did not arise out of or reflect his own agenda.


    Which character – as performed by Barrett Whitener – was your favorite?

    This is not applicable.


    What character would you cut from A World Lit Only by Fire?

    This is not applicable.


    Any additional comments?

    I purchased this title because of the wonderful multi-voume biography of Winston Churchill written by him. I was eager to see what he had to say on such a wide ranging topic such as the cultural history of Europe between the medieval age and the Renaissance. I was disappointed

    His simplistic view pervades the text: anything having to do with Catholic faith or life - BAD; anything having to do with practical atheism - GOOD. An example of this is when speaking the 'low' state of technological achievement in medieval Europe, his only reference to the great cathedrals built during this time was that they were just about the only buildings built out of stone. That's it. He cherry picks the information he presents in a very heavy handed manner. He reduces Augustines monumental opus

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    John Boston, MA, United States 03-06-11
    John Boston, MA, United States 03-06-11 Member Since 2007
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    "80% biased screed, 20%rehashed high school lecture"

    A World Lit Only By Fire...what a poetic title. I downloaded it thinking that my view of the middle ages would be somewhat illuminated, but wound up gagging at chapter after chapter of invective. What had the medieval period ever done to this guy? Contradictions abound...it was a time of lawlessness, it was a time when religious zealots couldn't think outside of church law. Gluttonous lords slaughtered five oxen a night; the only meat people ate had been pickled in barrels for months. The people lived joyless lives focused on the pleasures of the next world rather than this; all people did was engage in illicit sex, from incestuous popes to lecherous peasants heaped in one communal bed every night. The only fire lighting this book is the author's blazing animus against religion, particularly the Catholic Church. Only in the later chapters, when the author is clearly relying on standard textbooks is their anything like a balanced historical account, but why get it from this tainted source when one can go to the original? Obviously, there's a market for bashing western culture and religion: those who enjoy such will find this book reassuring. But those who wish to understand history are well-advised not to waste their money on this amateurish pap.

    6 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rob Goodyear, AZ, United States 06-13-07
    Rob Goodyear, AZ, United States 06-13-07 Member Since 2005
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    "Biased and uninformative"

    I love learning about the middle ages and hoped that this book would paint a picture of "what life was really like." Instead, it drones incessantly about how debauched, violent, sex-crazed, and maniacal everyone was, especially the clergy. It contains chapter after chapter of horrifying anecdotes of pedophilia, incest, and unspeakable cruelty. Worst of all, the hysterical and unscholarly tone of the work strips all crediblity from the author, so that even if what he is saying is really representative of life during those times, I couldn't trust his reporting of it. I recommend skipping this work if you are actually interested in a balanced representation of the era.

    44 of 63 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer DALLAS, TX, United States 03-10-14
    Amazon Customer DALLAS, TX, United States 03-10-14 Member Since 2012

    I grew up on Golden Age Radio, and while I love to read, I typically consume more books via audio thanks to a job that lets me listen while I work. As an aspiring writer, I try to read a great deal of non-fiction in addition to a variety of fictional genres. I especially love history, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and old-style gothic horror.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "An Excellent Overview"

    As far as overviews of the Middle Ages go, I would rank this book in my top 3. History is so much more than names and dates; it's cause and effect, action and reaction spurred by motivation and belief systems. The religious and geopolitical minefield of the Medieval era can be incredibly difficult to navigate. Where some overviews are far too simple to be of any use, and others are far too detailed to be effective as overviews, this book serves that perfect middle ground for both beginners and scholars alike. It's an excellent read that serves to pull all lines of thinking together and highlights some of the giants of the age in the process.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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  • markw
    Farnham, UK
    4/2/07
    Overall
    "Gets better"

    I just finished this. It starts with a catalogue, somewhat one-sided, of why the middle ages were a bad and brutal event in human history. I say somewhat one-sided, because I think Manchester falls into the camp that slightly under-rates the brutality and over-rates the civilising influence of the Romans. Manchester is however very good when he gets out of the mud of context and back onto the more easily navigated paths of narrative biography. His descriptions, in particular, of Luther and of Magellan (effectively the hero of this volume, though you'll have to wait till around two thirds of the way through to get to him) are both interesting and illuminating.

    The book is read in something of a monotone - don't expect great theatrical declamations. But it is interesting and a worthwhile listen, and to be honest I'll probably now buy the printed book to read over.

    8 of 8 people found this review helpful
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