A World Lit Only by Fire
The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance
Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
Little, Brown & Company, New York, 1993
I have recently heard the argument made more and more that the so-called Dark Ages were not that. I think this book stands against that notion. William Manchester leads the reader in a fascinating look at times that truly were the darkest of times. Romantic fiction and movies of that era tend to paint a picture of a relatively quiet life in the pleasant countryside (oftentimes, the plot involves this idyll being disturbed by highwaymen or war). Instead, the author describes a time when murder was so common as to boggle the mind of the modern reader. Indeed, the statistics the author presents from particular locales such as London lead one to wonder that there was anyone left. The puritanical ideas we impose on these times are put to bed when the reader learns that getting pregnant as a means to acquiring a husband was routine. We see not the country cottages of Kinkaid paintings, but rather mud and straw huts shared with pigs and chickens. This was a time when the man clad in rags was the social superior to the man clad in sky. In central Europe. In winter.
As the author presents stories of the conversion to Christianity among the tribes on the Continent and in the British Isles, one gets the distinct impression that this is done by barbarian chieftains with the overt intent of increasing personal power. The storyline of the progress of Christianity necessarily informs the political scene, even as barbarians cling to their more ancient superstitions. As the Church in Rome begins to exercise more and more authority, it begins to serve in the stead of a fully functioning governing body. We see where the politics of all of Europe become deeply entangled with the Papacy, including the purchase of high office. The Borgias and the Medici are only the best known among the intriguers of ecclesiastic power, but their actions echoed throughout Europe. As one not particularly interested in the Church, I thought a bit too much time was spent on the issue. But I understand that it is difficult to understand much of the period absent information on this topic.
I found this a very readable and interesting work, even going as far as getting my wife to read it. For the reader with a reasonably high degree of familiarity with Renaissance Europe, there will be bits of interest even there. But as the time preceding the Renaissance, it is very richly informative.