Book Review: A World Lit Only by Fire

02 Apr

Review of: William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 1992. Pp 322, xvii. ISBN: 978-0316545563.

I know that as a reviewer I should begin reading a book with an open mind. In this case, that was impossible. Those wishing to know my motivations for opening this book can read my blog post here.

As Manchester tells us in his introduction, he first began writing this due to an illness, “. . . I had no intention of writing it at all. In the summer of 1989 while toiling over another manuscript – the last volume of a biography of Winston Churchill – I fell ill. . . . I emerged cured but feeble, too weak to cope with my vast accumulation of Churchill documents. . . . The fact that I wasn’t strong enough for Winston did not, however, mean that I could not work.” (xiv)

And so it began. There are three sections to this book. Chapter 1 is titled, “The Medieval Mind.” Here Manchester provides his vision of what life was like during the Medieval period. Life was brutal. The Dark Ages were truly dark with, apparently, periods of such a lack of sunlight that, “If war took a man even a short distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of returning to it were slight; he could not find it, and finding his way back was virtually impossible.” (22) Little wonder as “In summertime peasants went naked.” (22) As someone who has been scratched up simply scouting wheat fields when fully clothed, I have a lot of sympathy for what those naked peasants must have endured during harvest. “Any innovation was inconceivable; to suggest the possibility of one would have invited suspicion, and because the accused were guilty until they had proved themselves innocent by surviving impossible ordeals – by fire, water, or combat – to be suspect was to be doomed.” (23)

However hope would come in the form of the Reformation, “Shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear and sheathed in superstition, they trudged into the sixteenth century in the clumsy, hunched, pigeon-toed gait of rickets victims, their pale faces pocked by smallpox . . .” (27)

Chapter 2, “The Shattering” covers the end of Manchester’s Medieval Period. I nearly stopped reading at this point, convinced I had read enough. Fortunately, I carried on. While the second half of this chapter does indeed discuss the Reformation and, sort of, the Renaissance, the first half returns to the Middle Ages. Peasants lived with each other and the entire family slept in one bed – if they had a bed at all. “Everyone slept there – grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs . . .” (53) If someone chose to visit, they hopped in as well and if they happened to get it on with your wife or daughter, well, that was just how things were done back then. Manchester neglects to mention the possible fate of the pig. Our summertime nudist peasant would have counted himself fortunate for now, “The peasants might be forced to sell all they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and be reduced to nudity in all seasons.” (54) Young women would apparently couple with anyone and everyone and, “On Sundays, under watchful parental eyes, girls would dress modestly and be demure in church, but on weekdays they opened their blouses, hiked their skirts and romped through the fields in search of phalli.” (67-68)

Chapter 3,”One Man Alone” is a discussion of the Voyages of Discovery and ultimately, Magellan. I read this in a much more cursory fashion. This is not my period and I am unable to comment on the accuracy of much of it. However here Manchester appears to at least have his facts somewhat straight and his tracing of the explorations beginning with Henry the Navigator appears to be reasonably well done.

This book, filled as it is with what can only be termed as rubbish, should have angered me more. Manchester clearly did little research and picked only those anecdotes which fulfilled his preconceptions of the Medieval Period. I was entirely surprised to find myself occasionally laughing out loud as I read through the first hundred or so pages. The assertions given are so ridiculous that it reads as some sort of parody, more suited to a Terry Jones Monty Python movie than something that might be called history. At any moment I half-expected to read, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” 1

It is simple to see where Manchester went wrong – however it is astonishing that it was not corrected, at least to some degree. First, as he stated in his introduction, he felt unable to write a book which would entail a great deal of effort following his illness and turned instead to one which would take little effort. And little effort appears to have been expended here. A glance at his bibliography, particularly when combined with his note about his sources, shows this much.

However where the massive, appalling errors of fact arose is from Manchester taking any tale told by the nobility of those dirty, monstrous peasants, and recounting it here for truth, without any analysis of text or the motivation of those authoring these tales. He has done the same for stories told of the Church, or segments thereof, by those denouncing its excesses. I have no doubt that every anecdote told in this book is mentioned somewhere. He recounts the fabliau story of a peasant passing by a spice shop (though in this book it’s a street of perfume shops) and passing out due to the unfamiliar smell and being revived when dung is held under his nose as fact, not as a tale authored by aristocrats and designed to demonize and dehumanize an entire class of people. (57) 2 He believes the Pied Piper of Hamlin to be a thinly veiled story of a pedophile operating (or more likely not since this seems to be a 17th century invention) in the late 15th century, (66) this despite the fact that the Pied Piper story originated in the 14th. And the Church comes across as a center of debauchery (I’ve chose to focus on the peasants here – to list every error would require its own book). 3

This book is amazingly bad. However what is worse is that it has such a wide following. Library Thing has over five million books cataloged – unique works. This book is at 3,132 in popularity, owned by nearly 1300 members. On Amazon the story is worse. There it ranks sixth in sales among books about the Renaissance and 43rd among Medieval books overall. 4

In any case, this book has virtually nothing positive about it. Even the seemingly reasonable discussion of Magellan is more than offset by the errors of the first half of this work. Ultimately, Manchester bought into the most sordid tales told of the peasants by the nobility, or of the Church by those denouncing it. The nobility barely considered medieval peasants to be Human, an attitude Manchester has chosen to project upon all who lived between the time of the Roman Empire, and that of Martin Luther.

Link: Alternatives to Manchester

The above link lists books which contributors have suggested may be appropriate alternatives to Manchester for use in an AP European History Course. Some of these are also good alternatives if you want to learn about Medieval History from a more reliable source. I will add to this list as contributions come in.

VERY LATE EDIT: May 31, 2010. I usually don’t edit posts after they’re a week or so old – if I screwed something up and it survived that long then let it live on in infamy. However Vaulting and Vellum are about to embark on a detailed analysis of Manchester’s sources of information. If you’d like to track their progression through this train wreck of a book (I know I will) you may want to bookmark their blog. I think this will be an extremely informative journey.

EVEN LATER EDIT: July 31, 2010. Since this review continues to receive frequent traffic, I’d like to do more than just criticize but be able to offer alternatives, particularly for high school AP history teachers who may be looking for course materials. Please see this post for additional information.

1 From Cinema Five Distributing. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Gilliam, Terry and Jones, Terry, directors. Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Gilliam and Jones, writers.

2 As told in Thibauld de Champagne’s “Du vilain asnier” from; Levine, Robert, (1985) “Myth and Anti-Myth in La Vie Vaillante De Bertrand du Guesclin” Viator 16, 270.

3 For those who may be newer to the study of Medieval History please see my followup comment to this post for a brief discussion of some of these conflicts and characterizations.

4 For both of these, as of April 1, 2010.


Posted by on April 2, 2010 in Books


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19 responses to “Book Review: A World Lit Only by Fire

  1. Steve Muhlberger

    April 3, 2010 at 12:53 am

    You saved me with this review. Your admirable open-mindedness in the previous post almost made me reconsider my decision to give this book a pass. I've heard it denounced in similar terms as *A Distant Mirror,* which certainly has its problems, but at least it was the product of honest labor. But no, the little bit you say shows the vast difference between the books.That story about peasants not knowing anything about the outside world I doubt comes from a primary source. It is an extreme version of a more modern cliché, which I have been unable to track down in its original form. Usually you hear that typical peasants never traveled beyond 50 miles from their own homes. Evidence? I have never seen any. Manchester's statements are not the product of research, they are just baloney.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    April 2, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Being the first to follow up your own post is probably bad form but I wanted to add a couple of comments for those who may be newer to Medieval History.

    One of the forms of literature during the Medieval period, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries was the fabliau (plural fabliaux). These were poems and short stories, often sung, which generally made fun of someone. A very typical object of these was the medieval peasant. The implication was generally that a peasant – any peasant – was truly different, in his most basic nature, to the nobility – almost a different breed or even species (though they could mate). A very typical theme was that a peasant somehow found himself "falling into" a noble situation but somehow his baser nature betrayed him, often in an extremely obscene way (the other favorite was with buffoonery), as he reverted to form.These stories are anything but kind. Peasants are portrayed in the most negative way possible. At times the focus of the story was on the Church – or a representative of – which later in the period also fared poorly.

    Somehow – and I remain astonished by this – Manchester decided these fabliaux represented factual accounts. I admit that I don't know exactly how that could happen, but it is the only explanation for what he has written. I won't say these represent his only sources but they must make up a large proportion of them. Quite frequently the Medieval peasant couldn't read (though this is often overstated, particularly later in the period) but he did have an olfactory system, he certainly didn't pass his wife around to strangers, and children didn't have sex with anything with legs from the age of 12. And they wore clothes.

    In addition, some of those cast out from the Church denounced it in the strongest of terms. Manchester may have gathered some of his information for his criticism of the Church from these as well as from fabliaux.This Wikipedia article offers a reasonable starting point about fabliaux and there are plenty of books about late medieval literature that discuss them. And using Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a source of historically accurate events rather than as a book using satire to ridicule aspects of society is plainly ridiculous. One might as well use Saturday Night Live as an accurate depiction of current events in the United States.

    Also, if any medievalists are still reading this, I intend to keep this book for a little while in case I need to refer to it for followup comments to this post. This may be hard since there are no footnotes but I'll try. But I'll be throwing it out before long. If anyone wants to take a look at it, if you'll be at Kalamazoo let me know and I'll give it to you then (I won't want it back). You shouldn't do this if you think it'll make you mad though – only if you think you can laugh at it. I promise to hand it off where nobody will see – it's not like I want anyone seeing me with it either. ;)

  3. Medieval History Geek

    April 3, 2010 at 11:21 am

    No – I wouldn't equate Manchester with Tuchman at all. I haven't read A Distant Mirror either but from the comments I've heard and read, while it has some errors of fact and goes overboard with characterizations, it has encouraged many people to learn more about the Medieval period and she very much tried to "get it right." I can't see how Manchester would provide similar inspiration. According to him, Medievals were one step above animals (and sometimes on the same level). It's more fun to learn about animals at the zoo.

  4. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 5, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I don't want to comment on Manchester—ain't read it, ain't gunna—but I can add something to this:Usually you hear that typical peasants never traveled beyond 50 miles from their own homes. Evidence? I have never seen any.Actually, I think it depends what you think is a typical peasant, and when. If you read Wendy Davies's Small Worlds, which is a truly excellent piece of historical investigation and underlies a vast amount of my work, one of the assessments she makes of (Breton, early medieval) peasant society is to break it down by mobility, by means of studying attendance at assemblies. Unsurprisingly, some higher-status peasants moved around a lot more than most, but the largest stratum don't shift very far at all. I don't have my own copy of the book, but if I transcribe my notes:"Ruffiac best plebs, with 38 docs… About half [I think I meant of people attested] only appear there, so range of 10km max, more like 3 or 4; 1/5-1/4 go to neighbouring places, 20km more like 10-15, and <1/10 go several places over wide range, [other places] showing more of these. (Davies, Small Worlds: village society in early medieval Brittany (London 1988), pp. 111-112.)So obviously there's change, as the economy enlarges and pilgrimage and crusade, to say nothing of army service and trade, begin to offer people causes of travel over much greater distances, but for some people the horizons really don't seem to have been very broad. The important thing there, of course, is that it still doesn't mean that they know absolutely nothing of the world: most of these plebes have that less-than-a-tenth who probably go to Redon, which is a royally-backed abbey where the kings of Brittany and Carolingian missi can sometimes be found, and actually less-than-a-tenth is quite a lot of people to bring the news back home. Lack of travel doesn't have to entail benighted isolation. But as to the actual travel, I would hazard that that cliché might start with someone doing a similar assessment from real data a long time ago that got into some obvious textbook and then endlessly parrotted. It might be an interesting venture to track it down.

  5. Medieval History Geek

    April 5, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Well, Manchester's assertion is absolutely ridiculous – sort of why I included it though I had to think about which to use. He provided a wide selection. But can you imagine how the Carolingians would have gotten along if every peasant who showed up for the campaigning season couldn't find his way back home? Yeesh.The rascal in me has toyed with this scenario. Find a K'zoo session attended by some of the stalwarts of the field – preferably something on rural culture. Sit next to one of the stalwarts, open Manchester and read it and take notes while ignoring the session. Occasionally mutter under my breath, "Amazing," "Wow," or "Huh – I really didn't know that." Make sure the stalwart could see what I was doing. It would make an interesting social experiment.But one of the things that bugs me about so many popular histories is they take something that was not unique to the Medieval period – and then use it to bash the Middle Ages. The title of that book's a perfect example. Was anything lit by anything but fire before the 19th century? Travel's the same way. Maybe medieval peasants didn't get around all that much but they seem to have when they needed to – and was this so very different from how things were in pretty much every society before rail? When how you got around was by horse or your own two feet and they didn't have a Holiday Inn, traveling much of a distance was a big deal – and that didn't begin to be the case in 476 or end in 1492/1517.As an anecdote, my grandfather on my mother's side had a dairy farm. He died when I was quite young but my mother told me the farthest he ever traveled – in his life – was the 80 miles/125 km to our house each Thanksgiving. He never missed a morning or evening milking from the time he was a boy until his heart attack – and he died from that in 1972.Indiana's county lines were established by measuring how far from the county seat it was reasonable for a person to be able to travel to and back in one day with a couple of hours left over for business. Indiana counties are (almost) all 20-25 miles/35 km across and they were established in the mid-19th century. It was tough to get around before cars and mass transit.

  6. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    As with Indiana county lines, so, or so it is thought, with English hundred meeting sites… Plus ça change…

  7. Anonymous

    April 6, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I enjoyed reading your discussion about Manchester's work. I am not at all a scholar familiar with world history. Nor did I know about William Manchester before last week. I am also a mother of three teenaged girls, one of whom is reading this book for her AP Global History course. Now, I am neither prudish nor do I advocate sugar-coating history to make it more "safe" for young minds. (I have been a prof. of critical thinking and feel that is the greatest lesson I can give my girls.)I like to read the books assigned to my kids whenever I can (which isn't often enough). Imagine my chagrin when I came across the "pornographic" episode of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia shtupping a courtesan and her adolescent daughter. Was this necessary? Manchester begins the episode with "Roman lore has it…" which is like saying "OMG, there's this rumor…"With a little research I find that a number of schools use this text to teach history. I am pretty sure that "history geeks" might find this a bit laughable, though it may be a nice counter-balance to text book history. The problem is, most people don't read their kid's books. And I'm disturbed that my kid is getting a lesson in depraved sex as something historical. Trust me, any adolescent will walk away from this book with those images in mind. Why the gratuitous sex and orgy scenes? Is it really necessary to describe orgies when teaching history? My frustration is … I don't even know what. I hate to think that all these hormonal teenagers will take Manchester's scenes as a model of relations between men and women. How can public schools do this? Call me crazy…

  8. Medieval History Geek

    April 7, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Well, I'm a believer in local control and public school curricula reflecting the values of local communities (within reason – I'm not a fan of the Kansas State Board of Education either) so personally, I'll leave the values issue up to local school boards and tell folks that if they don't like something, talk to the board. I'll heartily grant that Manchester seems fascinated by sexual aspects of history and there's a lot more of that in this book than seems necessary – but that fits in with a great deal of the information in this book being garbage.My own frustration, if this is being used as a HS textbook, is from two areas. First is that the subject matter is a load of crap for the most part. The second's a bit more troubling in some ways. Why would any teacher use something as a textbook that doesn't have footnotes? Even in HS – if they're at all trying to teach anything about the study of the past, then referencing sources has to be a part of it.After reading this book I could see it having one utility in a classroom. In either an advanced HS or introductory college class, break the book into small (3-5 pages) sections, assign each section to a student or small group and ask them to analyze where Manchester got his information and then whether this is a correct use of source material, particularly when analyzing those sources for context. Using satirical works like fabliaux or Chaucer as "what happened" history is flat out goofy. I think there could be some educational value in this as a "How not to use source material" type of exercise.Problem is, if someone did this, it would raise sales of this book. That would be wrong.

  9. Pam T

    May 24, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    "A World Lit Only by Fire" is what happens when you have a 'modernist, a sick one at that, trying to do Medieval History. It's not that the primary sources require one to be a rocket scientist, but it does help to understand the memes of the time, not to mention what an allegory is. By the way, your review was excellent, as usual. It not only showed what was wrong, but gave numerous examples of faulty evidence and reasoning. And shame on Manchester for lousy scholarship.Pam

  10. Vellum

    May 31, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I'm glad there will be readers for our little series. I'm not so concerned with his sources — as you say, identifying them could be a life's work, given the unsurprising lack of footnotes — but at least in identifying the worst of his fictions and providing good scholarship on the subject we might, I don't know, 'combat' the arrogant ignorance of this text? I mean come on, for medievalists, this book is a drinking game. Randomly jump to a page, and if it contains an outrageous "fact" about the medieval peasantry, you read it aloud and then drink. :D

  11. Anonymous

    August 7, 2010 at 2:00 am

    I just finished reading this book as my daughter was assigned it in AP Euro. I am not well-read in history and I tend to take things with ISBN numbers at face value, and I did find the book disturbing. I read Wiki on a couple historical figures for comparison afterward, and found that AWLOBF had left me with a possibly non-factual negative bias towards several historical figures – then I found this post. Thank you for the perspective, greatly appreciated, and I hope to see further information in the blog by Vellum etc.Our school district "solved" the problem by making the pages on the Borgias optional reading. Tell a roomful of teenagers that they may omit the pages of a sexually explicit nature, and what happens? Hmm.

  12. Medieval History Geek

    August 29, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    Yes – somehow I don't see a message to teenagers of, "there's lots of sex in this part – stay away" as being particularly effective. It wouldn't have been for me at that age.

  13. Danny Cohen Cacho

    February 14, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    nice blog

  14. Zoeklae

    September 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    I have been in the SCA for 12 years. I also have a degree in Anthropology and generally have a love for history and learning of the medieval period. That is what drew me to the SCA. I am an graduate ethics course in an MPA program and my professor is using this as one of our textbooks. I was appalled at reading this book. THe scholarship is horrible, and and as a medievalist the content was insulting and subpar. I have not read anything else by this author, but have spend the last two weeks contructing a counter argument to this book from books in my own collection. Thank you for having this blog. It is nice to know that there are some who stand for good scholarship, it seems to be something that is slipping away in our current culture.

    • Curt Emanuel

      November 25, 2012 at 7:59 pm

      Thanks Zoeklae. I’ve been told that he’s written some other stuff which isn’t bad but I can’t swear to it as I haven’t read them. It seems he decided to write this as some sort of diversion when he didn’t have the energy to tackle a book on Churchill. It’s a bit sad – it’s easy to point to something like this and argue that non-specialists can never write anything worthwhile. I don’t agree with this. For example, John Julius Norwich wrote some pretty decent books on the Eastern Empire which, while not quite “up to code” from an academic perspective sometimes, are pretty useful and make nice intros for the general reader.

  15. The History Book Guy (E.J.)

    January 5, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Norman F. Cantor’s “Civilization of the Middle Ages” or Thomas Cahill’s “Mysteries of the Middle Ages” are great starting points for anyone interested in reading Medieval History. Avoid Mr. Manchester like the Bubonic Plague!

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 6, 2013 at 8:58 am

      EJ, thanks for your comment.

      Cantor’s OK – it was the first one I read. The largest problem is no footnotes and he really doesn’t incorporate what others say into the text so when he says something which isn’t mainstream you have no idea where it came from. For example, he says that Paul may have been an epileptic (35). I think the idea’s interesting but without a source to be able to follow up the reasoning it’s not very useful. Still, it’s a fair overview.

      Cahill’s another story. I’ve never read anything of his but historians seem to be of the pretty universal opinion that his stuff is filled with speculation and radical leaps of logic which are unsupported by the evidence. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote this review was because Edward James had evidently taken the time to read Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization..


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