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.
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.