William Manchester gained his notoriety in a series of biographies based upon the life of Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Through his writings in this work, Manchester made the colorful life of Churchill come alive as Manchester was able to capture an aspect and human aspect that had been missed by many of the other books on Churchill. The same is the case in this book: The World Lit Only by Fire. The book is divided up into three separate and distinct parts.
The first part deals with the typical medieval European mind and all the impediments to free thought and learning that the Catholic Church had over the individual in his opinion. However, out of that time, according to Manchester, there was still able to emerge, some of the greatest minds, along with some of the greatest contributions, the world has ever known in the field of science, religion and philosophy. Manchester makes a list of twenty eight such individuals.
Some of these would include Martin Luther, Copernicus, Machiavelli, Erasmus and his hero and the man to whom he will constitute the last third of the book about: Magellan and the great importance that Manchester feels, was the contributions that he gave to medieval Europe. The second aspect of the book deals with the Catholic Church and its role of importance and dominance in Europe during that time as well as the corruption of the Popes and the rise of humanism as a direct response to the Catholic Church. The Europe of the Middle Ages is a very large subject to tackle and Manchester does his best to encompass all of the major themes of that time as he sees it, into one comprehensive study.
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As the title suggests, Manchester attempts to show the relationship between the Medieval Mind and how it evolves into the Renaissance. This occurs through the evolution of religious thought into a more modern day aspect, a complete look at education and philosophy with major contributions to these fields occurring at this time along with the successes in exploration. However, this transformation would not occur overnight.
At the beginning of the section entitled “The Medieval Mind” Manchester states that the age is plagued with the lasting effects of The Black Death, famine, illiteracy and common daily violence surrounding the courts of Europe. Manchester’s concept of the Medieval Mind also comes from the influence that the church has on almost every aspect of society, an influence that Manchester feels served as an impediment to learning.
The example of Saint Bernard Clairvaux is given when he states that: “the pursuit of knowledge, unless sanctified by a holy mission... Is a pagan act, and therefore vile.” The medieval man or woman was left with nothing else than to contemplate God’s wrath and displeasure at their sin. Manchester stated that the only form of society that a typical man or woman felt was what was offered to them by the church.
It is then that Manchester tackles The Reformation. In this, he credits both Erasmus, a moderate on issues of religion and which was ahead of his time in Christian thought and tolerance for other versions of Christian Faith, and Martin Luther, who took the Catholic Church head on and did all that he could to show the corruption of the church and dedicated his life to the education of the people.
Due to the fact that the masses were not able and/or not allowed to learn how to read, the version of Christianity that was offered to the typical parishioner was typically void of Biblical truth in favor of Catholic Church doctrine which were sometimes in direct conflict with Biblical truths. Manchester goes into detail about the corruption of the church being allowed to flourish, due in part, to the masses inability to read and to know that what was being taught to them was not entirely true. In response to Pope Leo X who was in need of obtaining a large amount of revenue in order to finish the Basicilla at St.
Peter’s, allowed Johan Tetzel to sell indulgences which offered eternal salvation to anyone willing to pay for it, Luther became outraged and sought to attack, possibly not the church as a whole, but this doctrine which was completely in conflict with Romans 1:17 which said that the righteous shall live by faith. The resistance that Luther offered to the Catholic Church eventually turned into the Protestant Reformation and as a result, there are more than 650 million Christians of a Protestant section.
Another in the chief contributions that Luther gives to his German people, according to Manchester, is the completion of a German language Bible. In order to complete this, Luther had to be hidden away in a tower out of fear of retribution which would lead to death by agents of the Catholic Church, set on suppressing this which they saw the translation as well as the attacks that Luther made in response to the Catholic Church to be vile and wicked.
Manchester, with regard to The Reformation, sees the entire process as being avoidable. Manchester sees the corrupt Popes during that time as well as the rigid rules that were put in place by the Catholic Church as being not only unnecessary, but also doing much to incite the masses against the church once an antagonist, such as Luther comes onto the world stage.
However, since it did happen, Manchester sees The Reformation as not only a split between the church but also in history as much of Europe could now be split into one of two groups: persons belonging to the Medieval Mindset of superstition and absolute religious adherence, or a new consensus that allowed for the emergence of Copernicus and Galileo and above all in the mind of Manchester, the explorer Magellan.
Manchester, in a continuation of his degradation of the Popes of this age, believes that their behaviors not only led to the religious reformation but also to the rise of the humanists. “Humanism… led to the greatest threat the church had ever faced.” The new inventions and ideas brought on my men like Da Vinci and Copernicus, according to Manchester, put into question “ the certitude that knowledge had been forever fixed by God.”
The assertions by Copernicus as well as Galileo, brought into question the whole of idea of God’s omnipotence. Despite the fact that nowhere in The Bible does it claim that the sun revolves around the earth, since the Catholic Church asserted that this was the case and since the church had placed such a stronghold over the minds of the people, any blow to The Catholic Church and their faulty logic, also bought into question, the validity of Christianity as a whole.
As a result, since some felt that God could not be trusted and that the inability to see him made the case for faith even harder, the only other logical source was to become a humanist and to believe in the capabilities of man since that is easier to see and to trust in the minds of the faithless. The corruption of the Catholic Church at that time, coupled with the inventions of Galileo and Copernicus, along with the huge popularity of Luther and Erasmus, a more secular and humanistic world view seemed to emerge and as a result, helped usher in the influence of The Renaissance.
This brings us to the last section of the book which Manchester has entitled “One Man Alone.” A full 1/3 of the book is filled with the actions of the explorer Magellan and how Manchester gives a glowing review to the man and his accomplishments. According to Manchester, Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe “was the crowning triumph of the age, the final decisive blow to the past.”Manchester includes this accomplishment as not only the greatest of the Middle Ages but also as part of a bigger picture: the religious revolution brought on by Luther and to a lesser but still important degree, Erasmus, the increase of secular power that Copernicus brought on with his achievements towards science.
The majority of this section is a glowing review of Magellan and it seems to be, as one critic said: “ a hero worship of the man.” Of all the people of importance that contributed to Medieval society, Manchester makes a list of the twenty eight most important people. Some of these include Luther, Copernicus and Erasmus. The man that is seated on the top of this list of notables is Magellan. Manchester regards Magellan as “ the linchpin for the men of the Renaissance.” 
Manchester does not go into detail concerning what he means by this but rather gives a general review of the age which included both high and low culture. Manchester praises Magellan’s handling of the mutiny aboard ship, overlooks his distance miscalculations and refers to Magellan as the era’s greatest hero. In this hero worship of Magellan, Manchester seems to overemphasize the importance of Magellan and ignored the explorations of others. However, for Manchester, Magellan is the quintessential definition of what a hero is. “The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources.” For Manchester, Magellan has always come to define such ideals.
Manchester’s ultimate argument is that Magellan’s voyage is directly connected to the shattering of what he had come to define throughout his book, as “The Medieval Mind.” That is to mean, in Manchester’s opinion, a world that is ruled by superstitions as well as not only the corrupt Catholic Church but seemingly, most or all organized religions combined.
Many reviews of Manchester’s book, The World Lit Only by Fire, does not contain a scholarly opinion of the book as Manchester’s telling of the events and conclusions to those events do not seem to be objective. There is seen within the pages of The World Lit Only by Fire, a great deal of biases, anecdotes and humor that seems out of place in a scholarly work of history.
Yet, the book, for fans of Manchester as well as those interested in a fascinating read, will find his book, advantageous to that endeavor. A World Lit Only By Fire is an informative read, yet as its purpose does not possess educational intentions, it tends to include humor, perspectives, biases, and anecdotes that readers may consider not to be objective.
In what was supposed to be a forward on a friend’s book about Magellan, is turned into a separate work on the Middle Ages and all that is occurring at that time. Manchester gives a less than glowing opinion of the Catholic Church, from the Popes all the way down to the nuns and places full blame upon the corruption and the questioning of there ever being the need for a Reformation in the first place, if The Catholic Church had remained pure and free from corruption.
However, The Middle Ages also saw the rise of the humanists which placed their faith in what they could see rather than in what they wanted to see or were told to see by a dominating force as in the form of the Catholic Church. The achievements of Copernicus, Da Vinci and Magellan helped to usher in the rise of scientific thought that was seen to a great degree in The Renaissance that was to follow the days and events that are portrayed in Manchester’s book.
A newly educated class comes out of the Middle Ages which will turn into the humanists. And to an alarming extent, compared to their ancestors from the region, become disillusioned about religion to a degree that is seen still to this day in America and in much of The West. In this regard, Manchester points out, as he does in many of his books, the idea that History is not static. That its importance is not bottled up in a far away land and in a time that does not serve any purpose to contemporary society. Manchester works more like a novelist than a historian as he overlooks anything that could serve as evidence to the contrary of Manchester’s assertion that the average Medieval Mind was pathetic and weak.
It seems that Manchester regards as much, anyone during that time that does not have the honor of being on his list of twenty eight notables who lived during the Middle Ages. For those who agree, A World Lit Only by Fire will serve to validate such opinions. For those who feel as though there always more occurring during that time than has the been the consensus among a small but consistent minority of historians, the book will have the reader responding out loud to some of the assertions that Manchester makes. But in the end, William Manchester is a entertaining and, for those that cannot forget his works on Churchill, a great writer.
Manchester, William. The World Lit Only by Fire. The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.
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