Book Review: A World Lit Only By Fire


The more I read about history, the more questions I have, the more I want to read and learn, and the less appealing any part of it becomes.  I know a lot of people who say they’d want to live in a certain era in the past.  While I’ll admit, I’d love to be able to visit or observe certain people, places, and things; the past holds no draw for me.  It is something to be learned and understood, and then escaped.  A dark, monstrous, horror filled shadow from which great and terrible people eventually led us.  I imagine that our world of today, still steeped in superstitious nonsense, butchery in the name of old books, and still primitive medicines will look much the same to a reader in the future.  But reading about the nightmare world of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, makes me so glad to be alive today, and not at any time in our grim past.

As expected in a book like this, William Manchester gets right into the obvious differences, like the lack of hygiene, proper nutrition, education, etc.  But the lion’s share of this book is about the appalling, grueling, and disgusting savagery of the time we rightly refer to as the Dark Ages.  From the Church as State/State as Church dominance of Rome through the bloody minded tectonic shift that became known as the Protestant Reformation.  The fear, the bloodlust, the corruption, and the oppression are simply awful.  And Manchester doesn’t shy away from it.  At first, while he described the decadence of the Vatican in excruciating detail, I assumed this was (like the 1998 film Elizabeth) going to simply be an anti-Catholic book.  And frankly, I can’t blame anyone writing about that era for being so, as hyperbolic as the reality of its evil was.  But no sooner had Luther gained some ground than Manchester opened up on the hypocrisy and evils of the Protestants with just as much relish.  Few beyond Erasmus, who stands as a kind of moral hero through the narrative, escape their lashings.

Even in this horror story, you can see the stirrings of light; the rebirth of logic, reason, and science that had been so soundly drowned in the dogmatic excesses of the rise of Christianity in Europe.  Though it may seem an eternity, people will not be held down forever.  The Human will eventually rises above.  It has to, it’s how we’ve evolved.  And a theocracy is not a tenable state.  People want to know, want to ask, want to seek.  We need to strive, to understand, to grow, and that is the antithesis of the theocracy (be that State as Religion like in 20th Century Communism, or Religion as State as in Medieval Europe), where obedience, ritual, and conformity are the rules of the game.

It is with the explorers, especially Magellan, that the author finally lets loose with some hope and joy.  Not that it’s all smiles and sunshine, but one gets a sense that the crushing darkness may finally be rolling back, even as a new kind of oppressive savagery (colonialism) is being born.  Sadly, even Magellan’s amazing adventure was tainted by the behavior of his men, and his own growing religious zealotry.  His descent into pious madness makes a grim ending to an otherwise grand life.  But the exhilaration of discovery and bold action kept making me think of heroes from our own time, stepping into the void of space.

A World Lit Only By Fire is a great read, and one that gives several good jumping-off points for further reading.  There’s always so much more to learn, and books like this can help wake a reader up to subjects one might not have been aware of.  I know I’ve purchased a few books on exploration (including one about Magellan) since reading this book.  And it worked quite well as a companion to some other books I’d read, like Lost to the West and The Fourth Part of the World.  For those interested in history, this is a good one to track down.


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