A World Lit Only by Fire

Manchester has the unusual ability to tell a captivating story .Here, he vividly presents the tale of how the West emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages into the brilliance of the Renaissance. We first travel with the author, through the horrors of the Dark and Middle Ages:

Life expectancy was brief; half the people of Europe died, usually from disease, before reaching their thirtieth birthday. The toll at childbirth was appalling. A young girl's life expectancy was twenty-four.

The portrait is one of "incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths and an almost impenetrable mindlessness." It is this last that Manchester names as the root of that miserable era.

We see the omnipresent religious persecution-the fear, the torture, the agonizing deaths inflicted upon anyone who questioned the Church. The author astutely links the terror and bloodshed of the Medieval Age to the Church's view of reason: "The devout scorned reason. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the most influential Christian of his time, bore a deep distrust of the intellect and declared that the pursuit of knowledge, unless sanctified by a holy mission, was a pagan act and therefore vile."

It was this crippling mysticism that the Renaissance overthrew: " Abandoning the past's pre-occupation with eternity, humanists preached enrichment of life in the here and now. Their message, reversing ten centuries of solemnity, was hearty-an expression of confidence that men would learn to understand, and then master, natural forces, that they could grasp the nature of the universe, even shape their individual destinies."

This new philosophy, Manchester explains, opened up the world to unlimited exploration. For Manchester, this new quest for knowledge was epitomized by Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the world, whose inspiring story he proceeds to relate.

"The hero" – Manchester writes – "acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. He pursues his vision single-mindedly." Magellan was such an individual. He typified, in the author's view, the forces that shattered the stagnant boundaries and replaced them with unrestricted horizons – the horizons of the world of the Renaissance.

This is a book that gives us the "big-picture" perspective on history. It is – despite the author's occasional inclusion of unnecessarily crude details – an enlightening and perceptive work.

(322 pages)

This review is courtesy of and copyright © by the Ayn Rand Bookstore.


  • A World Lit Only by Fire, The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester. The author illustrates and explains the medieval mind, characterized by its "staggering mindlessness," which persisted without improvement or much change for nine hundred years, which lack of rationality left all of Christendom in a condition of bizarre superstition, brutal subsistence and early death. Out of this dark age, the rediscovery of Greek virtue, particularly in the form of Aristotle, gradually brought an interest in rationality and living on earth back to men. This flowered in the Renaissance, as artists and intellectuals championed the Greek virtues, setting the stage both for reactionary responses of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and -- ultimately more important -- for the eventual philosophic and political revolutions of the Enlightenment.
Damned souls in Hell, a detail from an early Christian painting.

Damned souls in Hell, a detail from an early Christian painting.