In the first section of William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire, we are taken into a world that is vastly different from our own, and we see a kind of attitude which is rarely seen today. Manchester stresses the fact that the peasants in the Dark Ages had no knowledge of what was happening in the rest of the world. In our age of twenty-four-hour news networks and instantaneous access to information from across the globe through the internet, it is hard to fathom that if we were still living in the Dark Ages most of us would be completely oblivious to the activities of the rest of the world outside of our small village.
Manchester also points out that the common people in the Dark Ages had no conception of time. Most would not have known what century it was, let alone the specific date. For most peasants, time passed in a cycle of seasons, and they only needed to know the days of the week in order to know when it was the Sabbath. This is in stark contrast to the life of a modern man. We can know time down to the second. And we need to know time with greater precision. While the peasants of the Dark Ages needed only to recognize the passing of the seasons and when the Sabbath was, modern man often needs to know the time of day precisely.
We are constantly on a schedule. School and work starts at a certain time, and we must be there on time. Another fascinating difference which Manchester points out is the fact that most of the peasants did not have surnames and were either referred to by their first name alone, or by a nickname. I found this very strange. Manchester does a good job of showing the differences between the modern mind and the medieval mind. Being aware of these differences allows the reader to appreciate the huge impact that the Renaissance had on Europe.
Now in the next section of A World Lit Only by Fire, entitled “The Shattering,” Manchester shows us several events that “shattered” beliefs during the Renaissance. Most of these had something to do with the Church at the time because religion was one of the most important parts of Medieval and Renaissance life. The first event that shattered beliefs and changed life did not immediately cause a revolution but had a long-lasting impact on the future of Christianity. That event was the dissemination of the works of Erasmus.
With his constant criticism of the Church and his calls for papal reform, he proved that one could criticize the church without being a radical revolutionary, for Erasmus was a devout Catholic. Before Erasmus, few had dared to criticize the Roman Church and those who did were not taken seriously. However, with his satires, Erasmus appealed to all classes of people and gave the people the encouragement to call for reform and criticize the Church. This may have influenced Martin Luther, even though he disliked Erasmus’ work, to nail his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg.
The fact that Erasmus was widely popular also contributed to the change in the thinking that anyone who criticized the church would be damned to hell. Even though Erasmus didn’t do anything as revolutionary as Martin Luther, his brilliant satires were able to change the mindset of Europeans and may have enabled, against his own wishes, the Protestant Reformation. The next event discussed by Manchester is the Reformation itself. Sparked by Martin Luther’s outrage at the sale of indulgences, this is the event that split Christianity in half.
Those loyal to the existing Christian Church headed by the Pope became known as Roman Catholics, and those who were not loyal to that Church formed different Protestant Churches. Before the Reformation there was one authoritative representative of the word of God; i. e. , the Pope. Most Christian literature was in Latin, but since Latin was essentially a dead language, most people could not read or understand it, and this helped the Church maintain control of Christians of the age. Within this system, freedom of religious thought was extremely limited.
Saying anything that contradicted the pope could get you labeled as a heretic and sentenced to jail, or even death. After the Reformation, several different Churches formed and as they formed, they warred with each other. The pope was no longer the supreme head of Christianity as he had been before the Reformation. Bibles where published in living languages. All kinds of opinions were published in pamphlets. One undesirable consequence of the Reformation was the different sects fighting with each other.
Each different sect believed it represented the one true religion. Fighting between sects became common. Fighting between Catholics and Protestants was rife. Protestants burned Roman Catholic churches, smashing mosaics and statues, and even killing innocent women and clergy. The Roman Church started its notorious Inquisition, which was especially violent in Spain. Before the Reformation there was only one Christian Church so religious violence in Europe was rare, but after the Reformation religious violence and persecution became commonplace.
The Reformation was a major turning point in the history of Christianity. Without it, America today would be a different country, since many settlers in early America came to escape religious persecution. Manchester’s section on the Reformation is therefore perhaps the most important section in the book. In the last section of A World Lit Only by Fire, entitled “One Man Alone,” Manchester writes about Ferdinand Magellan and his circumnavigation of the globe.
In this section, Manchester takes time to go into extremely fine detail about Magellan’s voyage in order to explain what type of man Magellan was, and, more importantly, to show how big the odds were against his actually finishing his voyage. Manchester seems to idolize Magellan, in part because Magellan wasn’t seeking fame or wealth, but instead simply had a dream and was determined to make it a reality, something that I think most people can respect.