The Dark Ages
A former journalist and best-selling historian (“Death of a President” and “American Caesar”), William Manchester would make a dreadful publicist. He describes his latest book, "A World Lit Only by Fire" as “a slight work, with no scholarly pretentions.”
In imposing his own perspective on existing accounts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, however, Manchester succeeds in enlightening readers about this intriguing millennium, roughly from the 6th to the 16th century, as a journalist might analyze a drawn-out political campaign.
His goal isn’t to be comprehensive but to make the issues and characters of that period comprehensible, or at least vivid. For example, he briefly considers Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor from 800 to 814: “He was a just and enlightened ruler—for the times,” Manchester avers without any supporting documentation. Then he adds, that the Carolingian king was illiterate and capable of ordering 4,500 Saxon rebels beheaded before lunch for refusing to be baptized. Enlightened is, indeed, a relative term.
Manchester doesn’t unearth new facts but rather looks at accepted information in new ways. Although this book is his first foray into pre-modern history, he takes issue with recent chroniclers who have abandoned the term “Dark Ages,” once a common synonym for the Middle Ages (indeed, most dictionaries no longer list the more pejorative label). But the author disagrees, pointing out wryly, “There are no survivors to be offended by the old term.”
“Dark,” in fact, might be a euphemism for those times, according to Manchester. European peasants, who made up more than 99 percent of the population, lived in dank, vermin-infested hovels and knew nothing of the world outside their tiny villages or even the holy writ that proscribed their lives (eating meat during Lent, for example, was a capital offense). Peasants went naked in summer, had no surnames, and often lived in name-less hamlets.
“Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur,” Manchester concludes.
None of the above is new information, but the reader can feel the author’s enthusiasm as he tries to make sense of a senseless time: “Medieval men were rarely aware of which century they were living in. There was no reason they should have been. There are great differences between everyday life in 1791 and 1991, but very few between 791 and 991."
The book offers a brief analysis of the medieval mind, a long chapter on the shattering of the Middle Ages and a closing account of Magellan’s attempt to circumnavigate the world from 1519 to 1521. Manchester has a penchant for idolizing his subjects (such as John F. Kennedy and H.L. Mencken), and in the Portuguese sailor he has found another champion: “In the long lists of history it is difficult to find another figure whose heroism matches Magellan’s.”
The author mentions two other likely candidates, Jesus Christ and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, hardly a comprehensive survey.
The anointing of Magellan seems to spring primarily from the author’s enthusiasm for his subject, which makes the narrative compelling: “The little armada’s 12,600-mile crossing of the Pacific, the greatest physical unit on earth, is one of history’s imperishable tales of the sea, and like so many others it is a story of extraordinary human suffering, of agony so excruciating that only those who have been pushed to the extremes of human endurance can even comprehend it.”
It was, indeed, a time of wonder, of human miracles rather than divine ones, and Manchester’s writing is driven by his own sense of awe: “Within 30 years—a single generation—a few hundred small ships … discovered more of the world than had all of mankind in all the millennia since the beginning of time.”
Manchester makes clear how singularly astonishing Magellan’s quest was (he died in battle in the Philippines, and only one of his five ships actually circled the globe). The feat, a journey of 39,300 miles, would not be repeated for almost 60 years. Columbus’ Atlantic crossing in 1492 was one tenth as long and would be duplicated numerous times before his death in 1506.
Besides vividly documenting the immensity and diversity of the world, Magellan’s expedition inadvertently served as a singular scientific experiment. When the lone ship limped back to Spain, the log indicated it was Saturday, while the people who greeted the mariners insisted it was Sunday. In sailing West, the vessel had saved a rotation of the earth and gained a day.
The earth was not only round, it was moving and spinning on its axis. This revelation was not to be found in the Bible. The Pope condemned the scientific explanation of the lost day as heretical. “In many ways it was the crowning triumph of the age, the final decisive blow to the dead past,” Manchester writes.
If his prose is overblown at times, if the facts are not novel, Manchester has succeeded in bringing a lively, thoughtful order to a time when humankind was emerging from a prolonged and profound intellectual lethargy. If textbooks were written like this, we would all know more about the past.