Excerpt: William Manchester's A World Lit Only Only by Fire

My first encounter with William Manchester's work had been purely coincidental: I'd stumbled upon a volume of his work, The Arms of Krupp: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Dynasty that Armed Germany at War in the 'bargains' section of a local bookstore.

Apparently there isn't much want these days for 'old-fashioned', learned and somewhat 'conservative' historians (The Wikipedia article on Manchester is quite poor in this sense, briefly summarising his life and work, without delaying too much on his 'ideology' or political inclinations as a writer). Manchester's writing however, is in no way poorly conceived: Carefully articulated, well formed and meticulous, his 'popular histories' are at most times the fruit of an exhaustive research.

The Arms of Krupp had turned out to be a fascinating read from its first pages to its last, recounting the strange and turmoiled history of one powerful German (originally Teutonic) family and, through it, the history of an Empire from its haydays to its days of ruin.

Since finishing Krupp, I'd been intrigued by another work of Manchester's, A World Lit Only by Fire, first by its suggestive name, and second by its subject matter, the Middle Ages, a 'dark' and mostly hard-judged age often inciting controversy and polemic amongst historians and researchers.

I'd recently ordered the book from Strand online bookstore, alongside two contemporary novels and, having read its first chapter, would like to share my reading of this interesting book with The Excerpt Reader's lectors.

Manchester wrote A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age in 1992, a relatively late period in his life, when the historian, author and biographer was in the midst of work on the third volume of his monumental biography of Winston Churchill's life and times, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, and then only 'by mistake': he intended to write a forward for his fellow historian and friend Tim Joyner's work on Magellan, but had found himself drawn to the times which brought about and 'permitted' the great cultural and historical leap that led to the discovery of new realms and to the 'opening' of the European mind.

The result is an "informal history of the European Middle Ages", a summary of 10 or so centuries in roughly 300 pages, most of which are devoted to "One Man Alone", Ferdianand Magellan, the original reason for this work.

A Clash of Civilizations

Manchester's Middle Ages are, first and foremost, a byproduct of a clash of civilizations: The perish of the Roman empire in the fifth century at the hands of the Germanic tribes leaves the spoils of the empire at the mercy of a handful of powerful tribes, ranging from the "Goths, Alans, Burgundians, Thuringians, Frisians, Gepidae, Suevi, Alemanni, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Lombards, Heruli, Quadi, and Magyars". 

But this clash, like most 'big-bangs', does not bring about the creation of a new civilization, for, as Manchester states, "if by civilization one means a society which has reached a relatively high level of cultural and technological development, the answer is no." And indeed there is little progress during the Middle Ages. Everything seems to reach a standstill: the Roman imperial infrastructure (roads, drainage systems, masonry) is slowly collapsing, giving way to "famines and plagues [...] culminating in the Black Death", constantly thinning the populating; commerce is nearly extinct as the seas are laden with Vandal and Muslim pirates; the death penalty is a commonplace solution for any transgression against 'the law'; and violence, random or 'institutionalized', is an everyday habit.

In the midst of all this we witness the rise and flourishing of the Christian church as an almighty entity, massively converting whole tribes and peoples as it expands. In turn, this same church nourishes its customs and rites from pagan traditions and ceremonies, often overturning them and 'christening' them for reuse, for, as Manchester points out, "Medieval Christianity had more in common with paganism than its worshipers would acknowledge", so much so that "Christianity was in turn infiltrated, and to a considerable extent subverted, by the paganism it was supposed to destroy".  

Sociologically speaking, these were no 'fun times' either.. 

Due to the unexpected perils, people gathered in small villages where they spent most if not all of their lived, huddles together, often marrying within their own family or immediate surroundings. Beyond these villages there lurked "the vast, menacing, and at times impassable, Hercynian forest, infested by boars; by bears," by mugs and other medieval mythological creatures.

Illiteracy and ignorance were common amongst kings and emperors as it was amongst the lowest-ranked farmer, and the only way out of this system of was if you joined the clerical order or you became a knight, which most of the times meant a land owner, a direct-beneficiary of the king and the feudal system. 

But the Middle Ages are not all grim, for out of these bleak depictions rises a colorful picture of the era as an age of growth and opportunity (well, at least for some): An époque of injustice and cruelty, "born in the decaying ruins of a senile and impotent empire", it is also a period of flourishing for "the strong, the healthy, the shrewd, the handsome, the beautiful - and the lucky" (no wonder the Middle Ages appealed so much to the Nazi  and pre-Nazi, Wagnerian imagination, a perfect image of a world where 'Survival of the fittest' is an everyday motto). 

No comments:

Post a Comment