A World Lit Only by Fire

There was a book in the history section of Barnes and Noble when I worked there, which I admit to fondling a little every time I straightened that section, called A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester.  It’s a superb title – it put that sort of glazed light in my eyes as I thought about just what it meant, or what I took it to mean.  It does an excellent job of encapsulating the huge gap between now and the Middle Ages in just a few words.  And part of that gap is my misunderstanding of the meaning of the title.  My definition was always that apart from the sun, moon, and stars, the only illumination available to humanity was fire: the only man-made illumination was what could be scraped from flint and steel.  Which … is true, but not, apparently, what Mr. Manchester meant, given that the title phrase is used in reference to the flames of the pyres on which heretics were burned.  Many, many fires, and many, many heretics.  Which, pardon the pun, puts a different light on things.  

We – being those addicted to fantasy novels and the Renaissance Faire, and especially the younger and more naive among us – tend to romanticize the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  It’s easy to do, given that we’re all of us brought up on Robin Hood (who, if you watch Errol Flynn and the like, had a fully functioning bath in the greenwood) and fairy tales (bowdlerized) and … well, things like the New York Renaissance Faire (which actually has more validity to it than it might get credit for).  Shiny happy peasants and the occasional despot and villain existing only to be vanquished by the shining hero.  It didn’t really take a book like Only by Fire to make me realize how Disneyfied this image is – no one with half an ounce of scholarship in history can resist pointing out how drafty castles are and how there was an almost complete lack of sanitation everywhere from the meanest hovel (and they were very mean) to the aforementioned castle, and how if you lived to the age of forty you were doing pretty well, though you probably would look about sixty… Knights in shining armor?  To be called that was basically an insult, from what I’ve read, as if your armor is shiny and undented it means you haven’t been in battle: you’re all show.  Or, I posit, you have a really good squire, but what do I know.  There’s just something about pretty bubbles that make people long to burst them (I’ve been guilty of wanting to do this myself, though I usually try to have mercy). 

In case I had any illusions left, though, I’m reading AWLObF.  That squishy popping sound?  That was the last of those illusions, going very much away.  The Middle Ages were hell.  The Renaissance?  Better – but not for everyone, and not in all ways.

Oh, in case there were any other illusions, say about the church I grew up in, this does for them too.  The Roman Catholic Church has spent more of its two thousand years being Roman than Church, though that was pretty catholic (meaning “universal”): from the local friar to supposedly cloistered nuns to the pope, clergy throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance could be almost counted on to be corrupt.  Illegitimate children, incest with some of the illegitimate children, orgies, greed, gluttony, simony (the crime of paying for sacraments and consequently for holy offices or positions in the hierarchy of a church) – oh, and bloodthirstiness ranging from enjoying watching torture to first-hand torture to murder, sometimes for punishment, sometimes for advancement, sometimes, apparently, for fun.  Which Christianity these people thought they were subscribing to, or why they bothered to even pay lip service, I don’t kn- – Well, yes I do know why they bothered.  Positions in the upper clergy, bishops and cardinals and especially the pope, were very lucrative, particularly for those willing to make their position work for them.  Again, not very Christian, at least by the modern dictionary definition.  Reviews I’ve read of this book call shame on Manchester for (for one thing) painting the Catholic church’s history with a broad and dirty brush, but I a) wasn’t all that surprised by much of what he had to say and b) know well enough from other sources that a fair amount of what he says was so.  Not all, but quite a bit.

One thing I have to say – it certainly puts things into perspective.  I started this over a weekend, reading for several hours on the Sunday … And that sentence sums up a lot of the things I should be grateful for.  Whatever else can be said about this society, the fact that I, a single woman of my age, had the leisure to curl up with a book for several hours – switching on a light by the bed I don’t have to share (in a room I don’t have to share) when the sun went down – on the Sabbath – is something that would have been a) impossible in so many ways and b) almost satanic a few hundred years ago.  Sloth.  And a woman who can read?  A book?  A book in English?  With pictures on high quality paper?  Warm indoors with no fire in the middle of winter (as it was when I started)?  I should realize more often: I’m in heaven.  Comparatively. 

Seriously, even if I didn’t learn a single fact – and I have; for one thing I’m never going to be able to shake the memory of the connection between Martin Luther and excrement – this book would be amazing for one thing: perspective.  There’s the perspective that, while it’s human nature to complain about one’s lot, given where the human race has come from we should all walk through our luxurious lives with smiles on our faces.  And there’s the wider angle perspective that everything is moving faster and faster.  I don’t of course mean simply that cars and trains and planes are faster than horses or shank’s mare, the sole means of locomotion until the last couple of centuries, though that’s related.  I mean that for a full millennium, the Dark Ages, there were according to Manchester two innovations of note.  Two, in a thousand years.  Life was fragile and all but meaningless; the mass of men – meaning men, women, and children old enough to walk and older – rose before dawn, went out to the fields, worked all day in a manner that very few 21st century denizens have ever had to work, ate terrible food and that sparingly, returned at darkfall to their hovels (which might be dignifying most of their shelters a little too much), and collapsed on vermin-ridden straw-strewn dirt floors with, if they were lucky, a vermin-ridden blanket to sleep until dawn got them out to work again.  Repeat, ad nauseam. 

Objectively, I know it can’t have been so very bleak every minute of every day.  Human nature won’t stand for it.  They knew nothing else, and found their joys when and where they could.  It just wasn’t easy.  And as for the complete lack of innovation … it’s a little hard to swallow.  Two words: Notre Dame. 

As things changed with the onset of the Renaissance, most men’s lives didn’t change very much, not for a while – but some aspects did: mandatory education for all children spread.  Literacy rose.  People began to get ideas.  The philosophies and histories of ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered, and this opened minds.  Art began to rise – partly to lend patrons culture and prestige, but also for art’s sake.  Invention and innovation became the norm.  But still, one institution, or one man, could own a copy of every book there was (what a happy dream), and read every book there was (even happier), and make a claim to be familiar with all bodies of knowledge without anyone laughing in his face.  It took something like a month to travel from Rome to Germany, two months to reach London, so news and innovation didn’t exactly move at lightning speeds.  The Renaissance was a time of change, to say the least – but even the most extreme news and innovation took time to spread. 

Today … illiteracy rates are probably not a great deal better now than in the Renaissance, sadly – when I did my literacy volunteers training, the percentage quoted for functional illiteracy was 30, which I believe was national … But a minimum of elementary education is compulsory, and free, for every child;  the learning is available, but not every child (or adult) has the other resources apart from money to take advantage of it.  The population has grown to a degree that would shock a citizen of the Renaissance … it shocks me.  (I just saw an article warning that in the next 40 years this planet will need to produce more food than it did in the past 8000 years.  In other words, we’re in trouble.  Isaac Asimov scared me with much the same warning many years ago; I was apparently the only one so troubled by it, because things have only gotten worse since then.)  But the population isn’t the only thing that has grown exponentially; the speed of communication has dwindled to almost nothing.  Telephone, internet, satellites – I heard about the February 22 earthquake in New Zealand first thing in the morning, checked The Board Which Shall Remain Nameless next thing to see if Kiwis I used to know had checked in, was reassured that they had, sent an email to someone I used to know, and heard back from her within a couple of hours.  So small a time ago as twenty-five years ago I not only would not have been able to receive news before days if not weeks had passed unless I had telephone numbers (assuming telephones are working there), I wouldn’t have had any reason to want news – I wouldn’t have had the means to know anyone in New Zealand. 

A simile struck me, and I think it’s a good one.  Years ago, I used to play D&D (go ahead, I know) with my cousin and a few of his friends. The one I had a crush on had a little brother who usually also played with us; he was probably about 13 when I met him.  The games sort of petered out after a while, and months went by without my seeing the brothers, until one day they and my cousin, I believe, for some reason I don’t remember, showed up at my work – and I slammed instantly and unprecedentedly into mother-hen mode over the younger brother.  My cousin used to call him “the kender” because he wasn’t all that tall, he was curly-haired, and he had a mischievous streak.  He wasn’t a kender anymore. He had shot up dramatically – I want to say about a foot, but it probably wasn’t, quite; the reason he worried me, and the reason I still remember it, is that while he had shot up, he hadn’t expanded in any other direction – he looked like someone had grabbed him by the feet and someone else had grabbed him by the curly hair and had pulled, hard, in opposite directions – not grown so much as stretched.  It did not look healthy – he scared me a little.  A child learns with Legos or blocks that just putting one brick on top of another on top of another will only get you so high; sooner or later the inherent instability will topple the whole thing.  Growing too tall too fast puts a strain on organs and bones.  And that is, basically, what has happened with humanity.  In the past couple of hundred years, we have shot up vertically without much growth at the base.  We are basically the same people we were two hundred years ago – or five hundred – but we have freedoms and technologies and opportunities that weren’t dreamt of then.  In some ways we’re medieval people trying to adapt to the bridge of the Enterprise

Or try this: often when some of us are talking about computers or iPods or what-have-you, my 84-year-old mother will say “Yes, just like we had when we were kids.”  She was born in 1927.  When she actually was a kid she lived on a farm in Newfoundland without any form of central heating, without electricity, without indoor plumbing.  In the years she has been alive technology has hit a growth spurt that makes the kender’s look like nothing.  Again, in the first millennium of the common era Manchester says there were exactly two innovations worth notice: the windmill and the water wheel.  Apart from that, humanity was too busy just staying alive to get creative.  It looks like after perhaps 1100, 1200? the number of inventions and innovations began to compound exponentially, and has continued to do so.

From the graph I found on Wiki it shows a tiny number of patents in the 1830’s – 1850’s.  Maybe 25,000 in the 1880’s.  The 1910’s look like in the 40,000 range.  Around WWII it topped 50,000.  Then in the late 60’s it started to skyrocket.  Hello, computer.  More specific numbers:

1963: 66,715
1973: 66,935
1983: 59,390
1993: 99,955
2003: 188,941
2009: 224,912
Wow.  In 46 years the number has more than tripled – 2009 saw 33.3 times more patents than 1963. (It’s nice when the research bears out my theories so dramatically.) And that increase has been mostly steady.  Obviously, the 80’s saw a bit of a dip, but after that – skyrocket. 

Back to the book.

The writing is very approachable and remarkably un-footnoted, but still not altogether easy.  The prologue discusses how the book as a whole grew from the plan to write a paper on Magellan, and this becomes obvious as the book closes with its homage to the great explorer.  In between, the book hops and skips and jumps from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and back again, 1200’s to 1500’s to 1400’s, England to Germany to Rome to Portugal, Magellan to Erasmus to all the popes of the age(s) to Calvin to Magellan again… The disjointed peripatetic style of the writing, with a deep concentration on one place and time here and a skimming over of a century or two there, was a bit difficult and disheartening at times, though in retrospect I understand the necessity of it.  In the beginning and the end it was the story of Magellan, and the rest of it was just the background necessary to understand all that went into the first circumnavigation of the globe.  That’s the warp and weft of the book: the shrinking of the planet, in many ways – the growth of the population, making “civilized” areas more numerous and less inaccessible; the proliferation of the printed word, leading slowly but inevitably to the phenomenon known as “public opinion” as well as a wildly increased speed of the dissemination of news and information; exploration changing the way the world, and religion, were viewed.  Still … it feels like he took on a great deal too much, and could not do justice to all of it, and in the end seems to have filled in some of the gaps with generalization and myth. 

A little research shows that some of what he presents with utmost certainty isn’t at all certain.  His brief discussion of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is only one of several explanations for the origins of the legend, and the most tabloid-worthy; apparently the tales of Francis I’s sexual exploits are a bit shaky.  A review on Amazon says it’s “known among medievalists merely as ‘that book'”; there’s a wide divergence of opinion on it, with both five-star and one-star reviews rather passionately defended.  I value what I learned from it – especially about Magellan, which was straight-forward and clear, and more than I remember ever learning before, thank you very much grades 1-10 history … but overall I’m a little relieved to be finished with it at last.  It’s not a textbook on the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, but I believe it did what it set out to do: it made me think.

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