Monday, October 12, 2009

A World Lit Only By Fire

By William Manchester

I assigned this book to my AP European History class. It is a great, interesting history of Europe’s transition from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance and Reformation.

Manchester takes the reader from what is left of European society after the Black Plague to the completion of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe in a story like fashion. He does not mince words or gloss over the worst part of this time period. He is especially harsh on the Borgia’s, probably with good reason. Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope was known for his wild Vatican parties.

“Borgia’s enjoyment of the flesh was enhanced when the woman beneath him was married, particularly if he had presided at her wedding. Breaking any commandment excited him, but he was partial to the seventh.”

Another unusual accomplisment of Pope Alexander VI was his illegitimate daughter, Lucrezia. Lucrezia was an example of the hard life a Renaissance woman faced, especially if her father held any sort of political power. She was married and divorced several times to create alliances that benefitted her father. It is also rumored that she was one of her father’s own mistresses for a time.

Manchester follows the historical path of Martin Luther as he, through his attack on the selling of indulgences, sets the fire that will create the largest schism Europe had seen to date.

“In defying the organized church, Luther had done something else. He had broken the dam of medieval discipline. By his reasoning, every man could be his own priest.”

He addresses how without the protection of Frederick of Saxony, Luther would have been burned as a heretic and the Protestant Reformation we know today would not have happened when and how it did.

He is also not complimentary of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, blaming a great deal of the religious wars that followed on his inability to rule Spain and the Holy Roman Empire at the same time. As he ignored the conflict between Luther and the Pope, he allowed the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire to embrace Luther’s ideas and bring a slow end to an institution that had existed since Charlemagne.

“…the political vacuum being left by the ebbing Holy Roman Empire was being filled by a new phenomenon: the rising nation-states.”

And finally, he is infatuated with the exploits of Ferdinand Magellan.

“In the long lists of history it is difficult to find another figure whose heroism matches Magellan’s.”

I agree that Magellan’s achievements were extremely important in technological advancements, globalization and human achievement; I do not believe he is the greatest hero of modern times.

I chose this book for my class because it is easy to read and Manchester writes in a conversational, interesting style. He sprinkles history with just enough “interesting” facts to hold the attention of high school seniors. But, I also chose it because there is some controversy about his writing of the book. He uses many secondary sources, rather than primary sources from the time and he sprinkles his history with his own biases at times. I really wanted to use this book to teach my students to be critical readers and not just accept whatever is written in a book, especially non-fiction books as the final authority.

Rating - B+

1 comment:

  1. This does sound like a great book to read! I'am a history student in Holland and this sounds like a great book to learn more! Thank you for your review.