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William Raymond Manchester (b. 4/1/22 d. 6/1/04) was an American historian and biographer, notable as the author of 18 books that have been translated into 20 languages.
Manchester was the son of a WWI Marine, and grew up in Attleboro, Massachusetts. After his father's death, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, he likewise enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, though he was ordered back to college until called up. Although he expected to serve in Europe, Manchester ultimately found himself in the Pacific. He served on Guadalcanal after the Japanese defeat there, and experienced combat in the last major battle of the Pacific War, on Okinawa.
His wartime experiences formed the basis for his very personal account of the Pacific Theater, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War. (He later wrote of WWII in a number of his other books, including his second of a planned three part biography of Winston Churchill, and a biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.)
He received a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts in 1946 and a master's degree from the University of Missouri in 1947. He worked as a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman and The Baltimore Sun. He published his first book, a biography of H. L. Mencken, in 1951, then followed it up with a novel two years later.
In 1955 Manchester became an editor for Wesleyan University and spent the rest of his career there, later becoming an adjunct professor of history and writer-in-residence there. He remarked that the generation coming of age in the 1950s were "withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent," helping to cement the generational moniker Silent Generation.
Following the death of his wife in 1998, Manchester suffered two strokes, and announced, to the disappointment of many of his readers, that he would not be able to complete the previously planned third volume of his three part biography of Churchill. According to this article Vol. III is likely to be published posthumously, being finished by writer Paul Reid, a former feature writer of The Palm Beach Post.
A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester, is a general synopsis of the Middle Ages in Europe, from the years 410 to 1536. The bulk of the book is comprised of anecdotes detailing incidents of treachery (usually debauchery) and utter chaos. A large portion of this is directly targeted at the scandalous history of the Roman Catholic Church at that time.
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The opening section, The Medieval Mind, extensively covers notable occurrences centered in approximately in the year 500, including a lavish description of the fall of the Roman Empire and the reasons for its fall. Manchester then continues, delineating why "Europe was troubled since" the Empire's demise. He speaks of the Dark Ages that immediately followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, including details regarding a number of adverse events that were characteristic of what Manchester notes as a "stark" era. He speaks of the Black Death as well as various "climatic changes," such as severe flooding, that socially and economically brought ruin to the already frail condition that many European nations resorted to after the Roman Empire ceased to exist.
The second section of the work, The Shattering, is the book's most extensive section; expanding upon a great deal of happenings that embodied the latter end of the Middle Ages as well as the early period of the Renaissance. Manchester in this section focuses primarily upon the corruption of the Catholic Church. He attacks many medieval clergymen, including numerous popes, speaking of inappropriate financial and carnal acts. He relates extensive anecdotes regarding a pope from the formidable medieval Borgia family, Pope Alexander VI, speaking of "wild" celebrations and extensive nepotism exercised by this pope. In conjunction with his inscriptions on the state of the Vatican, or the "Holy See," Manchester also speaks in depth about the Protestant Reformation as led by former Catholic monk Martin Luther. Continuing with his focus in regards to spirituality, he writes on the rise of humanism in the early Renaissance days and its celebration of secularism over piety. He covers humanist scholars, and concentrates upon the humanist tendencies of Renaissance leaders such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Speaking also of the European nobility of the era, Manchester elaborately describes the life and decisions made by England's King Henry VIII. He writes of Henry's wives and the King's eventual separation from the Church despite his being once, according to Manchester, an "ardent Catholic."
The final section of the work, One Man Alone, is a description of the voyage of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who circumnavigated the globe. Manchester fully expands upon the life and personality of Magellan, his setbacks, and his eventual death in the Philippines in an attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism there. His argument is ultimately that Magellan's voyage was concurrent with and, on several levels, symptomatic of the shattering of what he defines as the medieval mind.
William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire illustrates to the reader the main events starting from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, thus allowing the reader to learn more about these time periods. Manchester not only writes about the main events, but he is able to catch the reader's attention with interesting and unexpected facts so the book does not completely sound like a history book. This books shows that a book cannot be judged by its cover because the title may seem to be one of a book which talks about the whole world, when it really only talks about Europe. The book tries to include most of the important historical figures of this time period such as: Sir Thomas More, John Alvin, Erasmus, and Henry VIII, but unfortunately Martin Luther and Magellan are talked about the most so it seems the writer is biased and favors these two men. This book can be seen as an introduction to the period of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but it is really a brief history book discussing the lack of achievements in the Middle Ages, different aspects of the Renaissance, especially the Church, and Magellan's travels, which help broaden the reader's knowledge and at the same time might bore him or her.
The first section of the book, A Medieval Mind, gives somewhat of a summary of the Middle Ages as it discusses the lack of achievements, which is informative but seems to show the writer's bias. Manchester seems to display a bias in this first section by making it seem like he is trying to show that no great events happened in the medieval times. The Middle Ages are described in this section as being a time when people were not so educated and the medieval mind was invisible and silent because of "the medieval man's lack of self ego" (21), but the men of the time would probably disagree with this bias. Even though it somewhat shows Manchester's bias, it is interesting to learn that in the Middle Ages people only had first names and "...noblemen had surnames...the rest...were known as Hans, Jacques, Sal, Carlos, Will or Will's wife..." (21), a great difference from today's society where everyone has last names. It seems like the whole book would be biased as in the first chapter, but is proves not to as the following chapter about the Renaissance explains much detail about this period of time.
The next section of the book, The Shattering, is more interesting than the first as it informs about the different aspects of the Renaissance, especially the Church, but there is some information about the Church that is highly unexpected. The unexpected information about the Church, which was about the pope, was the most interesting because it was some of the most engaging details in the book. It is quite interesting to learn how promiscuous the head leader of the Church was because the Church in the Middle Ages was highly respected. The information about Pope Alexander VI, also known as Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, seems to drift away from the rest of the book's more knowledgeable facts and stir interest as it describes in great detail how the pope "was distracted by the sight of her adolescent daughter lying beside them, naked, thighs yawning wide, matching her mother's thrust for pelvic thrust...He switched partners midstroke." (76) Moreover, it was interesting to read about the papal parties were basically sex parties and how "servants kept score of each man's orgasms." (79) because this was a surprising fact. Although this part of the chapter was interesting, almost half of the chapter consisted of information about Martin Luther and the Church, which was not as interesting because it was like reading a history book and made it seem like Manchester favored Luther as he described him as "the ultimate determinist (176)." Besides seemingly showing favoritism to Luther, the book does provide a good deal of information in the next and final chapter of the book.
The last chapter of the book, One Man Alone, focuses on one man, Ferdinand Magellan, who was alluded to in the two previous chapters, and his travels make this section engaging with the facts and information presented. The part of this section which was interesting is the information offered about Magellan's time spent in the Philippines, because other resources usually do not go in depth about this topic and talk about it briefly. The book was able to present more unexpected information, again about sexuality, and keep interest, when it explained how, "The men ran wild... the Filipino maidens preferred white lovers, finding them more erotic and more vigorous..." (270) which strays away from just plain historical facts and add some juicy details. Additionally, the writer mentions how after his death, "every evidence of Ferdinand Magellan's existence had vanished from earth" (282), an ironic statement because Manchester has alluded to Magellan in every chapter and now he talks about Magellan's existence vanishing. Furthermore, the book may be somewhat helpful if the reader is looking for some information about the history of the Philippines because a good amount of information about Magellan in the Philippines is presented. In the end, A World Lit Only by Fire, maintains its historical value while at the same time provides the reader with interesting details and may unfortunately bore the reader as well in some parts.
When I first saw this book, I was not sure what to expect because the title did not tell much about the contents. I thought that the whole book would not be interesting because the first chapter was pretty boring because it did not talk much about main events, rather a general overview of the Dark Ages. As I read on, the book was getting a little better, but most of the second chapter was dull because it seemed like I was reading a history book, except the part about Pope Alexander VI. That part was interesting because, as I stated earlier it was unexpected. The other parts of the second chapter were also monotonous because there was so much time spent talking about Erasmus and Luther, but I did learn a lot about them and the other important people because of all the information about him. Overall, I learned a lot about European history and it has helped because when I am reading the text book I am able to recognize names and know some of the things being talked about, but I probably would never read this book for pleasure and if it was my summer assignment.