• A World Lit Only by Fire

  • The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age
  • By: William Manchester
  • Narrated by: Barrett Whitener
  • Length: 11 hrs and 36 mins
  • 4.0 out of 5 stars (968 ratings)

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A World Lit Only by Fire

By: William Manchester
Narrated by: Barrett Whitener
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Publisher's Summary

From tales of chivalrous knights to the barbarity of trial by ordeal, no era has been a greater source of awe, horror, and wonder than the Middle Ages. In handsomely crafted prose and with the grace and authority of his extraordinary gift for narrative history, William Manchester leads us from a civilization tottering on the brink of collapse to the grandeur of its rebirth, the Renaissance. The latter was a dense explosion of energy that spawned some of history's greatest poets, philosophers, and painters, as well as some of its most spectacular villains.
Knight time: explore our list of titles about the Middle Ages.
©1979, 1980 William Manchester (P)2007 Blackstone Audio Inc.
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

"An absorbing and readable history." (School Library Journal)
"Manchester provides easy access to a fascinating age when our modern mentality was just being born." (Chicago Tribune)
"Manchester has not forgotten the skills that, with invective, eloquence, and anecdote, make him a master storyteller."(Kirkus Reviews)

What listeners say about A World Lit Only by Fire

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Ruined by the narrator

Don't let yourself be fooled by the title of this book - it does not tell you anything about the middle ages and very little about the renaissance - it is focused on the years around 1500 AD. It deals with three basic topics - the downfall of papacy, Martin Luther and Magellan's circumnnavigation of the globe. In addition it is a rehash of what can read in any text book on the era. Nothing new is added and there is not a vestige of source criticism.
The worst thing about this book is, however, the narrator's complete lack of knowledge in the pronounciation of foreign languages. In a book abundant with names, places and quotations in Latin, German, French, Spanish - to name but a few of the langauges - it is a mystery to me why the publishers chose a narrator so inept in pronouncing even a single word correctly. I speak German and French fluently - and have a good understanding of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, but I was at loss in understanding most of this narrator's efforts in reading the quotations in these languages. Instead of teaching me something of the period, it just made me laugh - I am sure this was not the author's intention.

70 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Biased and uninformative

I love learning about the middle ages and hoped that this book would paint a picture of "what life was really like." Instead, it drones incessantly about how debauched, violent, sex-crazed, and maniacal everyone was, especially the clergy. It contains chapter after chapter of horrifying anecdotes of pedophilia, incest, and unspeakable cruelty. Worst of all, the hysterical and unscholarly tone of the work strips all crediblity from the author, so that even if what he is saying is really representative of life during those times, I couldn't trust his reporting of it. I recommend skipping this work if you are actually interested in a balanced representation of the era.

51 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Distorted and FIlled with Historical Erros

As an academic historian, I am appalled by the lack of historical accuracy and perspective supplied in this book. The author subjects his reads to the same tired historical misunderstandings that plagued 19th centruy historians who were trying to look back and come up with a history of different ages. AN uninformed reader of this work would leave it with the impression that scientific, cultural and social development had been completely arrested during this time period, and indeed that Europe had fallen into a world where death and destruction were the only companions. The contrasting richness of life during these times is completely ignored by the author.

As an example, the writer presents the "Catholic" faith as monolithic and all-controlling of life in middle ages Europe. The CHurch exhibited, in his view, a coordinated and sinister effort to keep civilization down. In truth, Christianity was responsible for much of the cultural development of Europe during this time, and helped to enhance many cultural variations and innovations. The author erroneously and continuously uses the term "Catholic Church" to describe the Latin Christian Church. The term "Catholic" was not used until after the Council of Trent in 1555, and was coined to differentiate between traditional Christians and Protestants during the Reformation.

Thus inaccuracy plagues the book. In another example, the writer characterizes both John abd Paul, two of the fathers of the early Latin Church as heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee, a man thoroughly trained in Jewish law that stood in stark contrast to Greek philosophical thought. John was a spiritual mystic and steeped in Jewish tradition. He was not in the mold of Pythagoras or Plato.

Let the reader (or listener) beware. This book is for anyone with a serious interest in the so-called "Dark Ages".

50 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

The

I didn't think it was possible to make the Dark Ages sound worse, but Manchester has done it. I was hoping for well-researched and informative insights into this historical period, but the author seemed bent on reciting--with no particular structure--a list of habits, conditions, acts and beliefs that 21st Century people would find shocking and titillating. Take, for example, his assertion that the Pied Piper of Hamlin was a pedophilic monster who butchered Hamlin's children in an orgy of sadistic sexual perversion. I can find no evidence that this is what happened. It may have, but there is only a vague reference to "Calvary" in a verse written about it in the mid-1400s. The incident in question took place supposedly in the late 1200s. That's a pretty poor basis for the author's bold assertion. And how about his bald statement that in summer, the serfs of Europe went naked? I don't doubt that their clothes were well air-conditioned, but where did he get the notion that they went naked (other than children)? I haven't found anything fresh or interesting in this book, and the author's sloppy and leering approach to his subject casts doubt over anything he has to say.

45 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars

Ill informed and narrow

This book is written "entirely from secondary" or further removed sources and started as a preface to a book on Magellaen. It is Full of historical errors and bald suppositions touted as fact. They wore only wool, they used spices to hide the rotting food, peasants went around naked in summer, thought the world was flat, lived to be 25 and married at 9, the catholic church was horrible but the protesants were cool and enlightened (except for that whole antisemite thing)
So many errors that You would have to rewrite the book to list them all. author should hav seriously done some research or simply relied on Non-Victorian sources.
Don't Waste your Money. There are lots of good histories of the time period, this is not one of them.

43 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

out of his depth

Manchester is one of the great historians of the modern era. Unfortunately his ignorance of the medieval period made this simply a bad book. M. has a author's disclaimer at the end of the book where he admits he is out of his area of expertise. That he still chose to publish this book is a disservice to him. His editors should not have allowed a historian of such stature descend to a "history lite" approach. If you like watching celebrity gossip TV you might enjoy this book. If you like history, you won't.

26 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

80% biased screed, 20%rehashed high school lecture

A World Lit Only By Fire...what a poetic title. I downloaded it thinking that my view of the middle ages would be somewhat illuminated, but wound up gagging at chapter after chapter of invective. What had the medieval period ever done to this guy? Contradictions abound...it was a time of lawlessness, it was a time when religious zealots couldn't think outside of church law. Gluttonous lords slaughtered five oxen a night; the only meat people ate had been pickled in barrels for months. The people lived joyless lives focused on the pleasures of the next world rather than this; all people did was engage in illicit sex, from incestuous popes to lecherous peasants heaped in one communal bed every night. The only fire lighting this book is the author's blazing animus against religion, particularly the Catholic Church. Only in the later chapters, when the author is clearly relying on standard textbooks is their anything like a balanced historical account, but why get it from this tainted source when one can go to the original? Obviously, there's a market for bashing western culture and religion: those who enjoy such will find this book reassuring. But those who wish to understand history are well-advised not to waste their money on this amateurish pap.

22 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Weak for Mancheste

But what makes me give this interesting book only three stars is the reader. He might be OK at popular novels, but he has no refinement (lie-berry for library, etc.), mangles French words and names... What a poor choice! He's American, too, which is not appropriate.

18 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

You will want more...

Manchester does an excellent job of whetting one's appetite for more on the late middle ages and the early renaissance with this interesting tour through several centuries that were both more violent, more immoral, more exciting in the sum than one might think. Heroes, real heroes, abound, along with villains that make today's villains look untutored. The rotten Catholic church birthed the reformation and forced honest thinkers into heroism and martyrdom....the lives of most people were nasty, brutish, and short, but still out of that mass of misery came fabulous individuals who changed the world so that today our lives are only nasty and brutish, but not nearly as bad as those of the past.

Manchester gives you the highlights of art, the church, exploration, political chicanery, and science, and you will finish this book intending to learn more about the age that birthed our own.

My only regret is that the book is not four times as long with this masterful storyteller entertaining me more.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Cliches and unreliable history

Would you try another book from William Manchester and/or Barrett Whitener?

No.

Would you ever listen to anything by William Manchester again?

No.

Have you listened to any of Barrett Whitener’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

No.

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Anger and disappointment.

Any additional comments?

The author is one of those history hacks who thinks the Dark Ages began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and only ended some time in the 15th century. He actually describes this period--and I quote verbatim--as "mired in ignorance and fettered by superstition." But don't think his man is Gibbon: the sources he cites are Will and Ariel Durant.

Once the Middle Ages are over, there are of course endless stories about the debauchery and corruption of Renaissance popes and their families. OK, this is the history we learnt at our mothers' knees. But enough already.

Though this is billed as medieval history, the author clearly hates the medieval period. About the only thing he warms to is Magellan's circumnavigation, about which I think he does a pretty decent job--but, of course, crowing that this showed all those benighted Christians that the world really wasn't flat. Ho-hum.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • markw
  • 04-02-07

Gets better

I just finished this. It starts with a catalogue, somewhat one-sided, of why the middle ages were a bad and brutal event in human history. I say somewhat one-sided, because I think Manchester falls into the camp that slightly under-rates the brutality and over-rates the civilising influence of the Romans. Manchester is however very good when he gets out of the mud of context and back onto the more easily navigated paths of narrative biography. His descriptions, in particular, of Luther and of Magellan (effectively the hero of this volume, though you'll have to wait till around two thirds of the way through to get to him) are both interesting and illuminating.

The book is read in something of a monotone - don't expect great theatrical declamations. But it is interesting and a worthwhile listen, and to be honest I'll probably now buy the printed book to read over.

17 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Floris
  • 04-09-18

sounds so bad I can't listen to it

Guys, you can't publish this sounding like google voice. Seriously I'd rather have it read by Siri. I hear the books great but this is not doable as a listen.

5 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Linzi
  • 09-26-18

Terribly read

The story might have been good but I couldn’t get past the computer sounding voice and gave up with it after an hour. Iv got over 80 books in my Audible library and this is just the second book Iv been unable to listen to. Very disappointed.

4 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 10-01-21

Seems to bear little relation to actual history.

Couldn't get into it, I'm not listening for hours to such inaccurate nonsense. Embarrassingly poorly researched.

3 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 10-25-21

Unnuanced, out of date.

Track down a current title where the author had used up to date research and doesn't view things only through the lens of the accepted orthodoxy.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Peter John Steadman
  • 05-12-22

Compelling, but horribly out of date.

Come for carichatures rather than facts, his depictions are one dimensional and lack introspection or interrogation; traits he ascribes to the bumbling rustics who frolic from season to miserable season. its a portrait of an imagined past too certain for nuance or much empathy.

1 person found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Marina Strinkovsky
  • 05-10-22

Comically awful

This sounds like a high school textbook from the 1960's. Every cliché of medieval misconception is proudly present, none described with as much detail as the sexual exploits of the Borgias. Truly bad.

1 person found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • M Broad
  • 05-03-22

Monotone monologue

As an ardent fan of history I was disappointed that this audio book is just a load of facts given in a monotonous stream of consciousness. Lists of names given out like a menu. It came free with Audible but it was not worth the money!

1 person found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Glenn Michael Harper
  • 04-29-22

cherry picking with a pronounced slant

A deceptive synopsis for this book by the renowned historian of JFK. Manchester spends the first section cherry picking salacious examples of medieval debauchery, darting from century to century to create a sinewy stew, using examples to make sweeping generalizations. The most outrageous claims against Lucrezia Borgia and the papacy are accepted as fact without any questioning of the motives of the secondary sources. Ann Boleyn is also notably misjudged during the latter end of the tome.

This portrait of medieval Europe caught with its pants almost permanently down lays the foundation for Manchester's actual topic, an account of Luther and Magellan. Both accounts are interesting, even if both are written from the perspective of a church abiding American who experienced fighting in the Pacific War, drawn to both Christ and General MacArthur as heroes. The epilogue veers of into complete purple prose about his own account of writing about Magellan, a useless end to a tome which wear its bias proudly on its sleeve.

This isn't helped by a woeful turn on the microphone by Whitener, whose lack of a personality and dire pronunciation of English vocabulary made this a chore, akin to HAL 9000 without a personality.

And with that, I'm off to recover from this arduous listen by putting on my papal tiara and getting back to some good old fashioned European debauchery. I'll wait for the January sale to buy my indulgences thank you very much!

1 person found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Carol Elva Greenwell
  • 01-01-22

Repetitious rant!

This is a vitriolic, sensationalist rant which lacks any understanding of humanity or historical context

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Rachel
  • 06-12-18

Engaging narrator, excellent prose but slightly dodgy on historical fact.

Absolutely a fun listen if you are after an interesting overview of history. The prose is deliciously written. Where it went off the rails for me is where the author consciously decides to take printed gossip regarding an historic figure as fact, on the basis that it was recorded. In the case of,say, the Borgia family, much of what has come down to us are the crazy rumours. The more scandalous a rumour the likelier someone would have recorded it. I think as an introduction to broad ideas it's fun, but take it with a grain of salt and listen to a few other books on the subject.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Miss Amy V
  • 04-06-16

Absolutely loved this book!

Highly recommended for medieval history lovers. Good narrator and thoroughly researched down to fine details.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Sarah Green
  • 12-03-22

Epic storytelling

A fascinating synthesis of major and minor historical events, skilfully woven together with top-notch story craft.
The narrator handled the quotes skillfully and was easy to listen to.

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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Stacey
  • 02-20-22

Christianity-bashing bias

Couldn't get very far into this text before the Christianity-bashing became too noisome. Judging the past by the standards of today doesn't make for very good historiography.