Sunday, April 10, 2016

A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester

In college, my brother hosted Bad Movie nights in conjunction with the college film society. They were reasonably well-attended, considering bad movie-watching was and still is a niche hobby (and rightly so), but they were fun events and all our friends came. Though we had independently stumbled across some cult classics such as the infamous Troll 2, we had no idea that across the world bad-movie watching was becoming something of a thing.
I took to researching more bad movies to seek out on the old-fashioned net 1.0, on ancient bad movie sites that were full of late-90s net shenanigans such as coloured font, pages crowded with gifs, and sound clips that took 20 minutes to download. The first one I ever discovered was called Oh The Humanity; it's now long gone. But the greatest was Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension, which still exists. Editor Keg Begg crafted monolithic, Tolstoyan epics of reviews that pored over every aspect of a movie's failures. Nothing more was left to be said of a movie once Begg had torn it apart. But my favourite of their old reviews was by one Eva Vandergeld, ripping into an Uwe Boll masterpiece called Bloodrayne.

This video-game-inspired film seems not to have stuck to its source material too closely, dumping the 1930s setting for medieval Europe. My favourite aspect of the review was how the critic would describe the movie's idiotic Hollywood version of medieval times and then contrast it with a quote from a history book to show how unrealistic the movie is. For example, after describing a scene in which the characters walk through the wide, studio-clean and well-lit streets of a faux medieval town, the critic dropped this historical nugget by way of comparison:

“[In medieval Europe], the twisting streets of a town were as narrow as the breadth of a man’s shoulders, and pedestrians bore bruises from collisions with one another. There was no paving; shops opened directly onto the streets, which were filthy; excrement, urine, and offal were simply flung out windows. At night the town was scary…the streets abandoned. Heavy chains were stretched across street entrances to foil the flight of thieves.”

Wow. Sounds like those Hollywood folks don't know anything about history, huh. A little later on, the characters enter a similarly large, clean and brightly-lit inn. Another fact bomb is dropped:

“Nights en route had to be spent in Europe’s wretched inns. These were unsanitary places, the beds wedged against one another, blankets crawling with roaches, rats and fleas. The years of hunger were terrible. The peasants might be forced to sell all they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and to be reduced to nudity in all seasons. Cannibalism was not unknown. Strangers and travelers were waylaid and killed to be eaten.”

For some reason this stuff stuck with me for years. What a grim and sad take on an entire continent, an entire era. Nothing but grot and horribleness. Was this really the 'official' history community's take on the subject? I had always wondered, not being a historian myself.

Looking more closely, I noticed that the quotes are from a book called A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester. What an evocative title - literally and figuratively it paints the medieval period as one without any development, practical or intellectual. Is this what 'real' historians believe about the period?

Of course not. It turns out that the book is infamous among the historical community for being a revisionist screed, a return to the Victorian view of medieval times as being literally Dark Ages because nothing of any use happened in them. It was common to stereotype medieval times this way, as a stagnant priest-ridden time bookended by the great achievements of the Greeks and Romans and the flowering of the Renaissance. Scholars seem to have become more nuanced in their opinions of the 'middle ages' at some point in the mid 20th century, allowing that there were great differences in culture between the many states and times that fell within this period.

Manchester, despite writing in 1992, seems to have ignored all this, and without announcing the fact, has used only old-fashioned sources of the first school, and has produced a book that would probably have been much more at home being written in 1922. And I've recently gotten a copy of the book, so I can tell you just how bizarre his bleak, terrifying vision of this time is.

To kick things off, Manchester admits that though a historian, he knew nothing about the Dark Ages (as he unapologetically calls them) and in fact wrote this book as a sort of easy, restful break during a time when he was too ill and weak to continue on his more 'serious' book about Winston Churchill. It would seem to me that trying to cover hundreds of states, kingdoms, wars and developments that occurred over a period of a thousand years might require more discipline and research than writing about one man, however complex, but Manchester apparently does not think so. No, this is his 'simple' book, and it's simple to him because he's already made up his mind about how squalid and useless the Dark Ages were. He consults dated sources that fit in with this point of view and don't challenge his opinions.

So what's it like? Well, it's quite like the Middle Ages as imagined by Monty Python: nothing but mud, squalor, superstition - and not even a narco-communist collective thrown in to brighten the picture. I don't think this is a coincidence. It's probably how the Middle Ages existed in the public imagination for many years, and Python and Manchester were probably drawing from the same tradition, if not the same sources. Manchester however, doesn't even have the excuse of making a satire, and should probably know better.

'Was the medieval world a civilization, comparable to Rome before it or to the modern era which followed? If by civilization one means a society which has reached a relatively high level of cultural and technological developments, then no.'

As you can tell, Manchester has quite a thing for classical civilization and the Enlightenment. After bemoaning the sack of Rome and the end of the Roman empire, he chronicles the utterly miserable centuries of Church-led stagnation that followed until the Renaissance happened. There are icky details about misbehaving Popes and clergy and their wicked ways. There are chapters dwelling on how the peasants were little more than animals. And while there's no doubt that the hygiene and morality of the period probably left a lot to be desired, Manchester appears to have taken seriously every tract that the rich wrote to demean the peasants, and every screed that any political or religious figure wrote to disgrace their enemies. He has chosen the worst interpretation of every social class. And his definition for what counts as 'civilization' is extremely narrow.

I generally identify more with the people of learning and logic than the people of faith in this period, so I ought to be right beside Manchester bemoaning the ridiculousness of the supernatural and cheering the men of letters. But though I'm no historian, many things ring false to me about his one-sided take.

I have friends who study the medieval mindset and have graciously shared some of their wisdom with me. I have to say personally that I find medieval thinking difficult to access. They simply lived in a different world - a world ruled by God and the Church, where expectations and possibilities were different from what we expect out of life. By comparison, from the Enlightenment on, mindsets were becoming much more like ours. Their patterns of logic were closer to ours. It's much easier for us to understand, and also much easier to see how what they came up with benefited us and our society today. After all, we're talking about the birth of science and logic. By comparison, the popular view of 'useless' medieval thinking, arguing about angels dancing on a pin, doesn't seem as worthy.

But I've learned enough about medieval thinking from friends to know that, even if it doesn't all make sense to me, there was more to it than ignorance and superstition. They had extremely sophisticated ways of thinking and doing things, though they started from a completely different set of assumptions. Any time an author approaches a subject in a manner devoid of respect or nuance, the way Manchester does, my alarm bells go off.

Having said all that, the book is fun. It's an easy read, a story well-told, and I enjoyed it as a glimpse into a hellish, alien world that was first conjured up by post-Enlightenment folks to glamourize their achievements. The last third of the book focusses on the great voyages of exploration that Manchester feels shook Europe out of its 'Dark Ages' period. This section in particular is fascinating. I've no idea whether it's as badly-researched as the rest of the book, but I'm a sucker for a good story about explorers. The section on Magellan is rather gripping, though the explanation for the great explorer's end ties in a bit too neatly with Manchester's negative stance on religion to be truly convincing.

Despite this, it's the bizarre, regressive view on medieval times that the book is known for. A World Lit Only By Fire chronicles a world that never existed outside of a Monthy Python movie, really. It's a pity that it isn't marketed as such.

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