“Most of what is known about the [Middle Ages] is unlovely. After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait which emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.”—William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age, 1992.
I often find books to be companions for periods of my life; volumes that console or delight me in difficult seasons, inspire me to be a better version of myself, and, sometimes, point me in the right direction.
For the past year or so, that book has been William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire.
Manchester, a newspaperman turned author and professor, wrote two of the most popular and acclaimed military biographies of all time: American Caesar, about Douglas MacArthur, and The Last Lion, about Winston Churchill. Manchester was erudite and, as the three volumes and about 3,000 pages of his Churchill work suggest, very thorough. But he always managed to retain the punchy, pugnacious style he learned when he was working with H.L. Mencken at The Baltimore Sun.
I came back to Manchester and A World Lit Only By Fire—a book assigned but mostly unread from my college years—after stumbling across his fantastic World War II memoir, Goodbye Darkness. Manchester’s writing in all his works benefits from the perspective of an enlisted Marine who was very nearly killed in the U.S. assault on Okinawa. A biographer of great men, he kept a properly American perspective about power and its uses—which shines nowhere more effulgently than in Manchester’s book about the making of the modern world.
When it debuted in 1992, A World Lit Only By Fire was a departure from the commercial blockbusters of the Churchill and MacArthur books and his first huge hit, The Death of a President, his journalistic chronicle of the assassination of President John Kennedy. A World Lit Only By Fire was a New York Times bestseller, but not the kind of book that 5 million dads got dropped in the bottom of their Christmas stockings or stuck with a bow for Father’s Day. Here was the world’s most popular biographer of military men writing a cultural, philosophical history of life from the 1300s to the 1700s.
But neither did the book satisfy the historical academy, which sniffed at some conclusions to which he jumped and some of his license in storytelling. Medieval and Renaissance historians are few in number and often deep in weirdness. One can only imagine their umbrage at seeing a popular historian and biographer of macho men arrive in their seldom-visited corner of academia.
What Manchester achieved, though, was of lasting value—especially for a people like ourselves, living at the end of an age and looking dimly into the next one.
I know why Fire has traveled with my thoughts for these many months. Manchester was inspired by the underappreciated story of Ferdinand Magellan, whose stoicism and drive proved the world was round, even if his arrogance would not allow him to see the journey home. But the central figure in Manchester’s story isn’t a scientist or an explorer, but a man of faith: Martin Luther. To properly tell the story of the fall of Rome, the devastation of the Dark Ages, the decadence of the Renaissance, and the dawn of the Enlightenment, Manchester had to become a master of church history.
Manchester is certainly no Lutheran, mocking the sage of Wittenburg for his fascination with flatulence and defecation (“the most anal of theologians”) and generally rolling his eyes at the intense pieties of the reformers. But it took a nonbeliever (or however Manchester defined his own relationship to the eternal) to write a clear-eyed story about how Christianity, made, saved, nearly destroyed, and then redeemed again the Western world.
I would be far more likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to my fellow Reform Christians of yore who might seem like heroes of the faith to me but like dangerous Calvinistic zealots to others. John Knox laid a cornerstone of the faith of my fathers and he had a totally awesome beard , but I doubt The First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstruous Regiment Of Women will soon be climbing the best-seller charts. Manchester spares neither Catholic nor Protestant, nor does he dwell on doctrinal considerations. He doesn’t seem to be rooting for anything other than civilization.
As soon-to-be-formerly Roman Europe was taking shape in the fourth century, it was being hit with two massive blasts. One from the southern empire carried with it the Gospel of the risen lord, Jesus Christ. The message that was ricocheting around the Mediterranean and eventually through the official arteries of imperial communications and policy would go on to alter the course of human history as no other idea ever has.
But from the east, a more urgently devastating force was taking shape. I say that advisedly, knowing that Christians would go on to kill far more of their fellow believers than all the Romans and their lions ever dreamed of. The cruelty and brutality of Christian against Christian in the 30 Years War and the other bloody purges of the era would put to shame Caligula’s darkest desires.
But even so, what was coming from the east was without any redeeming belief that might be reclaimed after the slaughter. The arrival of Christianity in Western Europe saved a place for mercy in the human heart—and often sacrificed itself for human survival. Think of the monks of Ireland persisting in the face of Viking raids and keeping the light of learning and literacy alive.
What was coming from the east at the dawn of Christendom were the Hunnic hordes and the nightmare kind of slaughter that still haunts our collective psyche. The Huns ricocheted off of the Great Wall of China, turned west and laid waste to the Germanic tribes of Europe. In desperation, those tribes became willing to face what had been the apex predator in the world, the Roman legions.
When the Huns crossed the Volga in 375 into what is now Ukraine , they began to slaughter or enslave all of the peoples of Northern and Western Europe, to say nothing of the unspeakable horror suffered by the Slavs. That was just 50 years after the Council of Nicea had set the boundaries for the Christian faith as we still know it. Christians still say the same words “We believe in one God,” written as Attila was in the 19th year of his bloody reign.
Christians did save the Western world. The institutions the church raised up out of the ashes and sorrow after the fall of Rome and the arrival of the Huns were custodians of the light that Abraham Lincoln would later call the last, best hope of Earth. But just as the Romans had done in their centuries of dominance, the Christians became hopelessly self-centered and decadent, as most fully expressed in the debauched Borgia papacies. This is not a book for the squeamish, let me tell you. Lucky for you, gentle readers, I pressed on despite these headwinds.
I live in Washington. I know all about decadence. Here, I do not mean the bacchanals of television series’ and freshman congressmen’s imaginations, but rather the decadence of people who feel they can be excused from their duty on earth: to toil. “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Potomac Fever is the belief that somehow power in this life—another term, a better appointment, another contract—can banish death and loss. The Romans had known it well, even as they failed to heed the warnings. Thank God, then, that Christianity is all about memento mori. The arrival of the printing press 584 years ago—a period briefer than the Dark Ages that Manchester laments—made it possible for people to read the Bible and understand this foreign way of considering death, love, duty, joy, suffering, and sacrifice. The news had been good, but the transmission had been garbled for 40 generations or so.
You all know how it goes from here: The Enlightenment breaks out and people start understanding themselves as individuals with Liberties given to them by God. Liberties that are, one might say, unalienable. It was not a smoothly run thing, but we can draw a pretty clear line from Jesus to Paul to Augustine to the reformers to the Founding Fathers to our own very crazy ideas about what it means to be human today.
The book is with me all the time now because it is very clear that we are living in times very much like those that Manchester wrote about. I don’t mean the murder hordes and orgies (unless you judge by TV). I mean a time when we step through a door between ages.
This carries extra obligation for me as a Christian, but also for all the people who enjoy and cherish the rights and duties carved out of the chaos of seven centuries of real tragedy. Manchester, even with his arched Mencken eyebrow, would still admit that.
[Author’s note: I should give my eldest son a double byline on this column because he helped me figure it out on the way back from vacation. I should give my youngest son a triple byline because he had to listen to us doing it. We talked and argued about the parallels and differences of the Christian experience now and 1,500 years ago. We also were repeatedly defeated by voice-to-text technology and Apple’s iOS platform. He was right, but I am louder.]