William Manchester’s book title, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Well worth the read, despite it’s awkward title. Published in 1992 the book is timeless in that it portrays human dysfunction and folly as they constantly triumph over reason and compassion. This is certainly at odds with popular notions of religion and European conquest. Manchester comments that, Christianity survived despite medieval Christians, not because of them. If this book were more widely read, that might not hold true, Christianity might not survive.
This is for many of the same reasons that Richard Dawkins raises in his book The God Delusion. The whole enterprise is made up of insupportable beliefs, superstition in a word, and when people become aware that what they believe is in error it is hard to not have the belief evaporate. Of course the option is always there to deny the information, certainly the course embraced by the medieval mind - and with a vengeance. Manchester documents how the “Holy Roman Empire” was corrupt and venal, little above the Roman orgy and bloody pastime of execution and coup. When the Reformation arrived in reaction it was in true reaction – dogma shifted only slightly, as evidenced by the Puritanism still plaguing our shores. But the penalty for doctrinal deviance remained the fiery stake - most of the fun was gone. One can gain an appreciation for what is meant by “freedom and democracy”, flawed and limited as it is in our world, and threatened ever as it is by the constant resurgence of the medieval mind, whether that manifests in whatever religion or whatever political ideology arising out of the great dysfunction of ego.
The brutality of the age is relieved by the incredible beauty and majesty of Renaissance art, ironically created under the patronage of the most avaricious and ruthless of princes, kings and popes, otherwise seemingly fiercely competing with each other for the prize of most depraved. This mentality of course had to be exported. And exported it was, to regions not always but sometimes, quite advanced in their humanitarianism. The Portugese found their way around the horn of Africa to the riches of the east. The Spanish, English and French elected to squabble over as much as they could reach to the west. It is almost funny to imagine the armor-clad representative of a King stepping on the shores of a continent larger than the home country, planting a flag and claiming the whole shebang for his Sovereign. I was unaware of the voyage of Magellan, leaving Spain with a convoy of five ships and arriving back in Seville three years later, having circumnavigated the globe. Of the 265 person crew, only 18 survived, Magellan not among them, having perished in a fit of fundamental religious foolishness. This could be a metaphor for our own time, where superstitious beliefs in a “free market” and borders and races and scarcity carry us down the rapids to the rocks below the falls.