Book Review #11

a world lit only by fire

Title: A World Lit Only By Fire

Author: William Manchester

When I published my Torture of Faith post, my well-read and well-respected visitor, Jim Wheeler, suggested the above book as background reference reading, to explain the historical era.

As too often happens, I whined and wheedled. My library didn’t have a copy that I could borrow for free.  The nearby Chapters bookstores didn’t have a copy in stock.  I could order one, but objected to actually paying for it.  Jim sensibly reminded me that I had obtained the copy of Malleus Malificarum(Wiki link) thru Inter-Library Loan; I could do the same with this one.

The book eventually arrived, not from the gigantic Toronto Library system, but from the King Township Public Library – Nobleton branch. King Township is part of what is known as the Holland Marsh, the most fertile part of Southern Ontario, north of Toronto.  Nobleton is a town of 4000 located within it.  Why this rural area would have a copy of this book, when the metropolis doesn’t, is a mystery.

I was in love with it before I even got through the introduction. It introduced me to the word ‘catenas’, which are things or occurrences that lead inevitably, like links in a chain, from one to the next.  Like the chain they describe, I linked it to two other words I already knew, ‘catenary’ which describes the shape of a free-hanging chain, (Think McDonalds Golden Arches – or the St. Louis arch.) and ‘concatenation’, which is the formation of a chain of events.  I know!  There’s only two people in the world who give a shit about this verbal trivia – and I’m both of them.

This book describes Europe from about 1500 to 1550, just at the end of the Dark Ages, and the beginning of the Renaissance. Martin Luther and Henry the Eighth both split from The Church, and it was losing control, and its collective mind.  Catholics tortured and burned Protestants at the stake.  Protestants tortured and burned Catholics.

This book should be required reading for all the blindly-believing ‘Good Christians’, especially Catholics. It describes over two hundred years of some of the most sinful, licentious behaviour of The Church, from the local priests, right up to the Archbishops and Pope.  The Church was operated for the benefit of the religious leaders.

Tithe money bought opulent palaces and jewels and extravagant clothing – and wars to conquer countries to wring more money from. While thousands starved in the fields, the Pope threw lavish, drunken parties.

Sex was a competitive sport. The Vatican supported two whorehouses, which explains people with the name Pope.  They are descendants of bastard sons.  Many convents operated as brothels, funneling money from the nobility and rich merchants into The Church.

Positions in The Church were bought and sold, so that the buyers could gain more power and income. Several Popes simply appointed friends and relatives.  One Pope made Bishops of two young nephews who had absolutely no religious training.  Indulgences were handed out like Halloween candy.  If you gave The Church enough gold, you could commit any act, and still go to Heaven.

I’ve run into most of this information piecemeal, but it was both pleasant and disturbing to see it all laid out in an all-you-can-sin buffet. The religiously-naive would be horrified to see the quiet, historical listings of all the mistakes of the ‘Infallible’ Popes, the changes in the ‘unchanging’ Catholic Church, and the gamut of sins of all the ‘Holy, Sanctified’ religious leaders.

Until this time, many rulers, both religious and nobility, were illiterate and ignorant – and proud of it. Peasants knew only what they were told. Even the elite were only vaguely aware of occurrences at any distance, and days, weeks, months after they occurred.  After Gutenberg perfected the printing press, more people learned to read, and knowledge began flowing – the beginning of the end for the Church’s control.

The Church had invented Purgatory as an extortion racket. It all came to a head when one Pope wanted money to wage yet another war.  The selling-indulgences scheme had folded faster than a Kardashian at a spelling bee, so the Pope announced that, for those who ‘donated’ enough gold, time spent in purgatory by relatives could be reduced or eliminated by his prayers.

The now widely-read Martin Luther published a tract questioning if that were true, and asking why the Pope wouldn’t do so merely for the sake of supposedly good Christian souls and their obedient kin still here on Earth, and not for the money, “like some brazen harlot”.

While it could still use some updating and improvement, the Catholic Church is a thousand times better today than it was five hundred years ago. If you’d like a look at a time when peasants were regarded as worth less than the animals they kept, and society was run to wretched excess by hypocritical, entitled rulers, both secular and religious, this would be an enlightening book.   😯

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7 thoughts on “Book Review #11

  1. 1jaded1 says:

    This is one of my favorite books. Due to lack of space it is in storage. Gonna have to get it out. Glad you were able to read it.

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  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    Nicely summarized, Archon.

    For people raised, as I was, in a community where respect for religion is a given, this kind of book is a revelation. There is a strong societal push-back against such a thing because it seems impossible. It undercuts people’s understanding of how something so basic as religion and literacy evolved and were abused by the institution of the church, and yet it’s true. Knowledge is power.

    Manchester’s little book is about as well-researched as it could be. It has an extensive bibliography, and yet, if you look at its reviews, you would think it weak in that regard. Even academics prefer not to look too hard into the abyss.

    There is a bonus in the book. In the back is a similarly well-researched account of Magellan’s voyage around the world that is just as revealing as the first part. After reading “A World Lit Only By Fire”, I never viewed the world the same way again.

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    • Archon's Den says:

      I found the account of Magellan’s journey quite interesting, but decided not to include it in an already-long post. I was not surprised to find that his unthinking, arrogant assumption of religious superiority got him killed.

      I watch occasional YouTube videos that show the same type of wilful blindness. “Why can’t we pledge allegiance in the elementary classroom with the words ‘Under God?”….Because it’s illegal. “Well yeah, but we’re still special. Why do we have to leave the classroom to do it?”….Because you’re the ones breaking the law! 😯

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  3. I smiled as I read your method of getting to the book through the library system (I am similarly inclined after moving too many times with too many books.) Also an excellent post – will have to see how well my library system tracks down this book 🙂

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    • Archon's Den says:

      The Inter-Library Loan system works well – and cheaply. I hope your local system participates, most do. I’ve used it several times now, most recently for a book titled ‘Guns, Germs And Steel,’ an explanation of global Haves vs. Have-Nots.
      I requested a religious book, over a century old, and got it from the Religiously-founded local University, which was good, when a dying computer erased some of my research notes. I just drove 5 miles and sat in its library for an afternoon. Without a membership, I could not take the book out.
      Among the wife and I and our son, we have more books in the house than many libraries. Hell, we have more than some small countries. The total must approach 5000 – all in paperback, or the floors would collapse into the basement.
      We have 4 Bengal cats, all rescues, two of whom resemble your two. The daughter has four rescues, two Bengals, and two Savannahs. 🙂

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  4. […] A recent entertainment article in the newspaper described an upcoming series on CBC-TV, titled ‘Pure’, where some Mexican Mennonites, travelling through the US and into Canada, smuggled drugs. The usual suspects were horrified – aghast, and complained. I replied, with information taken from A World Lit Only By Fire! […]

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