One Writer's Appraisal of the 16th Century

HISTORY has its heroes, and some of them are historians: those scholars who render sound judgments against the background of static and distraction. Disdaining to curl like pedantic dragons around their hoards of fact, they choose instead to openly confront the past, praising this culture or that leader, denouncing this revolution or that regime.

William Manchester, biographer of William Churchill and John F. Kennedy, a writer who does not shrink from judging the comings and goings of the once mighty, has in "A World Lit Only By Fire" given his appraisal of the early 16th century. He celebrates the flowering of the Renaissance, when Christendom began to dissolve (or so he thinks) before the onslaught of modernity.

Value-free historians may avoid moralizing over the past, but it is refreshing to find an author arguing so vigorously that the Renaissance was superior to the civilization it displaced. He may even be right, but this book doesn't prove it.

His book is a hasty exercise that began as the introduction to a biography of Ferdinand Magellan. Contemplating the almost mythic explorer, Manchester determined that Magellan's attempt to circumnavigate the world launched "global" culture as we now know it. The historian then felt compelled to provide the adventurer "with a context, a portrait of his age"; hence this extended essay.

The body of the book narrates the outbreak of Protestant Christianity and is told with gusto: Luther, the human thunderstorm, sparks and sizzles on the page. But Manchester largely undermines his own thesis that a qualitative break separates the Renaissance from the Middle Ages. On the contrary, he shows that the faith of the reformers was every bit as deep, and their prejudices as irrational, as those of their predecessors.

Because Manchester fails to appreciate medieval culture, many of his opinions border on philistinism, as when he writes that the music of the immortal composer Josquin de Pres "fall[s] dissonantly" on modern ears. And he courts ridicule when he remarks, astonishingly, that "medieval Europe's contributions to world literature had been negligible." One is hardly accustomed to thinking of Dante or Chaucer - to cite only the most blatant counter examples - as negligible.

Having tried to set the stage for his ultimate smasher of traditional boundaries, Manchester comes finally to Magellan, whose fortitude, ambition, and untimely end are recounted in stirring prose. But as with his other judgments, Manchester fails to convince us that Magellan is "both a key to the period and, in many ways, its apotheosis."

Without question, the Iberian explorers of the Renaissance were central figures of their era. In 30 dazzling years they "discovered more of the world than had all mankind in all the millennia since the beginning of time." But is the enigmatic Magellan, who appeals to Manchester's fondness for heroics, really more symbolic of the slow rise of capitalism and the nation-state than, say, the Lutheran banker Jakob Fugger?

There is an oddly religious (or perhaps antireligious) undercurrent in this book. Manchester laments the lost "serenity of medieval faith" while at the same time asserting (wrongly) that "Christianity survived despite medieval Christians, not because of them." Manchester devalues the Middle Ages by ignoring such triumphant cultural creations as the great European universities, the international monastic orders, and scholastic philosophy itself. These were the remarkable productions of a Christian cultur e that the Renaissance extended, rather than replaced. Until he can demonstrate a deeper understanding of them, Manchester should hasten back to the comfortable confines of the 20th century, where he may tread with surer footing.

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