William Manchester’s book is really an ode to his hero, Magellan. He’s not a bad hero to have, but I think Manchester gives him far too much credit. The real value however, is that Manchester is far more interested in establishing the world he lived in than examining the man. Considering how often it is difficult to get anyone willing to have the feel of a time period as their main subject, it raises the book a bit in my estimation.

However, ‘The Medieval Mind’ in the subtitle is an overstatement. There’s a brief establishment of his look at the medieval world at the start of the book, but most of it is really on the transition into the Renaissance. It’s well written, and tackles the subject fairly well, but there are problems. Most of the contemporary authors he quotes were probably doing so for moralizing purposes in the first place, and a lot of what is cited has a very distinct tone of ‘kids these days!’. So, the book paints a picture of a static society that was breaking down into license and abuse of power that is unlikely to be very accurate in either direction.

Its worth noting that he covers the earliest parts of the Reformation, and within limits, covers it better than Diarmaid MacCulloch’s large volume on the subject. He doesn’t go into the threads of intellectual thought that is the primary focus of the latter, but he covers the more temporal aspects of the early power struggle in a more readable, and I think, more complete, format.

The final section is on Magellan’s voyage, including a good grounding in what the original plan was, and where it went wrong: At the time, the Rio de Plata was known, and from its size, was assumed to be a passage to the Pacific, as it had been too large to explore thoroughly. It’s a very good summary of one of the great sea voyages of history.

In general, A World Lit Only by Fire is a good readable starting point for the history of the Renaissance, but a lot of nuance is decidedly not there. The general learned opinion is that his scholarship is too out date (I’ll note that Durant’s Story of Civilization looks to be the primary starting point of his opinions, which while great, is well over half a century old), though I don’t know of a more current ‘alternative’.