Grim Old Days: William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire
The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance
Chelsea Follett —
Trying to imagine the past might conjure an image of an idyllic country village with pristine air and residents merrily dancing around maypoles. The healthy, peaceful, prosperous people in this fantasy of pastoral bliss do not realize their contented, leisurely lives will soon be disrupted by the story’s villain: the dark smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution. In this version of history, the terrible mistake of industrialization introduced pollution, disease, violence, and poverty into the world and forever banished mankind from the paradise of preindustrial existence.
If only one could return to the good old days!
Except that such rose-colored views of the past bear no resemblance to reality. The world our ancestors faced was in fact more gruesome than modern minds can fathom. Let’s deromanticize the past.
The late historian William Manchester’s bleak bestseller A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age presents vivid examples of just how difficult everyday life in the past really was. First published in 1992, this book offers a sweeping, unflinching history of medieval and Renaissance Europe. While at times Manchester focused on the antics of history’s famous figures and their epic power struggles, his book also offers insights on the ordinary and unremarkable details that arguably defined our ancestors’ lives more than the grand events that history cares to remember. Here are some of the ugly highlights.
Most people lived in the countryside, where poverty was extreme and privacy was nonexistent:
“Between 80 and 90 percent of the population … lived in villages of fewer than a hundred people, fifteen or twenty miles apart, surrounded by endless woodlands.” Peasants “married fellow villagers and were so insular that local dialects were often incomprehensible to men living only a few miles away.” “Each hamlet was inbred, isolated, unaware of the world beyond the most familiar local landmark: a creek, or mill, or tall tree scarred by lightning.” “A visitor from the twentieth century would find their homes uncomfortable: damp, cold, and reeking from primitive sanitation, for plumbing was unknown.”
Poorer peasants lived in even worse circumstances:
The cities weren’t that much better:
People were so hungry that they sometimes resorted to cannibalism, and when they did have enough to eat they apparently often engaged in violent spousal abuse at the dinner table. Also, malnourishment and heavy drinking seem to have stunted growth and kept the population extremely short.
Hygiene was nightmarish, as were labor conditions:
Medicine also left much to be desired.
People didn’t live long and also aged prematurely. Women lived even shorter lives than men due to an astronomical rate of death in childbirth:
Another cause of untimely deaths was the Black Death pandemic.
“The mounting toll of disease—each night gravediggers’ carts creaked down streets as drivers cried, ‘Bring out your dead!’ and in Germany entire towns, a chronicler of the time wrote, had become like cemeteries ‘in ihrer betru benden Einsamkeit’ (‘in their sad desertion’)—was” a prominent feature of life in the medieval period.
People had some strange beliefs—and took action to try to keep the deceased from transforming into vampires.
Speaking of Erasmus, confused as he may have been regarding witchcraft, the world is better for his championing of religious toleration—because intolerance can have lethal results. Manchester describes how during Europe’s wars of religion, Catholics and Protestants murdered one another with gusto. Perhaps the most shocking part was that despite the radical amount of killing happening, demand for public executions outstripped supply. As hard as it may be to comprehend, life was so boring and compassion so wanting that for many people the bloodbath was a source of entertainment.