Friday, January 07, 2011

[Books] Book Look: A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester

Book Look: A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester: Check out this quote:
The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension. Famines and plague, culminating in the Black Death, and its recurring pandemics, repeatedly thinned the population. Rickets afflicted the survivors. Extraordinary climatic changes brought storms and floods which turned into major disasters because the empire's drainage system, like most imperial infrastructure, was no longer functioning. It says about the Middle Ages that in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the continent. Most others were in such a state of disrepair that they were unusable; so were all European harbors until the eighth century, when commerce began to stir. Among the lost arts was bricklaying; in all Germany, England, Holland, and Scandinavia, virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for ten centuries. The serfs' basic agricultural tools were picks, forks, spades, rakes, scythes, and balanced sickles. Because there was very little iron, there were no wheeled plowshares with moldboards. The lack of plows was not a major problem in the south, where farmers could pulverize the light Mediterranean soil, but the heavier in northern Europe had to be sliced, moved, and turned by hand. Although horses and oxen were available, they were of limited use. The horse collar, harness, and stirrup did not exist until about A.D. 900. Therefore tandem hitching was impossible. Peasants labored harder, sweated more, and collapsed from exhaustion more often than their animals.

Surrounding them was the vast, menacing, and at places impassable, Hercynian Forest, infested by boars; by bears; by the hulking medieval wolves who lurk so fearsomely in fairy tales handed down from that time; by imaginary demons; and by very real outlaws, who flourished because they were seldom pursued. Although homicides were twice as frequent as deaths by accident, English coroners' records show that only one of every hundred murderers was brought to justice. Moreover, abduction for ransom was an acceptable means of livelihood for skilled but landless knights. One consequence of medieval peril was that people huddled closely together in communal homes. They married fellow villages and were so insular that local dialects were often incomprehensible to men living only a few miles away.
That jaw dropping description of the Dark Ages stopped me dead in my tracks. It is stunning to hear how far Western Civilization fell from the heights Greece and Rome; nearly completely back to subsistence level hunter/gatherers during lean seasons. What a dire existence it must have been. Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias has postulated that in the far, far future (tens or hundreds of millennia from now) humanity will have necessarily reverted back to subsistence level living. It won't be unhappy, he claims, but it will be all about survival again. What knowledge remains of our times will seem like a myth of a Dreamtime from long ago. I'm sure Robin doesn't suppose such a life would be similar to the Dark Ages, but if that sort of world is the ultimate result of reverting to subsistence level ways, I can't imagine it being anything but unhappy. [[Note: Interestingly, as I was writing this, Robin posted a suggestion that the upcoming movie, Lift Up, may be a good demonstration of happiness in the face of grinding poverty.]]

Think about the things that are absent from such lives. It was possible to go from cradle to grave with hearing a note of music or being exposed to any fiction short of a few stories passed down from elders, never mind any form of drama. Along with the near complete absence of arts, goes with the near complete absence of knowledge. Intellectual stimulation and abstract thinking were superfluous, mostly. Then there are all the little things lost -- taste, for instance: food was purely sustenance and taste only served to detect spoilage. Better savor that '95 Cabernet while you can. You knew no sights other than those of the immediate surroundings -- you may have carried no mental image of the ocean, or snow, or mountains. This was an age so devoid of anything to satisfy the more developed human desires that the only thing separating it from complete obscurity is that the fact of our emergence from it.

If such an existence is not necessarily unhappy, it speaks to the near perfect relativity of happiness. I am boundlessly grateful to be living here in Dreamtime, with my Zune and DVR overflowing, the knowledge of the world at my keyboard,31 flavors of ice cream and four microbreweries within 15 minutes, and new sights and sensations a plane ride and a TSA rubber glove away. Plus, deodorant.

But (returning to the book review) all that is just visceral reaction. Reflection and investigation suggests that that description of the Dark Ages is misleading. A World Lit Only By Fire cannot be considered a history book in the sense of being fully researched and based on primary sources. It is more of a dramatization -- sensationalist dramatization -- of generalized facts mixed with anecdotal stories from a handful of other books. I say this in complete confidence, having read 6 pages of 1-star reviews on Amazon. But seriously, anyone who is even mildly aware of the tone and timbre of biased writing will be able to identify rumor, prejudice, and selective presentation of facts just from the prose style alone. No matter how low civilization may have sunk between Rome and the Renaissance, humanity and human nature is just too complex to have descended all the way to the broadly simplistic demi-savages described above then pretty much instantly rebound thanks to Gutenberg, Leonardo, and Luther. It took millennia to climb out of savagery once, it seems unlikely it would happen overnight a second time.

Still, from the passage above, you can see Manchester is a compelling writer and can create an affecting and disturbing vision. He turns many of the stories of Middle Ages-to-Renaissance transition into ripping good yarns. (For those concerned, there is an extended discussion of the sex lives of the prelates of the Vatican just to get the old blood pumping.) But as history, it's too simple and too slapdash. We jump back and forth between decades and even centuries, often the same paragraph. Litanies of names and events are thrown out as anecdotes to back up the main thematic thrust of whatever topic is at hand -- none of which would mean anything to the casual reader (and the serious reader of history wouldn't touch this book with a ten foot pole).

No, Manchester missed the boat with this one. He should have gone full on into the realm of historical fiction. He could have left out the useless recitations of people and places and really indulged his talent for salacious commentary. Now that would have been fun. Should you read A World Lit Only By Fire? Probably not. Certainly not if you are looking for history. If you are looking for Medieval or Renaissance based entertainment it might be worth it, but just know what you are getting into. Don't take this stuff at face value.