Thursday, 27 May 2010

A World Lit Only By Misconceptions 1

Hello hello, and welcome to the first issue of "A World Lit Only By Misconceptions".

First, a description:

Imagine that someone wrote a book that took for granted every single stereotype that you had spent your few pithy years on this planet trying in vain to eradicate. Imagine that hyperbole was no obstacle to a description of this book, and that it could with only a little bit of complete exaggeration be depicted as everything wrong with the world. This is William Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire" as described by this, the forthcoming series of posts.

At first, I didn't believe it. I was told that it was full of absurd underestimations of the intellect, cleanliness, humanity and overall sanity of the people of the Middle Ages. "But!" (quoth I) "It says 'National Bestseller' on the cover! Surely it can't be that bad!" But sage as she is, Vaulting reminds me that J. B. Russell's "Inventing the Flat Earth" is, sadly, NOT a 'best-seller'. And in generalities and sloppy over-generalizations, it is exactly the opposite of "A World Lit Only By Fire": the former, a book about righting other people's misconceptions, and the latter about displaying the author's own.

Now, this book purports to be about, rather than the author's misconceptions about the Middle Ages, Ferdinand Magellan. Any talk of the Middle Ages, then, must be an accidental by-product. But Wait! The back of the jacket exclaims:

In handsomely crafted prose, and with the grace and authority of his extraordinary gift for narrative history, William Manchester leads us from a civilization tottering on the brink of collapse to the grandeur of its rebirth -- the dense explosion of energy that spawned some of history's greatest poets, philosophers, painters, adventurers, and reformers, as well as some of its most spectacular villains -- the Renaissance."


The entire medieval period. A "civilization tottering on the brink of collapse." Hm.


Interesting idea.

...Well, who am I to argue with the authority of an extraordinary gift for narrative history?

[stage direction: insert dramatic pause]

See, here's the thing: I can't stand this crap. Rome didn't fall, the Dark Ages weren't dark, and the only reason people think that Columbus proved the world wasn't flat is because they're so used to perpetuating an American foundation myth that they can't be bothered with the truth: we are not that special, we are not some sudden leap into "civilization," we are both the latest in a long string of ignorant blunders by the human race as well as the culmination of thousands of years of muddling about in the dark. Our predecessors were just as clever as we are now and -- what's that?
Preaching to the converted?
Oh, I see. Boat's on the beach, Michael. Stop rowing.

[stage direction: Vellum steps down off his soapbox]

So this series of posts is designed to figure out where Bill went wrong. How, in writing a book about Magellan, he managed to perpetuate some of the worst myths about the people of the Middle Ages, like how, between 791 and 991, "in all of Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or, apart from a copy of the Easter tables in the nearest church or monastery, anything resembling a calendar. Generations succeeded one other in a meaningless, timeless blur" (page 23). Or that, in pensive moments, the medieval peasantry worried about their souls because "should the left eye of a corpse not close properly, they knew, the departed would soon have company in purgatory. If a man donned a clean white shirt on a Friday, or saw a shooting star, or a will-o'-the-wisp in the marshes, or a vulture hovering over his home, his death was very near. Similarly, a woman stupid enough to wash clothes during Holy Week would soon be in her grave" (page 61). Or else that "in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by Romans were still the best on the continent" (page 5).

Yeah, because the Anglo-Saxons only ever built "trackways".

So the way these posts will work will be as follows: one quotation from Mr. Manchester and his historical-narrative-based authority, followed by a series of article citations, explanations, and elucidations concerning his statements. By the time I finish his book, I hope to have generated something that a well-meaning young medievalist might accidentally stumble across, in order to learn a little about the way we perpetuate absurdity in our society.

I know I do it every day :)



theswain said...

An excellent project if you can carry it out!

Janice said...

The entire medieval period. A "civilization tottering on the brink of collapse." Hm.

Thank you so much for taking this on. I'm tired of not only having to get my students to change their thinking, but random colleagues and relatives who believe every bit of tripe they read in some popular history piece such as this!

Medieval History Geek said...

Have fun with that - I think you'll find that examining fablaux will be very rewarding. In case you missed it, I did a review of this a little while back. I tracked the source of several of his comments - not close to as comprehensive as you'll be doing though.

After reading it I thought the one utility - the one positive use this book might have in the world - would be to take an introductory class, assign each of them a few pages, ask them to track where Manchester got his information for that section and whether this is a correct use of source material. This could make an object lesson on how NOT to critically read source material.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Sorry I'm coming late to this -- and I need to read more closely later today (AFTER YOU FINISH YOUR TRANSCRIPTIONS, NOTORIOUS -- STOP STALLING!), but let me say that I first got interested in medieval history (as opposed to the Tudor England stuff I was jazzed on at the time) when a community college instructor told me that "The lights went OUT. For a thousand years, there was the church, and that was it. [beat] Writethatdown."

So, there may be some pedagogical value in this book, if you give it to someone contrary enough.