The novel, A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester delves into the history of Europe’s dark ages through the early Renaissance. Three key figures constantly referred to within the novel include Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Ferdinand Magellan. All three men are responsible for Europe’s entrance into a modern era of reformation, knowledge, and discovery, and are widely considered to responsible for the development of the humanist philosophy. When Manchester begins weaving his historical tale of the middle ages, he details how the dark ages witnessed very few inventive ideas and was dominated by the Catholic Church and its papacy.
As each of the three men are introduced and their accomplishments explained, the story takes a turn and leads towards a modernized era. Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Ferdinand Magellan all share a devotion to their religion which connects to their exploits, however, their overall contributions seem to somewhat differ. The three humanists were all devout Christians. Luther and Erasmas focused their philosophies around the Church and its reformation while Magellan pursued the more adventurous route.
The novel even mentions, ‘What sets Magellan apart is his unswerving determination to match them and thus become a hero himself. Erasmus and his colleagues are admirable, but they are writers and talkers; Magellan believes that deeds are supreme” (Manchester 209). Religion played a rather heavy role in certain aspects of his journey. For example, he was able to convert nearly the entire island of Cebu to Christianity.
Manchester states, “Pressed by Magellan, he [Humabon] also agreed to burn his pagan idols and worship Jesus Christ as his lord and savior” and later mentions “Only a few hundred came orward then, but by the end of the following week virtually every inhabitant of Cebu-a total of twenty-two hundred, according to one of the flota’s crew—had chosen Christ” (Manchester 252). Luther was a monk who spent his time studying and focusing his writings on the Church. Erasmas was a loyal Catholic as explained in the text, “Throughout the coming turmoil he remained an orthodox Catholic, never losing his love of Christ, the Gospels, and rites that comforted the masses” (Manchester 118). While the trio had connection through their religion, each of them held slightly varying views.
The Church was not Magellan’s main focus, Luther was critical of it, and Erasmus remained faithful. Luther and Erasmas both devoted themselves to reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. The text details how the Church had become corrupt and far too powerful. Popes, who were not supposed to be married or engage in sexual intercourse had mistresses and held parties devoted to sex. Pope Alexander VI, otherwise known as the Borgia pope, was rumored to even have had sex with his own daughter, Lucrezia, and had fathered a son with her.
Nepotism, overspending, and indulgences were additional things the church was guilty of. To combat this, Erasmas and Luther both spoke against the corruption. The text states: … he went after the clergy, his targets running up the ecclesiastical scale from friars, monks, parish priests, inquisitors, to cardinals and popes. To him, curative shrines, miracles, and ‘such like bugbears of superstition’ were ‘absurdities’ which merely served as’a profitable trade, and sto] procure a comfortable income to such such priests and friars as by this craft get their gain.
He mocked ‘the cheat of pardons and indulgences. ‘ And ‘what,’ he asked, ‘can be said bad enough of others who pretend that by the force of… magical charms, or by the fumbling over their beads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions… they shall shall procure riches, honors, pleasure, long life, and lusty old age, nay, after death, a seat at the right hand of the Savior? ‘ (Manchester 123) Similarly, Luther kept himself busy by preaching against the Church’s—especially the papacy’s, corruption.
Manchester explains: It was, in fact, a direct criticism of the Apostolic See-breathtaking because it could only be interpreted as the premediated act of heresiarch, and thus, a capital offense. He wrote: ‘This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from.. the shrewd questioning of the laity, to wit: why does not the pope empty purgatory for he sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems a… number of souls for the sake of the miserable money with which to build a church? (Manchester 139)
His writings were highly effective and “The sale of indulgences plunged” (Manchester 140). On the other hand, unintentionally made reformation to the church in a way. His journey circling the world ultimately disproved the Church’s idea that the world was flat, but instead a globe revolving around its own axis. While the three men have differences in their humanist philosophies and their technique, they are still praised by Manchester for being catalysts for the Europe’s transition into the modern era.
They changed and reformed the church, and paved a war for others to follow when seeking progression. Erasmus may not have been nearly as aggressive as Luther had been, the two are still similar in the fact that their devotion towards church reformation was unmistakable. Magellan, who preferred a more adventurous approach, opened new opportunities for exploration and disproved an ancient theory that the church had clung too for so long. Without them, Europe may never have been able to find the light at the end of the dark tunnel that was the dark ages.