An exploration of the day the Middle Ages ended

July 12, 1992|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

A WORLD LIT ONLY BY FIRE.

William Manchester.

Little, Brown.

318 pages. $24.95. Life isn't divided into chapters like a textbook, the seam of history being continuous.

Yet William Manchester persuasively argues that the Middle Ages ended Sept. 7, 1522, the day that a few surviving members of Ferdinand Magellan's crew returned to Spain, having circumnavigated the Earth.

The medieval mind-set was already dying before the Victoria sailed into the Spanish port of Sanlucar, notes Mr. Manchester, the well-known biographer (John F. Kennedy, MacArthur, Churchill). In "A World Lit Only by Fire," he sandwiches a mini-history of the Middle Ages and Renaissance between chapters narrating the beginning and end of Magellan's venture.

For a thousand years before that voyage, Europeans had lived in virtual ignorance of what lay beyond their tiny corner of the world. Even Columbus' voyages, three decades before Magellan's, hadn't fully ended that geographical ignorance, contemporaries not knowing how to interpret Columbus' discoveries.

The Roman Catholic Church had its own geography -- a cosmic one. According to age-old Christian theology, the Earth stood motionless at the center of God's creation.

It is true that, just before Magellan set sail, that picture of the universe had been challenged by a Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1514, Copernicus published a treatise arguing that, far from standing still, the Earth revolves around the sun, spinning all the while on its own axis. Yet even educated people found Copernicus' thesis hard to swallow.

"This fool wished to reverse the entire scheme of astrology," Martin Luther said. "But sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the Earth."

Luther was about to mount another attack on the church's world view. While Magellan's voyage was under way, Luther declared that he could no longer accept the pope's word as final in matters of faith.

With those words, Luther, until then an obscure German professor, triggered a religious revolution that divided Christianity into warring Protestant and Catholic camps.

Renaissance artists and writers were similarly undermining the assumptions of medieval thought. But Mr. Manchester argues that nothing was as fatal to the old way of viewing the world as Magellan's voyage, an achievement the explorer did not live to see, having been killed during a skirmish in the Philippines. But when a handful of his crew made it back to Spain, their logs provided proof of Copernicus' theory.

Magellan's sailors had kept a careful day-by-day log of their trip, which showed that their return date to Spain was Sept. 6. Their countrymen said it was Sept. 7.

Shortly, astronomers realized that the discrepancy was because the fact that the Earth had been turning under them during their circumnavigation, robbing them of a day (for which reason scientists later divided the Earth by an imaginary international date line).

That discovery effectively ended the theory that the Earth was motionless. With it, Mr. Manchester argues, the medieval view of life quickly became outdated.

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