• The Good: Skip to the end for a passable history of the first circumnavigation of the Earth
  • The Bad: Un-engaging history of the Middle Ages that lacks any citations
  • The Literary: n/a

The Middle Ages were a dark time—hundreds of years of horror and barbarism according to William Manchester. But out of a collapsed civilization rose the Renaissance and a rebirth of progress and exploration. According to his introduction, this book began as a biography of the Portuguese explorer Magellan, whose Spanish expedition to the East Indies resulted in the first circumnavigation of the Earth. But “setting the stage” of the world leading up to Magellan’s expedition turned into the bulk of the story.

Unfortunately, I find this telling of history very unsatisfying. The chapters proceeding Magellan’s section forget that history is a story instead of a series of unorganized, seemingly unrelated facts. Skipping around from religion, politics, and art to hygiene, cutlery, and orgies, Manchester even jumps around in the chronology of events by hundreds of years with no warning. It’s nearly incoherent but also makes outrageous claims that are fit for a Sunday morning hell-fire sermon. Did you know that peasant girls were well-behaved on Sundays, but on weekdays “opened their blouses, hiked their skirts, and romped the fields in search of phalli?”

I’m walking away from this book with an artificial view of the Middle Ages. Sure, you might accept that  it’s extremely euro-centric (if he had defined the book from the start as such), but there’s no attempt to understand the medieval mind. He salaciously speaks of incest and corruption but through a modern moral lens. Some statements seems entirely impossible, such as an early claim that “in the medieval mind, there was no conception of time.” Sure, they probably didn’t conceive of time as we do today, but he fails to explain those details.

There’s also no mention of the plague. How is that possible? Not recommended.