'[...] if value judgments are made, it is undeniable that most of what is known about the period is unlovely. After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait which emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.'
This description, not of the George W. Bush administration but of the Middle Ages, opens a collection of three related essays: on the medieval mind, on the Renaissance, and on the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan.
The book has generated 10-years-worth of boisterous discussion on amazon.com (187 reviews, as I write), which (should you be short of time) I will now summarise for you.
The Nays say that Mr. Manchester's account is unscholarly, inaccurate, sloppy, prejudiced and uses out-of-date sources.
The Yeas say that, be that as it may, Mr. Manchester makes a damned good story of it.
After due consideration, I find both for the prosecution and for the defence.
Although acknowledgments and sources are given at the end, the lack of specific references makes it hard indeed to track the source any of the assertions given herein; but such spot-checks as I was able to carry out bore out many of the expostulations of the critics.
The book's supreme virtue, however, is the author's ability to pull together ideas, information and viewpoint and weave them into a coherent and entertaining whole; and from this stand-point, criticising errors of detail, while valid, is a bit like criticising a Constable landscape because each leaf isn't painted accurately on each tree.
As an introduction to the Middle Ages — for example, for any American schoolchild who may be wondering why no history happened before 1620 — I recommend it, then. It's short, digestible, thought-provoking and eminently readable, and thus superior to any eyeball-glazing procession of facts, however accurate. Just be sure not to take it too seriously.