Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. New York: Doubleday, October 29th, 2013. 368 pp.
This is the sixth installment of a series on history books called Hinges of History by Thomas Cahill, a former editor of religious literature for Double Day. The series is focused on different groups of people and historical period which have made their contributions felt today. This particular work focused on the Protestant Reformation and the Italian Renaissance in which the author tries to argue that the Reformation and Renaissance has made its contribution towards the modern concept of self. It is a fascinating thesis but in the end I felt the author wasn’t as concern about arguing his case as rigorously as possible as he was more excited to give us his biographical sketches of various individuals from the Renaissance and the Reformation.
I don’t think any serious reader would fault the book as a dry historical textbook since the author writes in a journalistic fashion with an upbeat tempo. The author’s humor is evident through his writing. There were times when the book reads like a gossip column. The book was not only able to capture my attention but left me wanting to read up more concerning the Reformation and the Renaissance.
An example of a figure I want to learn more about is Christopher Columbus. The author did a good job explaining Columbus in his fifteenth century context and what kind of man he was in the various European courts. The author here has a fascinating analysis of Columbus’ observation that the Native Americans he found being not fully clothed and how Columbus and others interpreted this through European lens which sees clothes as a social marker of one’s identity in society.
Equally fascinating as the rest of the chapters in the book is Cahill’s introduction which looks back at the Middle Ages and how certain events anticipates some of the developments of the Renaissance and the Reformation. I like how the author cleverly titled this section “Dress Rehearsals for Permanent Change.” I enjoyed the author’s discussion of John Hus and other religious figures who were “Lutherans Long before Luther” and the third great communication revolution that would pave the future road for the Reformation.
In terms of history I am more familiar with the Reformation than the Renaissance and I appreciated all the chapters on the Renaissance especially with how the various artists were like and their arts in comparison with one another. I imagine those who are more knowledgeable with the Renaissance would likewise benefit like I did with understanding the other movement during the same period.
Despite what is good in the book there are also weaknesses. Again, I think at times the author could have strengthen his case that the Reformation and the Renaissance contributed to the modern understanding of the self. Also I found the author’s discussion of the Bible to be particularly slanted towards more a Liberal understanding. This outlook is evident with the author’s view of the dating and development of the Bible. In addition I wished the book gave a lengthier treatment for Calvin as I think Calvin’s systematic approach towards Scripture and application towards the society of Geneva is worth exploring in terms of the understanding of one’s view of self in relations to God and society. This would fit right in to the author’s thesis. I also wished the author could have interacted more with others on the topic of Calvin’s involvement with the affair of executing the heretic Martin Servetus. Chapter six ends with a description of Servetus as one “who is rightly revered today as an early martyr to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience and a distinguished forbearer of the Declaration of Independence.” I think it is an over stretch to describe Servetus as “a distinguished forbearer of the Declaration of Independence.” ”
This is a book that’s ideal to have on the Coffee table and pick up for leisure reading.