Heretics and Heroes, by Thomas Cahill

ImageIf Mr. Nylund had taught history like this in high school, I might actually remember something. Rather than boring lists of battle dates, kings, and generals, Thomas Cahill follows movements of thought and key personalities through the ages to show us how our lives are impacted today by the movers and shakers of yesterday. He is perhaps best known for How the Irish Saved Civilization, a brilliant revelation of the medieval monks who were scribbling away, preserving classic texts, while the rest of the world was slogging through the Dark Ages.

Moving forward in his “Hinges of History” series, this volume is subtitled How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. Beginning with Christopher Columbus and traveling as far as a tiny peek of King James and the Bible translation that bears his name, Cahill showcases several fascinating icons of the later Renaissance and the Reformation, as well as some little-known personalities who played a crucial role in shaping the culture we know today. It’s the unexpected connections that he draws between people and events and back again that make the book read like a novel, drawing us into the narrative and deepening our understanding of the era. For example, what is the difference between Dante and Boccaccio? The two writers were not too far apart in time or in geography, but their styles could not be more dissimilar. Cahill points out that the Black Death caused Boccaccio to lose up to a third of his contemporaries, and so his stories assume a more cynical, humorous style than the formal, dignified language of his predecessor.

Cahill illustrates how no one works alone, and that spectacular events are usually preceded by some quieter developments. Although we celebrate Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450, there were other types of printing presses that had been developed earlier in Asia. Since the Chinese language does not use an alphabet, however, but has a different character for each word, the advent of movable type in an alphabetic language was a huge leap in technology, allowing communication to flow rapidly throughout the population. In the same way, Martin Luther followed Wycliffe as a Bible translator, and Erasmus and others as an independent thinker. However, even though his ideas did not appear out of a vacuum, history usually requires a particular person at just the right time to take a quietly brewing idea and cause it to explode onto the world stage—disseminated, of course, by the new printing press.

Politics, theology, technology, philosophy, and art: all the threads that weave together to create what we call culture. Cahill reveals how one thread leads to another: cause and effect, push and pull. This is one of my favorite time periods, and many of the characters are, indeed, heroes of mine. On the other hand, it’s not all Sistine Chapel ceilings. No one expected the Spanish Inquisition, and even though we shudder at the treatment of Jews and Muslims during this time, it’s even more difficult for Americans to understand how bound up the church and state were, and how the least little deviation from the prescribed religion could cost you and your family your lives. This is one reason that reading history is so important for everyone: these issues are not all in the past. There are many theocracies in the world today, and even in Europe in the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer underwent a life-altering transformation when he went to Rome and saw how the church could be made up of people from all over the world. He had always been German and Lutheran, and had assumed that one had everything to do with the other. His entire worldview changed from that moment. Cahill mentions Bonhoeffer at the end of the book as one of three featured people who carried the lessons of the Renaissance and Reformation forward and learned “How to Live on This Earth.”

Cahill was born and raised as a Catholic and has studied the Bible extensively at excellent universities. That being said, his approach to scripture is that of a scholar, and for an ordinary believer like myself, his interpretations can be somewhat startling at times. When he writes that Luther read Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it were written for him personally, rather than being particularly for the Roman church, I had to stop and think that through, since I read scripture like Luther. Certain writings are expected to speak to all people for all time, even though they were written at a particular time in history. That is why cultures all over the world call them “holy scriptures.” Even though we may disagree on religious issues, however, Cahill is generally even-handed in his portrayals, showing the spectacular strengths and disappointing weaknesses of all of these heroes—or are they heretics?

There are so many master artists in this age, and I was pleased to see two sections of color plates tracing the history of European art from Donatello in the mid-fifteenth century to just a bit of Rembrandt in the seventeenth century. Watching painters throw off the stylized and stiff conventions of medieval art to take up more realistic styles and ordinary subjects is glorious. Cahill spends a good deal of time on Michelangelo and Brueghel, two very different men from very different countries and ages, both of whom are favorites of mine.

At the end of the book, Cahill mentions that he regrets that—because of space constraints— he could not include music history, but he invites the reader to learn more at his website. There you will find study notes and some background on music, as well.

Very highly recommended for everyone. Put on some Renaissance music and drift back in time. You’ll emerge with a deeper understanding of our world today.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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