One of the most pivotal periods of Western civilization occurred during the Renaissance and the Reformation, to culturally impactful events that overlapped one another across Europe. Heretics and Heroes is the sixth book in Thomas Cahill’s series “The Hinges of History” highlighting the artists and the priests that changed how Europe viewed creativity and worshiped God.
Cahill begins this volume talking about philosophical struggle over the ages between Plato and Aristotle, through it is the fourth time he has discussed this millennia-long debate during the series it allows Cahill to refer back to it in the text and gives the reader a basis to understand its importance during this era. Cahill continued setting up both the Renaissance and Reformation by highlighting moments during the Late Middle Ages, especially the effects of the Black Death, leading up to and allowed for these two important moments in Western history to occur. The ‘discovery’ of the New World by Columbus and rise of the humanists begin the look at the titular heretics and heroes that will dominate the book, using both events Cahill shows the changing trends in Europe just before both the Renaissance and Reformation completely change it. The Renaissance and it’s complete change of artistic creativity of the previous millennium is taken up first through the lives of Donatello, Leonardo, and Botticelli before focusing on its height and sudden stop as a result of the Counter-Reformation in the life of Michelangelo. Then, save for a brief look at the art of Northern Europe, Cahill turns to the Reformation of Luther and the Catholic Counter-Reformation with brief looks at the Reformed movements and the development of Anglicanism.
The entire book is packed with information in a very conversational style of writing which has always been one of the strengths of Cahill’s writing. As always with a popular history book, Cahill had to pick and choose what to focus the reader’s attention on while covering as much as possible about the subject he’s decided to write about. While Cahill is pretty successful at hitting the high points and pointing readers looking for information to the appropriate place to look, his personal opinions at times overwhelm the history and themes he’s trying to bring to fore. All history authors have their personal opinions influence their work; however Cahill’s armchair psychiatry and personal theological arguments that actually have nothing to do with the debate he’s writing about at that moment in the text. While Cahill’s personal opinions have been in all of the previous books of the series, this volume it seems to not be subtle but almost blatant.
Overall Heretics and Heroes is a fine addition to the “Hinges of History” series written in a very readable style by Cahill. However, unlike the previous books in which the reader was left with wanting more, the reader will be wishing less of Cahill’s opinion and more of actual facts. Yet even with this drawback and forewarning a reader will find this book very informative.