Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Heretics and Heroes....by Thomas Cahill

The Hinges of History series has been one of my favorites since the first volume "How the Irish Saved Civilization" was given to me as a gift back in 1995. Since then, I've eagerly awaited a chance to dive into each new volume in the series. When Knopf Doubleday offered me a chance to review this one, I didn't hesitate to accept. I've had the galley since July, and have taken my time reading it, allowing Cahill's ideas and insights to bubble up, take form, and then slide into place in my world view of history.

Here's how the publisher blurbs the book:
In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through the thrilling period of Renaissance and Reformation (late fourteenth to early seventeenth centuries), so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western world would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Plague, Cahill traces the many innovations in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation. This is an age of the most sublime artistic and scientific adventure, but also of newly powerful princes and armies, and of newly found courage, as many thousands refuse to bow their heads to the religious pieties of the past.  It is an era of newly discovered continents and previously unknown peoples.  More than anything, it is a time of individuality in which a whole culture must achieve a new balance, if the West is to continue.  
My impressions:

While he maintains a scholarly approach to the subject, Cahill writes in a conversational tone that immediately helps the reader settle into  the setting. We are simultaneously treated to a well-researched treatise on art, politics, and religion, their practices and motivations, ancient influences and contemporary thought  along with Cahill's insightful and often imaginative (dare I say sometimes even amusing?) interpretations. He examines poetry (and poets), drama (and playwrights), essayists (and writers), religious treatises (and the clergy and academics who wrote them), and military strategies and tactics (along with the popes, generals, and soldiers responsible), drawing out implications and conclusions I certainly would never have found on my own, no matter how much reading I did.

He uses his prelude entitled "Philosophical Tennis through the Ages," where he presents a very brief essay on the connections between the tag teams (my term not Cahill's) of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to set the stage for the enormous intellectual and cultural changes about to unfold in the world just emerging from the Middle Ages into the light of the Renaissance. He follows this with a discussion of Columbus, international trade, the growth of empires, and the budding of the Renaissance in Florence.

Next, he turns to the world of Renaissance artists expounding on the shift from Medieval piety to a more open appreciation of humanism. The finished book is planned to feature over 62 illustrative plates (I presume in color similar to the previous volume). However, my galley copy did not include these illustrations so it is difficult for me to comment on how well his explanations and descriptions confirm his conclusions. I have visited Florence and Rome, and had the opportunity to personally view about 10 of those works of art that I can specifically remember. I only wish I had had this book with me - I suspect I would have come away with a much deeper appreciation of what I was seeing! The book (and galley) also features 22 black and white illustrations that are well placed to demonstrate his points.

The final sections on the Reformation are my personal favorites. Having grown up in a household with one Roman Catholic and one Lutheran parent, I got a glimpse of religious belief, but my Catholic school background did not include any expanded discussion of Martin Luther other than to say that he was the blackguard who broke away from the church and founded the Lutherans. Cahill traces the beginnings of the reformation from before Luther beginning with a look at Erasmus and continues with a fairly developed picture of the condition of the politics of the day that drove the excesses Luther railed against. 

Then in a delightful  Intermission entitled "Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo" (the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) A Portfolio of Egos"   he reiterates the central theme:
“As we, the children of the West, look back across our history, we can only be dismayed by the violent clashes that occurred in the period we are now considering.  There is a scholarly theory (as well as a popular variant of it) that monotheism itself is responsible for the violence, because the worship of one God—by Jews from ancient times, by Christians from the time of Constantine forward when they gained political power, and by Muslims almost from their inception—necessarily encourages intolerance of other beliefs.” (p. 187)
He recounts from Columbus expanding the horizons of the known world with a vision of what could be, from the artists expanding the horizons of humanity's vision of itself and branches out to other aspects of the time with the ugliness of perverted religious ideas and power grabs in Holy Roman Empire and beyond.  Here we get a taste of additional players in the reformation arena, and the intertwining of politics and religion that have become the hallmark of cultural clashes that continue to this day.

Through the rest of the book, he highlights how the invention of moveable type and the spread of printed material, along with the increased education and literacy of the populace, and the translation of written texts (particularly the Bible) played a significant role in setting the stage for future changes to come at an ever increasing pace.

Cahill does not interrupt the flow of his conversation with endless footnotes.  References are discretely side-barred in an exceptionally eye-pleasing format. There are extensive bibliographic notes at the end of the book, but even these are in an informal format that is more likely to draw the reader to further exploring than an academically rigorous list of carefully formatted "mumbledy- jumble".

Although I am a huge fan of audio books, this is one book that I don't think would work in that format.  It is a visual delight (and I'm sure will be even more so with the addition of the color plates).  As an e-book, it would really only work on a color reader, tablet, or screen.

Cahill's words are thought-provoking.  The entire work is a feast for the brain and the senses.  I can't wait until it comes out on October 29th because this is one I'm ordering for my personal library. And then...I'm going to start the whole series again from the beginning.  It's been too long between volumes.  A final volume is planned, but no title or pub date has been announced.  Let's hope it doesn't take as long as this one.

About the Author

Cahill is the author of five previous volumes in the Hinges of History series: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages. They have been bestsellers not only in the United States, but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. His last book was A Saint on Death Row. His last book was A Saint on Death Row.

Title: Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
Author: Thomas Cahill
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Nan A. Talese imprint) 2013
Genre: History
Subject: Art, religion, politics, history of 13th through the mid 17th centuries
Setting: Europe 1282-1669
Series: Hinges of History, volume VI
Source: Bound galley from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's a series I enjoy and the publisher asked me to do a review.

Many thanks to Doubleday Knopf for providing the review copy. 


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