Thursday, November 3, 2016

Heretics and Heroes

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
© 2013 Thomas Cahill
368 pages

It seems the more I read of Cahill, the less I enjoy his cavalier histories, which at this point border on gossipy. Part of Cahill's hinges of history series, covering pivotal moments in western history where there was a sea change, the crucial shift here is the emergence of the Individual -- demonstrated in art, and shown at work in disintegrating Christendom into a multitude of violently passionate sects, all supremely secure in their 'truthiness'. In attempting to tell this story, though, Cahill covers everything from the Reconquista and Columbus to the Counter-Reformation. Perhaps as a consequence of the Renaissance and Reformation occurring concurrently, Cahill isn't nearly as well-organized here as he usually is, and readers go back and fort from art to history to theology in a higgedly-piggedly fashion.

I enjoyed the sections on art, since Cahill provides readers with a bounty of colorful plates to aide his commentary, but viewed the theological bits suspiciously. It's hard to take seriously an author who dismisses the Great Schism as a mere ethnic division, especially since that schism's key issue, papal authority, had a massive potential connection to his chief subject, the reformation. Cahill seems fairly oblivious about Orthodoxy altogether, referring to it as the 'Greek church' and apparently not realizing that ecumenical councils to weigh orthodoxy are not some Protestant invention, but have been part of the Orthodox-Catholic church from its inception. Cahill constantly editorializes, often on things that have nothing at all to do with the subject -- complaining about his grammar school, or reminding readers of how terribly racist the Greeks were, and how evil certain modern people are. The more I read Cahill, the more trivial and whiggishly narrow-minded he seems. (There are occasional glimpses of nuance, though, as when he defends the much-abused Mary Tudor despite a pronounced contempt for her cause.)

In the end, if you want a taste of Renaissance art, try Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation". There you shall find erudition and glorious music -- and Cahill keeps referring to Clark, anyway, so why not save the step? As far as the Reformation goes, Will Durant's volume is much more intelligent, and daunting only in its size. I'm sure there also better histories of how the individual burst on the western scene as well.

The Renaissance, Will Durant; The Reformation, Will Durant


  1. I would add Paul Johnson to the short list as alternatives to Cahill. Thanks for steering me clear of this on. Your fine review helps a lot when there are so many books but so little time.

  2. so, ecumenical council=inquisition? i suppose... driven to write, maybe Cahill succumbed to the pressure of modern "civilization" and neglected research and thinking... Durant is solid and durable, i've found, although not always up-to-date... tx for the post...

    1. Oh, nothing like that -- church councils that deliberate on the running of the church and the establishment of its doctrine, like Nicea but not always that dramatic.

  3. I can heartily recommend: A Brief History of the English Reformation by Derek Wilson (FP: 2012).

  4. Thanks for a great critical review. I appreciate your comparison with Clark and Durant; theirs is a more thorough approach to a very large topic.

  5. Thanks for this. I have this queued up to read some time, but after having finished the medieval one I am hesitant. I loved "Gifts of the Jews" and "How the Irish |Saved Civilization." Desire on the Everlasting Hills was beautiful, but as a New Testament scholar I had concerns. So I'm starting to get your feeling: "It seems the more I read of Cahill, the less I enjoy his cavalier histories."
    Brenton from A Pilgrim in Narnia


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