What is history but the story of how we came to be? All our past—every tiniest tick of it—led to today, and every passing second casts us into tomorrow. We do things for reasons whose origins we barely remember, and the things we do set the pattern of the future, with our own choices no more assuredly understood than those of our ancestors. Ronald Reagan quipped that “status quo” was Latin for “the mess we’re in.” It might also mean “the mess we’ve been handed,” for all history is simply a mess handed forward, from which we are expected to sift out treasure, if we can but find it.
Thomas Cahill made a life of publishing others’ thoughts on history and religion before deciding to put forth his own examination of “the mess we’ve been handed.” His Hinges of History series, beginning with How the Irish Saved Civilization, offers his interpretation of pivotal moments, cultures and individuals who have contributed both treasure and trash to the mess we’re in. Heretics and Heroes, his latest addition, turns his glass upon the Renaissance, the era of grandiose art and even greater upheaval, as the culture of medieval Europe slammed headfirst into an onslaught of new ideas and new discoveries. Columbus found an astounding New World, the Italian artists pursued incomparable forms of expression and a priest in Wittenberg challenged the understanding of faith—and between them all, they brought forth political and religious changes that overturned the world.
Cahill’s book is not strictly a history, but rather a selection of gleanings from it—an interpretation of history, rather than history itself. As an interpretation, it very much arises from Cahill’s own world view, rather than an objective assessment. The book is not about what happened, but rather what happened as Cahill sees it—history salted heavily with opinion, ranging from art criticism to religious interpretation to political commentary. Yet even where the reader may disagree, Cahill’s insights remain thought-provoking, and his examination of the characters who altered their age and our own, for good or ill, is often quite fascinating. Though flawed as history, Heretics and Heroes still offers an interesting window into a time when muddle piled onto muddle, and does indeed manage to brush away that debris for bits of gold.
Howard Shirley is a writer living in Franklin, Tennessee.