Squeaky Hinge

Heretics and Heroes
How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
Thomas Cahill
Nan A. Talese, $29.95, 368 pp.

This is a very difficult book to review because, as  Gertrude Stein famously said about Oakland, “There is no there there.” Cahill’s newest installment in his “Hinges of History” series—now six volumes with a further one planned—is a long series of vignettes organized more or less chronologically. The volume does not present a coherent argument or thesis, although on careful inspection it does reveal a few basic perspectives and emphases.

The book’s title does not give away much. Few of the book’s major characters were in any conventional sense heretics or heroes, and it is easy to think of aspects of “our world” that owe little to Renaissance artists or Reformation priests. On page 182 Cahill reveals his argument: “In this series of books, The Hinges of History, we are looking at dramas of origination. We are attempting repeatedly to answer the questions: How did x or y get started? How did this or that valued aspect of our contemporary lives come to be?” If one tries hard to make Cahill’s meandering discussion respond to those questions, one can vaguely make sense of the book as a whole. More than a hundred pages later, in the book’s “postlude,” Cahill apologizes for not fully covering the Renaissance...

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About the Author

Thomas Noble teaches history at the University of Notre Dame.