This blog takes you behind the scenes of the writing of an academic history book – like a ‘making of’ featurette. Its aim is to make visible the traditionally invisible process of what it’s like for a university academic in the Humanities to write a research monograph, i.e. a single-authored 100,00 word book.

I’m a History Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, and the book I’m writing has a working title of The Elusive Church: Luther, Poland and the Early Reformation. This project is supported by a British Academy Mid Career Fellowship (2012-13).

On these pages, you'll find a regular 'log' of how the book is progressing, plus information about the project. I welcome your comments and thoughts - whether you're studying or teaching history at school or university, or writing non-fiction yourself...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Monograph as Daisy?

A little while ago, I was about to go to sleep when a picture popped into my head, which I scribbled down like this:

I’ve tried thinking about the monograph as a machine with interlocking parts, or as a skyscraper, but I’m currently finding this floral metaphor quite useful. Chapter 1, which offers a narrative/ historiographical/ analytical overview of the early Reformation in Poland is the stalk, the basic root (of fact, evidence and context) which keeps the whole thing up (hopefully). The yellow centre is the core argument of the book, which will get its initial statement/airing in the Introduction. The petals fanning off are the individual chapters which all touch each other, but also point to and grow out from the central argument. Trying to decipher my late-night handwriting, I can see that I initially scrawled ‘windmill’ underneath the picture, which might be a slightly less twee formulation that ‘daisy’. I’ve found this a reassuring way of thinking about the monograph, because it makes the book look somehow solid, rational and an organic whole…. on my late-night note-paper at least.

Photo by I am His
Photo by chrisdonia

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Fishy Business

German carp. Photo by photon de

Sometimes you can be quite far into a project, when the sources suddenly turn around and bite you. I was about to start drafting Chapter 3 this week, when I discovered another set of published sources which I thought I had better check out – the correspondence of Duke Albrecht of Prussia, Europe’s first Lutheran prince, with his Catholic neighbour, the prince-bishop of Ermland (in Polish Royal Prussia). 

So I sat down to work through this large volume in the Bodleian Upper Reading Room, expecting to find a lot of acrimonious letters dealing with the Reformation – ecclesiastical disputes, theological rows etc. This part of the Baltic, with its contested Catholic-Lutheran border was, after all, one of the great front-lines of the Reformation in the 1520s.

But it turns out that the Lutheran duke and the Catholic bishop barely wrote to one another about religious or church-related matters at all. Instead, the principal subject of their correspondence, at the height of the early Reformation, was carp. With growing bemusement, I spent yesterday scanning scores and scores of letters about carp fisheries, mutual gifts of carp, the price of carp. It felt like a 16C practical joke. And, of course, when early modern actors are so far from writing about the subjects which modern historians think they should be writing about, all sorts of alarm bells should start ringing…

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Clever Questions?

Albrecht Hohenzollern, Duke of Prussia (d.1568)
Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder

This week, I’ve been working through one of the many collections of published sources on which the monograph will be based – in this case, the letters of the pious King Zygmunt I of Poland to his Lutheran nephew, Duke Albrecht of Prussia, printed in Rome in 1973. These letters are full of intriguing, sometimes extraordinary statements about the Reformation, religious toleration and the old church. What amazes me just as much as their content, however, is the fact that historians haven’t used them before. 

Eminent 19th and 20th century scholars, such as the Polish princess Karolina Łanckorońska, spent years of their lives lovingly editing these letters, but didn’t feel moved to engage with what is actually being said in them about the Reformation, and nor has anyone since. I’m interested in how King Zygmunt and Duke Albrecht negotiated their religious differences; most historians in this field have been interested in the relative power of Poland and Prussia in the 16C. ‘I can’t believe nobody has looked at this before!’ and ‘I can’t believe no-body has asked this before!’ are common feelings in research, and necessary ones, if the point of research is to say something new. I find the challenge is - in the midst of the excitement - to retain enough sensitivity and humility to understand why great scholars in the past asked different (and to our mind, often less interesting) questions of the same source material… and to remember how novel and seemingly pressing those questions were in their own day. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

365 Days

Today is the official start date of the British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship which will enable me to spend the next 12 months completing the manuscript of the Elusive Church monograph. My temporary replacement at Somerville, the historian of early modern science, Dr. Alex Wragge-Morley, has arrived in Oxford and is settling into college.

It’s an enormous privilege to be in receipt of an award like this – with it comes excitement but also a keen feeling of responsibility (akin to that which I felt when taking up my British Academy-funded Masters studentship in 1998, and my Arts & Humanities Research Board-funded doctoral place in 2000). I now have to produce a book worthy of the investment of public research funds, and which also merits the British Academy’s faith in the idea of a new monograph on the early Polish Reformation....