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...

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. 

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