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...

Monday, 25 March 2013

Favoured Sources

Tolkmitt / Tolmicko, home of the chronicler Simon Grunau
Photo by Piotr Tysarczyk

In the same way as you’re not meant to admit to having a favourite child, I wonder if it’s slightly naughty for historians writing monographs to admit to having a favourite, or favoured, source – because with that comes the risk that you might unfairly privilege it over the others. Being aware of feelings towards your sources, and the voices or people behind them, is however probably an important first step towards controlling for them.

Until last week, I didn’t have a single favourite source for Elusive Church. Rather, there were individual moments which made me smile, or which I found moving – the Lutheran Duke Albrecht of Prussia being made to sit through Mass on a pew next to his non-Lutheran uncle King Zygmunt of Poland, like a naughty schoolboy, or the Primate of Poland, Maciej Drzewicki, weeping when told that the religious peace talks in Germany, on which all Europe had pinned its hopes in 1530, had broken down.

I have now, however, finally got around to reading the ‘Prussian Chronicle’ of Simon Grunau, which the Somerville graduate student Sabrina Beck has been working on with me as a research assistant. Grunau was a minor Prussian friar, writing in a basic, everyday 16C German, and his chronicle has been dismissed by historians since the 19C as a useless piece of fantasy-polemic. Apart from what strike me as its overlooked merits as a major source for the Prussian Reformation, it is also wonderfully mischievous, and funny. It’s packed with stories poking fun at Prussian Lutherans (if not at Luther himself) – troublesome ghosts of Lutheran fathers visit their catholic sons, Hamlet-like, and there are tales of Danzig merchants which give us the Reformation as bedroom farce. Grunau is perturbed by events around him, but looks at them wryly, as an example of comic human frailty. As such, I like the Prussian Chronicle because, underneath its flashes of anger and reputation as a hardbitten polemic, it’s a surprisingly humane text.

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