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...

About the book

Elusive Church: Luther, Poland and the Early Reformation

What’s the point of this book?

            When Martin Luther made his famous protest against the Roman church in 1517, the Kingdom of Poland was a major European monarchy (covering parts of present-day Poland, Russia and Ukraine), ruled by King Zygmunt I Jagiellon (1506-48), a direct contemporary of Henry VIII of England (1509-47). In the 1520s and 1530s, Luther’s teaching found enormous support in most of the areas neighbouring Jagiellonian Poland: in Saxony, the Duchy of Pomerania, Silesia, northern Hungary and Scandinavia. Many historians, especially since the Second World War, have argued that in spite of this, the Reformation did not have any significant impact in the Polish Kingdom in Zygmunt I’s reign. This book will dust off a nineteenth-century body of scholarly work, and use new sources, to argue that this was not the case - and indeed to suggest that Zygmunt I’s monarchy was a major centre of Lutheran culture and influence in early sixteenth-century Europe. As such, the book aims to challenge our sense of the geography and spread of the early Reformation.

            Elusive Church is not just about filling in geographical gaps in our Reformation knowledge, however. The central question posed in the book is this: why did King Zygmunt I, his bishops and counsellors, adopt a basically passive policy towards local Lutheranism? By 1540 only two of King Zygmunt’s subjects had been legally declared heretics, and neither of these was executed. If we see the Reformation as the traumatic break-up of the medieval church after centuries of cultural hegemony, Polish elite inaction is puzzling. The book will explore royal policy towards the Reformation movements in different parts of the monarchy (Royal Prussia, Ducal Prussia, the Polish Crown), and its impact on Jagiellonian foreign policy. It will examine anti-heresy measures, such as royal edicts, inquisitions, preaching and printed polemics, considering them in the context of wider debates within the Polish monarchy about both religious reform and the new intellectual trend of humanism. This study will suggest that King Zygmunt I and his bishops were paralysed in their defence of orthodoxy (i.e. traditional religious truth) in Poland precisely because they were no longer sure where it lay, or who had the moral, institutional or intellectual authority to define it. The identity of the old church, and of the tentatively emerging reformed ones, were in this period both elusive. The book therefore aims to open up new perspectives on the early European Reformation, the ultimate crisis of the medieval church, by placing changing perceptions of heresy at the heart of the story.

What sources exist to tell this story?

  • Royal and episcopal letters: 17 volumes of correspondence, from the personal archive of Piotr Tomicki, Bishop of Cracow and Royal Vice-Chancellor (d.1535) – printed from the 1850s+ and accessible online here.

  • Early 16th century books printed in Poland: polemic (such as Andrzej Krzycki's Encomia Luteri), sermons, royal edicts, Biblical scholarship, synod statutes.

  • Manuscripts in Polish ecclesiastical archives: the records of cathedral chapter meetings (acta capituli), records of episcopal decrees and court-room hearings (acta episcopalia) and of the courts presided over by their deputies (acta vicarii).

  • Other printed collections of sources, such as the letters of papal nuncios in Poland, early Prussian chronicles, the records of local parliaments/sejmiki, letters of Luther and other reformers to Central Europe.

What’s the backstory?

I first began working on this project six years ago, in 2006, as a Junior Research Fellow at University College, Oxford. In this period, I undertook month-long research trips to Cracow and Rome (as a Rome Scholar, at the British School in Rome) respectively.

After taking up a Tutorial Fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford, in 2007, there were shorter research trips to two small Polish cathedral towns, Gniezno and Włocławek. I began to work through the printed sources, and wrote two articles related to the project. I’ve been able to start writing up the book during two recent terms of Oxford sabbatical leave (2011-12), and in particular thanks to the award of a British Academy Mid Career Research Fellowship for the Elusive Church project for the academic year 2012-13.

King Zygmunt I's Wawel palace, Cracow - Italianate courtyard, 1530s.
Photo by Anna Strumillo, licenced for reuse under Creative Commons