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.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Extra Chapter (oops?)

Piotr Tomicki , bishop of Cracow (d.1535) - beneficiary of an extra book chapter
Throughout last term, colleagues and students kindly kept asking how the book was going, and I would say ‘I think it’s on schedule’. I’d built a fair amount of slack into the book-writing timetable, but a whole month of that was used up when I made the slightly unwelcome discovery in February that I would have to add another chapter, slap in the middle of the monograph.

Having spent several years planning and structuring the book, it did seem a bit careless to suddenly discover a gap where a chapter should be. I’ve been wondering how this came about, and whether it was down to some rudimentary error on my part. So I offer this as a case-study in how a chapter can ambush you...

The original concept was for Elusive Church to have two parts – one discussing responses to the early Reformation by the Polish Crown, and the second responses by bishops & high clergy. It seemed perfectly simple. However, as I wrote up, it became clear that the Part II chapters which were meant to be about specific church policies (preaching, prosecution) would work better if they directly addressed the question which really stood at their heart, i.e. how contemporaries understood and articulated the differences between ‘catholics’ and ‘Lutherans’, if indeed they saw much difference at all. So Part II quietly morphed in my mind from a survey of church policies, into a series of chapters exploring contemporary Polish-Prussian understandings of Lutheranism, Catholicism and reform itself.

That reconceptualisation of Part II seemed to work well, except that it left the policies of bishops (inquisitions, preaching campaigns, sponsored polemics) without a home, and these were clearly an important part of the story. So the book has now acquired a new chapter 6, which takes a handful of Poland’s top bishops as case-studies, and traces their evolving responses to Reformation activity in their own dioceses. It didn’t require any extra research, as I had all the material to hand, but it still took over 3 weeks to draft.

My sense is that this kind of thing happens because one's thinking about a book’s core argument and shape is always ongoing – in the background, in subtle, half-conscious tweaks and shifts of perspective here and there – and sometimes those processes can throw up big jolts, like tremors. That’s why a book-in-progress feels like a organic object, and why it can sometimes break through the mould of even extensive planning – and that, I think, is a positive thing, a sign of life inside the work. Those jolts may be risky, but they are also creative.

Little jolts...
Seismograph, by matthileo

Friday, 8 March 2013

Steep Tracks

Train climbing Mount Snowdon
Photo by blogee

When I wrote the book-writing rules for myself almost a year ago, I’d had an assumption that, correctly handled and planned, the process of drafting the book would proceed at a steady and even pace throughout the year of British Academy-funded leave – like a well driven train, just puffing along.

I had some hazy recollections of the last 2 months of writing my first book being slightly grim, as I ran out of physical and intellectual energy, of crawling to the finish line: a large envelope stuffed with the MS in the post to the publishers, and a plane to the Canary Islands. This book has now had nearly 12 months of steady ascent, but the track suddenly seems to have got steeper, and the general feel of the book-writing experience more intense. There is ever more to think about, as you keep realising, as you work on chapter x, how what you’re writing will affect paragraph y in chapter z. There’s a sense of the key arguments starting to lock together, but with a lot of mental noise and effort.

This sense of entering a more critical stage is probably tied to the fact that I’m about to start writing the two core chapters of the book, on how religious identities are constructed (or not) in early 16C Poland: ‘What is a Lutheran?’ and ‘What is a catholic?’. Whether one these are drafted the track will even out, or even enter a gentle descent towards the concluding sections, I still don’t know...