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...

Friday, 31 May 2013

Brown Ink

Bishop Mauritius Ferber, by Anton Moller (posthumous portrait)
Photo by Maciej Szczepanczyk

Apologies for the silence on this blog in the past month – a result of trying to juggle research trips with actually writing the monograph.

In May, I undertook the last major archival trip for the monograph, to the archive of the archdiocese of Warmia, in the town of Olsztyn, in north-east Poland’s lake district. After so many months working from 19C and 20C published editions of the sources, it was good to handle original 16C materials again, with their spidery brown ink and crisp pages. I always feel a bit nervous working from published source collections (no matter how respected, how expertly edited) because part of me worries about not having seen proof that the original exists. So it was good to see that the spidery brown writing matched up word for word with the type-set pages I’ve been poring over for two years.

The trip was also stimulating, however, because it brought me up close to so many of the characters in the early Polish Reformation story. In most Polish church archives, the person holding the pen is a professional scribe, recording chapter minutes or the outgoing letters of the bishop. But, in the 1000 pages of Bishop Mauritius Ferber’s correspondence, we have not only letters in the bishop’s own meticulous hand, but the incoming autograph letters of a host of key figures. There is the handwriting of Copernicus’ close friend and ally Canon Tiedemann Giese, his Latin wonderfully neat and tiny, and the occasional German phrase scrawled with great abandon. There’s the fluent, leisurely humanist script of Piotr Tomicki, the master statesman of King Zygmunt’s Poland, and the basically illegible, wild ink scrawl of his nephew, the NeoLatin poet & bishop Andrzej Krzycki. Even Bishop Ferber must have frowned and squinted when he opened those missives. 

There is a whole industry which compiles psychological profile on the basis of handwriting, but even for a historian untrained in such dark arts, seeing the very different visual style of these handwritten letters does make these 16C people seem more tangible, leaving a hint of their personalities on the page – the person who took pride in their italic hand, the person who cared only about speed, the person who crossed out again and again until they had got their phrase on ‘the Lutheran heresy’ just right.