Heretics and Believers – 50 Years in 50 Books

Heretics and Believers, a history of the English Reformation, was first published in 2017. Centuries on, what the Reformation was and what it accomplished has remained deeply contentious. Peter Marshall’s engaging history reveals what was really at stake in the overthrow of Catholic culture and the reshaping of the English Church.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Peter Marshall discusses taking a narrative approach to the history of the Reformation and explores the ongoing dialogue between the past and the present.

Article by Peter Marshall

As soon as I decided to write a broad, general history of the English Reformation, I knew I wanted to publish it with Yale University Press. It was partly – at the risk of sounding superficial – a matter of stylishness. Yale produces beautiful books, generously illustrated with a clean and elegant appearance on the page. A more respectable enticement was Yale’s virtually unique position within the British publishing landscape: a university press, turning out books of real scholarly depth, but also committed to communicating that scholarship to a wide public audience.

The proof of the pudding was in the eating. In the field of Reformation studies, I could think of numerous Yale books that had shaped my thinking in important ways, and were also books I had simply enjoyed reading. A key landmark was Eamon Duffy’s powerful and poignant account of late medieval Catholic culture and its overthrow: The Stripping of the Altars (1992). Other sources of inspiration included Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography of a key architect of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1996), Margo Todd’s expansive investigation of The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (2002) and George Bernard’s provocative reinterpretation of the earlier part of the process in England, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (2005).

These are all weighty tomes, in more senses than one. Taking big subjects seriously, and handling them with sensitivity and insight, can require writing at some length. Yale’s attested willingness to publish substantial books was another inducement. In the event, the typescript of Heretics and Believers turned out to be almost twice as long as the book I had originally promised to write. There were, it is fair to say, some discussions about this, but ultimately no orders for me to chop chunks out of it. An editorial impulse to trust the instinct of its authors is another of the features which makes Yale a pleasure to work with.

In light of an existing wealth of scholarship on the topic, people might wonder why, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, I wanted to write yet another book on the English Reformation, Yale would want to publish it, or the public want to read it. Heretics and Believers appeared in 2017, but both author and publisher can be acquitted of cannily deciding to cash in on the 500th anniversary of the ‘start’ of the European Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther (allegedly) posted 95 Theses against indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The manuscript was contracted to be delivered to the press in 2013, for publication the following year, but my ambitions outran my ability to deliver on time. I am very grateful to Yale for keeping faith with me.

An at least partial excuse for the slow appearance of Heretics and Believers was a determination to get the book right. More so than with any of my previous works, every chapter was drafted and redrafted many times to make it as fluent and readable as I possibly could. I suspect that among some academic historians the ability to write cogently and gracefully is regarded as a kind of optional extra – an upgrade to first class that might make the journey more comfortable but doesn’t actually get you to the destination any more quickly or securely. Germans traditionally regard history as a branch of Wissenschaft, a word meaning science as well as systematic knowledge. Historians are social scientists, technicians of knowledge. I’ve never believed that to be true. Whether we like to admit it or not, historians are actually rhetoricians, persuaders, and our ability to win arguments is substantially dependent on the skill with which we are able advance them.

With Heretics and Believers, I also wanted, quite literally, to tell a story about the Reformation in England. The course of my scholarly career to that point, from the 1980s to the 2010s, had coincided with (and in small ways contributed to) a plethora of detailed and sophisticated scholarship about many aspects of the inception and reception of religious change. Increasingly, however, I felt there was a risk of not being able to see the wood for the trees – or of losing our path through the wood itself. My aim was to write a new history of the English Reformation that took a series of steps back in order to get the whole complex landscape into view, and one that was more than a summary of what other scholars had to say about it, or a series of running arguments with them over fine points of interpretation.

From the outset, I made an in-principle decision that no names of modern historians would appear anywhere in my main text, and there would be no lengthy explanations of historical controversies and debates (though my debts to the scholarship of others are, I hope, properly acknowledged in the endnotes). I found the unfamiliar experience of writing ‘unreferentially’ both liberating and challenging: when you’re not saying why you disagree with what someone else has said about something, you have to think rather harder about what you are actually saying about it yourself, and why.

Heretics and Believers contains a series of arguments, but is at heart a narrative history of the Reformation. ‘Narrative’ doesn’t always elicit a great deal of respect in scholarly circles. In my own university, we tell students they will be penalised if what they produce in their essays is ‘primarily narrative’. The narrative approach is often seen as the antithesis of an analytical one, naively descriptive, and not requiring much thought or effort. I soon came to recognise, however, that narrative can be a complex, artful and sophisticated explanatory device. Or, to put it more simply, the story doesn’t just write itself.

Narrative is generally regarded as a ‘popular’ form of historical writing, but there are reasons other than accessibility for adopting it. The blessing, and also the curse, bestowed on historians is the gift of hindsight. We are always aware of what is going to happen next, and it inevitably colours and shapes our view of things. But the fact that our subjects didn’t know what was going to happen next is itself a crucially important historical variable: one of the things I tried to do in Heretics and Believers was always to tell the story forwards, not backwards; to view and assess developments as they might have appeared to contemporaries, and to keep open at every stage the possibility of radically different outcomes.

Title page of the Great Bible of 1539, the first authorised edition of the Bible in English, authorised by King Henry VIII, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the arguments the book makes about the English Reformation indeed emerged from my attempts to chart a narrative pathway through it. One is that it was a considerably more violent process than conventional wisdom often supposes. In addition to many hundreds of martyrdoms (on all sides), blood was spilled on the field of battle in England in every decade between the 1530s and 1570s. Another is the importance of the agency of ordinary people. The Reformation was not simply an ‘act of state’ imposed on an unwilling but essentially passive population; nor was it straightforwardly a spiritual revolution, pushed through by reformers with support from engaged sections of the population. The picture painted by Heretics and Believers is one of a sprawling, decades-long debate about how to order religion and politics; a kind of ‘national conversation’ in which nearly everyone was involved in one way or another, which managed to educate people about contested matters of faith and practice, and which empowered them to weigh issues and make choices. The result was a permanently divided, increasingly pluralistic society, forced to make accommodations which no one had anticipated or wished to see adopted.

I don’t think I realised it at the time, but some of this was probably shaped by comparable societal debates taking place while the book was being written: the 2014 Independence Referendum in my home nation of Scotland, and the 2016 vote over whether the UK should remain in the European Union. I don’t really buy the simplistic argument that the English Reformation was ‘the first Brexit’, but there are undeniable parallels in the gravity of the issues at stake, the depth of hopes and fears engendered, the genuine idealism (on all sides), and the sense of broken promises and betrayal.

None of the 300,000 words in Heretics and Believers is the last word on the subject. Yale has already published several important works that I wish had been available to me when I was writing: James Clark’s comprehensive new analysis of The Dissolution of the Monasteries (2021), Lucy Wooding’s elegant and panoramic assessment of Tudor England (2022), Mark Stoyle’s gripping account of A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549 (2022). The story of the English Reformation will eventually need to be retold, and perhaps sooner than I would like. The present is always in dialogue with the past, and it will be fascinating to observe what questions subsequent scholars will pose to the people of sixteenth-century England, and what answers they will choose to hear in response.

About the Author:

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick, winner of the Harold J. Grimm Prize for Reformation History, and author of numerous books, including The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. His book Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation was the winner of the 2018 Wolfson History Prize

About the book:

Heretics and Believers

A History of the English Reformation

Peter Marshall’s sweeping history—the first major overview for general readers in a generation—argues that sixteenth-century England was a society neither desperate for nor allergic to change, but one open to ideas of “reform” in various competing guises. With sensitivity to individual experience as well as masterfully synthesizing historical and institutional developments, Marshall frames the perceptions and actions of people great and small, from monarchs and bishops to ordinary families and ecclesiastics, against a backdrop of profound change that altered the meanings of “religion” itself.

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Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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