10 questions with Peter Marshall

I recently had the privilege to interview Peter Marshall. He is the author of “Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation.”

Peter Marshall, Courtesy of Peter Marshall

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you initially got interested in history?

Peter Marshall: Sure. I’m a professor at the University of Warwick in the UK, where I’ve spent my entire professional career as a historian.

I can’t really remember ever not being interested in history. I think for kids (especially boys) growing up in the 1970s, the past was a source of excitement, pleasure and imagination in ways it perhaps isn’t any longer. The movies I wanted to watch were westerns or medieval adventures, and playground games tended to involve the Second World War (still casting a huge cultural shadow for those of us born in the ‘60s).

As an awkward and introspective teenager, I started reading clever modern novels, and would probably have gone on to study literature at university had it not been for the influence of a charismatic history teacher, Dr Ray Fereday. He encouraged me to pursue my own interests and projects – something probably not possible within the confines of strict testing regimes operating in UK schools today. (I was delighted to meet up with him again just a few weeks ago, after a gap of thirty-six years!)

Another factor, I think, is that I was born and grew up in a place with a powerful sense of its own past: the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland. Orkney has some of the richest archaeological sites anywhere in northern Europe, and in the Middle Ages was an autonomous Norse Viking earldom. The islands only became part of the kingdom of Scotland at the end of the fifteenth century (not so long ago, really!) To this day, ‘Orcadians’ are both Scottish and somehow not-Scottish; British and not-British.

I think that sense of not quite fitting, of being an insider and an outsider, is a useful space for historians to occupy.

I’ve lived south of the border a long time, and as my accent has mellowed and faded, people often assume I’m English. But my perspectives on the Reformation in England have always been those of a friendly foreigner.


Kurt Manwaring: Could you take us through a bit of the background of “Heretics and Believers”? What was the genesis of the idea and what were initial conversations like with Yale University Press? What was your initial word-limit and what did you end up at? How long did it take? Is it a relief to be finished or do you look back upon the process with nostalgia?

Peter Marshall: I fear that the honest answer to the question of the book’s genesis might be ‘mid-life crisis’!

I’ve been writing and publishing on different aspects of the Church, religion and politics in sixteenth-century England since the mid-1990s. It seemed like I was reaching the point in my career when I should put up or shut up – pull my thoughts together and make some kind of statement as to what I thought the Reformation was really about.

The wider timing seemed right too.

A huge amount of interesting and important work has been produced on the English Reformation in the past quarter-century, but there hadn’t really been an attempt at a broad interpretative overview, aimed at general readers as well as scholars, since Christopher Haigh’s “English Reformations” (1993), a book which was itself a riposte to an earlier classic study, A. G. Dickens’s “The English Reformation” (1964).

I wasn’t necessarily looking to refute Haigh in the way that Haigh had sought to supplant Dickens, but with another generation passing, it felt like time for a fresh assessment.

I decided to approach Yale University Press as the publisher that had most consistently and successfully bridged the gap between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ history. Yale had also published some of the books in my field I most admire, such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and Eamon Duffy’s seminal study of the flowering and uprooting of medieval Catholic culture in England, “The Stripping of the Altars” (1992). This might sound a bit shallow, but another consideration was that Yale produce really beautiful books!

I first contacted the press with the idea in 2009. They were encouraging, but also – quite rightly – demanding about levels of detail the written proposal should contain. In consultation with my Yale editor, and in response to incisive and helpful reports from anonymous readers, the architecture of the book changed. An initial plan to include a substantial thematic section analyzing broad social and cultural results of the Reformation was dropped, in favor of a more consistently narrative approach. The terminal date was also pulled back, from 1625 to 1600 – and in the end I brought the account to an end in around 1590, which seemed a natural conclusion for the arc of the story I wanted to tell.

A contract was issued in the spring of 2010, with the stipulation a completed version would be sent to the publishers ‘not later than 31 October 2013’. Things didn’t work out that way. Most reviewers have assumed the book was from the started designed to appear in the Reformation anniversary year of 2017; in fact I was three years late getting it finished.

The word-limit was a bit of a saga.

Peter Marshall’s desk where he wrote “Heretics and Believers.” Photo provided by Peter Marshall.

My contract specified a maximum length of 160,000 words. That was already quite a substantial book, but as the writing progressed it became increasingly clear to me that I needed more space for the treatment I envisaged. At one stage, my editor offered ‘200,000, and not a word more.’ In the end, the text I submitted, in March 2016, was around 300,000 words. The length of a volume has pricing and marketing implications, and I was pleased (and not a little surprised) that Yale were prepared to go forward with what I gave them (my editor has subsequently graciously conceded that I was right about the length the book needed).

The assignments we give to our students at Warwick have strict word-limits, with a penalty of one mark deducted for every 50 words over the specified length – so definitely a case of do as I say rather than do as I do!

The book was largely written during a period of research leave in 2015-16. Some historians love research, but find writing a chore. I’ve always found writing up the material the most exciting and rewarding part of the business, though it doesn’t come particularly easy. My draft chapters were all written and re-written, often well past the point of discernible improvement. I wrote 2000 words a day, every day – which sometimes meant clocking off in the afternoon and sometimes involved working well into the evening.

There was certainly more perspiration than inspiration, and at times it seemed like an insurmountable task, but I do look back on that period with real affection.


Kurt Manwaring: How do you think your book has been received? Have you gotten any feedback from Christopher Haigh (who inspired much of your early thinking) or Susan Brigden (who supervised and mentored you during your doctoral studies)?

Peter Marshall: The reception so far has been pretty favorable, I think. The published reviews have nearly all been positive – a couple of reviewers even suggested the book was not long enough!

I haven’t had any direct feedback from Chris Haigh, who is now retired and mainly living in Australia. I hope he sees it and likes it.

Susan Brigden has been truly kind – though as I was her first doctoral student she is naturally biased in my favor.

I’ve had warm words too from the historians (and Yale authors) I mentioned in the previous answer, Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch, who between them have set so much of the agenda for the field of Reformation studies.

But I’m sure someone will be popping up soon to say I’ve got nearly everything wrong!


Kurt Manwaring: You have developed a unique blend of academic and narrative styles. How have your thoughts on artistic narrative and storytelling in history evolved throughout your career? How might the style have been different if you wrote “Heretics and Believers” 20 years ago, possessing today’s knowledge and expertise but lacking your current perspective on narrative and presentation?

Peter Marshall: That’s a kind comment (though whether ‘unique’ is necessarily good, I’m not sure!) I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer and communicator over the course of my career.

“Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation”

My first couple of books were specialized ‘monographs’, aimed largely at an audience of academic peers.

Then, over the course of 2002-3, I accepted an invitation to write a textbook for undergraduate students. I naively assumed this would be pretty easy; I knew the material well, and could just dumb it down to the appropriate level. What I discovered was that it’s considerably harder to write for a less specialist readership: there’s no hiding behind jargon and shared scholarly assumptions, and you have to understand completely what it is you are trying to say.

I followed this up a couple of years later with “Mother Leakey and the Bishop,” my first ‘trade’ history book (the publishing term for works written for and marketed at a general audience). This was a slightly eccentric affair, involving the multiple retellings of a west of England ghost story over the course of three centuries.

It made me confront the fact that history-writing really is a form of story-telling. It’s not an alternative form of fiction: historians believe, or ought to believe, that they are telling ‘true’ stories about the past. But there’s no doubt that the stories we tell are works of artifice, requiring careful planning and crafting to work their intended effects on readers.

I’ve certainly benefited greatly from the ‘tough love’ of sharp-penciled editors at Yale, and before that in the trade arm of Oxford University Press.

I’ve learned to write in shorter and less tortuous sentences, and to organize my thoughts into shorter paragraphs.

Most of all – and this is where it surely would have been a different book twenty years ago – I’ve tried to make myself not worry too much about what a handful of highly informed readers (often friends and colleagues) will make of what I am writing.

A decision at the outset with “Heretics and Believers” was that no names of modern historians would appear anywhere in my main text (though I use the end-notes to acknowledge my debts, and allow readers to follow my scholarly tracks). To people outside ‘the Academy’ this probably doesn’t seem particularly bold or unusual, but the idea that ideas should always be advanced in explicitly critical dialogue with the published work of other scholars sits very deep in academic DNA.


Kurt Manwaring: One of the more beautiful overarching themes in “Heretics and Believers” is there is no single or simple explanation for the causes of the Reformation. To what extent did you purposefully outline these complexities and conceive a plan to weave them together — and to what extent did you just throw up your hands and tell the story? Do you feel you succeeded?

Peter Marshall: It has indeed been said that while other historians offer visions of a ‘long Reformation’ or a ‘slow Reformation’, Marshall is the purveyor of ‘messy Reformation’!

I’ve always been distrustful of simple explanations for large and multi-layered processes, and I’m always pleased when students report back to me that some aspect of the past turns out to be more complicated than they had previously thought.

The challenge, with a big theme like the Reformation in England, with a long timescale of about a hundred years, a large cast of characters, and a hefty book, was to accommodate the complexity without sacrificing clarity or causing confusion among readers.

The challenge was made greater still by my determination to be as strict as possible about narrative chronology – in other words, to get things as far as I could into the correct time-sequence, something actually much harder to do than it sounds. I wanted to recapture the experience of people living through events without any idea of how they would ultimately turn out, and also to underline the obvious (but surprisingly often neglected) point that lots of different things were happening at the same time, and having an impact on each other.

The plan involved drawing up detailed month-by-month timelines for each chapter, and thinking about ways to move from one incident, episode or example to the next that didn’t just feel like ‘one damn thing after another’.

There were certainly important themes I wanted to emphasize – that the Reformation was a process in which ordinary people actively participated; that it was an often violent and coercive process; that it nonetheless educated and empowered English people, and undermined the absolute claims of political authority; that it helped ultimately to create the modern concept of ‘religion’. I looked for points – often towards the end of sections or chapters – where such suggestions could be inserted without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

Nonetheless, a couple of (friendly) readers of my first draft suggested that in some ways they only really understood what the book was trying to say once they had reached the end.

My editor offered sage advice: ‘take your conclusion and turn it into your introduction’.

That’s more or less what I did – the book starts off with the staking of a set of claims, and with guidance for the reader about what to look out for in the narrative to follow.

I hope it works.


Kurt Manwaring: In “Heretics and Believers,” you discuss how religion was not really a concept that could be separated from an individual — that it was “coterminous with human community.” People were always thinking about God and where they stood with their Maker. While that might reflect certain groups of people today, it does not represent even close to a majority of modern religious believers. What do you think people today gain from not having as much of an obsession with God? And what do you think is lost?

Peter Marshall: This is the sort of question historians usually don’t want to answer! I think it can be very tempting for modern church-goers (a category into which I myself fall) to be nostalgic about former ages of belief, when serious concerns about salvation, individual and collective, underpinned harmonious notions of community, supportive models of family, and patterns of responsible personal  behavior. Conversely, modern agnostics or atheists are very likely to see in the retreat of religion from the public sphere (at least in much of the developed West) a welcome liberation from psychologically oppressive regimes of social control.

At the risk of introducing yet more messiness and complexity (!), I don’t really subscribe to either of those views.

I doubt there ever was a golden ‘age of faith’, and if there’s one thing my book makes clear, it’s that religious belief could be a potent source of division and conflict in past centuries. As someone fascinated by the past, I’ve always taken the view that no one in their right mind would actually want to live there. And as a twenty-first century Christian transported back in time, I’m pretty sure I would find sixteenth-century Christianity, in any of its varieties, thoroughly confusing and upsetting.

And yet… arguably the fallacy of the modern condition is that we believe ourselves to be free, autonomous agents, when in fact we are all the time constrained by powerful cultural, economic and psychological forces. Much of religion, even to those of us who practice it, can frankly seem a little ridiculous.

But, for me at least, ‘belief in God’ remains a way of conducting an honest conversation with the self – it requires us to question our convictions and motivations, even (or especially) when we feel most justified and righteous.


Kurt Manwaring: On a similar note, the “heretics” and “believers” in your book describe a kind of commentary on those who conformed and those who went against the grain of the most important realities of the time. If God was the omnipresent catalyst for thought, discussion, and discord in the Reformation, what is it today? If a book titled, “Heretics and Believers,” were to be written about 2018 in 200 years, what demographic might be described as heretics — and who would be the believers?

Peter Marshall: Historians have a terrible record in predicting the future, and we’re best not to try. So what future generations will make of us, God alone knows – though I would guess that many of the achievements which today make us most proud and satisfied will seem particularly amusing and preposterous to our descendants.

Today’s ‘omnipresent catalyst for thought, discussion, and discord’? I suspect it’s money.

The very small number of people who reject its hold on any aspect of their lives really are the modern-day heretics, making the rest of us feel uncomfortable and threatened.


Kurt Manwaring: In 2017, a rather remarkable letter was published in which dozens of Catholic scholars and clergy accused the Pope of heresy. Do you think the potential impacts of this controversy would be different if we did not have the internet? Similarly, what impact would a concept like the internet have had if it were accessible during the incessant heresy battles of the Reformation?

Peter Marshall: Yes, I read about that – more Catholic than the Pope!  The principal ‘heresy’ was Pope Francis’s humane pastoral suggestion that there might be circumstances in which divorced and remarried Catholics could be given communion.

I suspect the incident got more coverage in the news and online than it actually deserved. The signatories were all second- and third-tier individuals in the Church (nearly all men, of course), and the only bishop involved was of distinctly doubtful status, a member of the breakaway traditionalist group, The Society of St Pius X.

Rather brilliantly, Francis’s response to this pompous and impertinent intervention was to completely ignore it, and get on with doing his job.

Still, the episode tells us something about the world of relentless internet outrage and social media-driven narratives in which we now live. Small pressure groups can exercise disproportionate influence, and civil discourse becomes a matter of who can shout the loudest.

There was something of that in the Reformation era too.

Nowhere was religious reformation (or counter-reformation) a democratic or fully consultative process. Minorities drove the pace of change, and the ability to control or dominate press and pulpit was vital.

Historians do sometimes talk of Martin Luther ‘going viral’ in the 1520s – the mind boggles at the thought of him having access to his own twitter feed!

Yet one of the things I show in my book is that in the end the zealots didn’t usually get their way.

Actual religious culture was to a great extent shaped by quiet local practitioners, making the most, or making the best, of the circumstances in which they found themselves.

I hope it will prove so in our times too.


Kurt Manwaring: Religious history can sometimes post a dilemma for religious believers when newly discovered truths conflict with long-held beliefs. What should the attitude of a believer be when it comes to the relationship between faith and history? Should believers be afraid of history?

Peter Marshall: I guess this is a version of the ‘Darwin’ question – how can religions, and individual religious believers, deal with discoveries that conflict with long-held understandings of truth or reality?

There’s also the issue of how to deal with shameful actions or episodes within the history of particular faith communities: Catholics have the Inquisition as a black mark on their historical résumé, Lutherans have to make sense of Luther’s own extreme antisemitism; for Mormons, perhaps it’s something like the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857.

The short answer is that believers should never be afraid of facing up to history – for Christians in particular, it would be bizarre if they were, as Christianity is founded on the belief that God (in Jesus) intervened directly at a particular moment of human history.

At the same time, there’s a curious form of cultural narcissism (taking religious as well as other forms) which involves simply berating the people of the past for not being exactly like us.

Maybe there’s a useful analogy between the history of faith traditions and the course of an individual life.

I don’t believe everything I believed at the ages of 16 or 25, and, looking back, there’s quite a lot to apologize for or feel embarrassed about. At the same time, I think I’m essentially still the same person, and I don’t have feelings of hatred or rejection towards my younger self.

We learn from our mistakes.

The danger with a defensive or denialist approach to history on the part of religious people, or religious institutions, is that it encourages a mindset which regards any acceptance of fault or change of direction as undermining the integrity of the whole system.

Fundamentalism, contrary to appearances, is actually a weak and brittle form of faith.


Kurt Manwaring: Mormons have a unique relationship with the Reformation. On one hand, the Reformation laid the groundwork for the environment of the Second Great Awakening in which Joseph Smith flourished. On the other hand, Mormons consider “reformation” inadequate and believe in the need for a “restoration.” The latter point can lead many Mormons to gloss over the entirety of the Reformation period. Could you comment on how Mormons could benefit from learning more about the Reformation?

Peter Marshall: That’s a tricky question for me to answer. I’ve been to Utah a couple of times now (surely one of the most beautiful places on earth!), but still feel that there is a huge amount I have to learn about the Mormon faith, and its own understanding of its place in history and the wider family of Christian churches.

I think I would just make a more general point: if believers only pay attention to those in the past they regard as progenitors of their particular tradition, then there is the risk of, as it were, an unhealthy narrowing of their own cultural and spiritual gene pool.

We can surely admire, and be inspired by, the ideas, practices and witness of those we might still want to regard as being in some objective sense mistaken or ‘wrong’.


Kurt Manwaring: You dedicated “Heretics and Believers” to your wife, “Ali, again.” What is Ali’s interest in history? Are you able to talk with her about insights that excite you? How might “Heretics and Believers” be different if it were not for her — or would it even exist?

Peter Marshall: I think Ali might laugh if you asked her any of these questions!

Peter and Ali Marshall. Photo provided by Peter Marshall

She’s a scientist by training and an accountant by profession; much smarter than me in most conceivable ways.

Ali’s always been interested in the progress of my work, but doesn’t generally read it or discuss with me its finer details. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine having completed “Heretics and Believers,” or any of my books, without her support and encouragement, and her unfailing ability to say the right thing when I am obsessing self-destructively about something or other.

We started dating in our freshman year at Oxford, and got married, at 21, the summer we graduated – so Ali’s been around in my life even longer than the English Reformation.

Along with our three wonderful daughters, she is a daily reminder, whenever I remember to listen, that there are things in life more important than the writing of history.

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