Monday, 20 March 2017

The basket of inedibles

Only a medieval theologian. I have read and heard the various versions of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (or four thousand) innumerable times, but this point had literally never occurred to me. I learn today* that Nicholas of Lyra’s difficult question about this story was not, how were the hungry fed? (obvs, it was a miracle) – but, where did the baskets come from? Did the people borrow them from a local farm? Did someone happen to have a dozen industrial-sized baskets with them just in case? Were there, in fact, no baskets, but simply enough waste to have filled a dozen baskets if anyone had had any?

It mattered to Nicholas because the credibility of the entire narrative seemed to turn on such details. (As such, he was content not to answer the question, simply to raise some plausible explanations.) And when you put it that way, it makes sense to worry about it. You can imagine, for example, that kind of question being produced triumphantly in court during a dramatic cross-examination. (There would be a certain Al Capone-ish drama in discrediting a miracle narrative with reference, not to the loaves and fishes, but to the humble old baskets.)

Why, though, does the question strike us (all right: me) as so distinctively medieval, and indeed as faintly ridiculous? Is it the ability to swallow the elephant while carefully calculating the parameters of the gnat? Is it that we’re more accustomed to the notion that narratives need to be taken in their own terms rather than as courtroom testimony? Or is it because, on some deep level, Nicholas of Lyra believed that this event really happened in the cold light of day; and, on some deep level, whatever we may profess, we don’t?

*From Lesley Smith’s essay ‘Uncertainty in the Study of the Bible’ in Uncertain Knowledge. Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages, ed. by Dallas G. Denery II et al. (Turnhout: Brepols 2014), 135-159.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Don't judge a book ...

Like buses, suddenly a clutch of new books come along at once. After the last one, my big history of Protestantism is out next month in the UK and the US, and also in a Dutch translation. I've never prepared different national editions of a book before. It's been a strange experience.

I wrote it in British English, naturally, but the Americans were the lead publishers in editorial terms, and so the text was Americanised by them and then had to be re-Anglicised. It was an unexpectedly far-reaching process. Spellings I had expected, but there's more. Dates get flipped: I knew about 24/8/72 versus 8/24/72, naturally, but I had never properly noticed that that extends to 24 August 1572 (British) versus August 24, 1572 (American). There is First World War vs. World War I (and I was told that most Americans aren't familiar with the label 'the Great War' at all, which makes perfect sense from an American point of view). And my American editor also helpfully pointed out that where the British edition refers to people emigrating from Europe to the United States, the American one ought (of course!) to refer to them immigrating.

As well as language, there were deeper cultural issues. In secular old Britain, this is being marketed as a history book; in America, more more as a religious one. That's been reflected in several different ways. The American edition, to my regret, hasn't included any pictures (though there is a map), while the British one has 32 plates, which I am rather pleased with. But the pictures aren't a procession of glowering portraits of theologians, being chosen to illustrate aspects of Protestant life: the Americans feared that they might alienate pious readers. The clearest sign of this difference is the slightly different subtitles: America gets Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World whereas Britain has Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World.

The covers are a different story again. The Americans were first out of the trap, and an early draft looked like this:

What's interesting is that the Americans who saw that all just thought: plain, striking, aniconic, good! Whereas every British person I know who looked at that thought immediately of images like this:

Which isn't really the marketing strategy we had in mind. Why that set of patterns and colours triggered this association on one side of the Atlantic and not the other, I'd love to know.

So we toned it down and made it even simpler:

Whereas the Dutch publisher solved the problem in a different way:

Removing the cross from the capital P, and smacking an ecumenical fish in the middle of the page, serves to dispel any hint of Nazi chic.

The British publishers, meanwhile, produced something completely different - less Presbyterian severity, more hints of medievalism. I'm not really sure what it's supposed to symbolise, but it's pretty.

Complete, of course, with a prominent endorsement from Diarmaid MacCulloch: one of the many people without whom this wouldn't have happened. Thank you all. And feel free to buy copies of all three editions so you can compare.

Friday, 10 March 2017

You only live twice

A new experience for me: the second edition of my 2009 textbook The Age of Reformation is out.

I’ve not prepared a second edition of anything before, and I don’t know of any handbook to the experience. I did it because they asked, obviously!, but I’ve got my doubts about the process. I struggle to think of second editions of academic history textbooks that are improvements on the original. The most promising model is probably that taken by, for example, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, in which the text was left alone and a new extended introduction added. But that requires having a new body of thoughts, and I’m also not sure I could get away with expecting libraries to restock just for an introductory essay. Others have added new substantive chapters while again leaving the rest alone. The worst case I can think of is A. G. Dickens’ The English Reformation, whose second edition, 25 years after the first, ended up doubling down on the points in the first which had been heavily criticised. The result was that a venerable but dated book ended up looking merely grouchy and wrong. I think it even, like an ill-considered sequel, ended up devaluing the original by a kind of blowback.

A different kind of example is suggested by Fletcher’s Tudor Rebellions, which is now in its sixth edition and has been taken over by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This is almost a case of the proverbial broom with the new head and handle. It works, in large part because that series centres around primary sources and there is always scope for refining and (this is the other secret) extending those.

So what I ended up doing was a thorough but not heavy rewrite. I kept the structure the same – no new chapters – but revised every page: no changes on some, fiddly and obsessive minor tweaks on some, and some pretty substantial changes. This includes recanting some ghastly errors – in particular, which I should have known better, my use of some of George Bernard’s material on the young Henry VIII’s religion, which Richard Rex has helpfully and conclusively demolished. I put in a fair bit more Irish material, thanks to Henry Jefferies; a fair bit more on several rebellions, especially on the new material suggesting overlaps between the 1549 ‘Prayer Book rebellion’ and the more generalised ‘camping time’ of the same year; some new stuff on the prehistory of the dissolution of the monasteries; et cetera.

Inevitably the result is a bit longer: closer to 130,000 than 120,000 words. But it’s printed in smaller and more congested type, so slightly fewer pages. A handsome new cover to make up for it. I had to point out when cover proofs came through that it might be wise to have ‘Second Edition’ somewhere on the cover.

... And that’s it. I am still not entirely sure it’s a good idea: perhaps rather than dressing mutton as lamb, it would be better to let it age gracefully. My honest advice to anyone looking to buy a survey of the English Reformation is to go for Peter Marshall's about-to-be-published Heretics and Believers, which is a really heavyweight and compelling narrative. Still, I’d be interested to know if anyone has thought seriously about the second-edition phenomenon. And while you mull that, please rush out and buy a copy, or they’ll never commission a third edition.