Books interview: Diarmaid MacCulloch

The church historian and author of All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation on the journey from E. Nesbit to Ian Kershaw and the comforting certainties of detective fiction

July 21, 2016
Diarmaid MacCulloch, University of Oxford
Source: Chris Gibbions

What books or authors were significant to you in your youth?
I grew up in a country rectory with roomfuls of books collected over a century by my clerical family, both for leisure and scholarship, and I loved them all: many still sit on my shelves. My aunts, born in the 1890s, had an unerring judgement of books as Christmas presents, and I keenly looked forward to their choices, until unsurprisingly they were unable to second-guess the needs of a 1960s teenager. Before that, they took me entrancingly through George Macdonald, Edith Nesbit and P. G. Wodehouse; the historical playfulness of Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906) was perhaps my favourite. I discovered J. H. Breasted’s The Fertile Crescent (1916), which has remained the basis for a lifetime’s interest in global history.

Your life of Thomas Cranmer won many prizes. Which biographers do you most admire?
As a teenager I read Philip Guedalla’s The Second Empire (1922) on Napoleon III, and for a month or two thought it the wisest and funniest book I’d ever encountered. I now realise why it’s such a bad and irresponsible piece of biography, and its relentless wit just seems like schoolboy flippancy. In its place I would repentantly place Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, not just monumental and elegant, but a brave attempt to confront the evil of which humans are possible. To my surprise, I also found myself much liking Charles Moore’s yet-to-be-completed trilogy on Margaret Thatcher, for its ability to keep its distance from a woman he clearly admired, and whom I detested.

Some essays in All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation expand on your 2004 book Reformation: Europe’s House Divided. What struck you, 12 years on, about the subject matter?
One of the conscious themes in that book was the interrelatedness of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe, and the importance of seeing a single continent-wide story in the period; nationalism hardly existed in comparison with more local or greater dynastic considerations, and it certainly didn’t motivate the Reformation in any sense that we would recognise, living as we do in the aftermath of 19th-century nation-state creation. A decade ago I could see that a blinkered England had forgotten this and needed to be reminded. Clearly I failed.

What was the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
My partner is always the victim of a gift of my latest book. I don’t ask him to read them.

What books are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished John Preston’s wonderfully scabrous A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, which slightly cheered me by revealing that this is not the first time that British politics have been a total mess, though also sobering in seeing how the powerful cover up the criminal behaviour of their own. At night I relax with the comforting certainties of detective fiction – particular favourites at the moment are Simon Brett, for his unflinching depiction of bad behaviour behind stage and screen, and Phil Rickman, who reminds me how deeply nasty English rural life can be.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church, University of Oxford. He is author of All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation (Penguin).

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