Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of our very best public historians: a charismatic telly don who has served his time in the academic trenches and is, as this collection triumphantly confirms, able to write authoritatively and engagingly on a remarkably diverse range of topics in the history of Christian culture and thought. The unifying theme is formally the Reformation, or Reformations – British and European, Protestant and Catholic – on which MacCulloch is an acknowledged expert. In fact, what lends cohesion to this highly eclectic selection of reprinted book reviews, essays, detailed research articles and broad historiographical surveys is MacCulloch’s admirably unfashionable belief that the writing of history has a ‘moral purpose’: to prevent ‘societies and institutions collectively going insane as a result of telling themselves badly skewed stories about the past’.
In other words, MacCulloch is in the myth-busting business – with a specific remit to puncture the convictions of a particular kind of modern Christian believer, and to expose the shaky foundations underlying a great deal of what he is not abashed to call ‘the bleak certainties and bullying self-righteousness of much organized religion’. His historical heroes are the persecuted, the marginalised and the vacillators – into which categories (though he managed to undertake a little light persecution himself) falls Thomas Cranmer, the executed archbishop of Canterbury, a biography of whom made MacCulloch’s reputation as a historian. One of the contributions here is an intriguingly self-reflective piece on the writing of that book.
It is fair to say that Rome and the popes who established it as the executive headquarters of Western Christianity do not fare well in MacCulloch’s version of things. The increasing dominance of the papacy, after the initial Christian centuries, was not only an accident but also an error: ‘It