by Owen Chadwick
I really used to believe that history was dull. Studying history seemed like a parlor-trick to me: the person who could memorize the most dates and construct the longest timeline was the best historian—which didn’t mean anything other than ensuring success at Trivial Pursuit.
It’s funny how just a little reading can change your mind. In the public schools, my chief introduction to history came through textbooks, and textbooks were not something you actually read. As a student I hoped to find a used textbook that was already highlighted, and then if I was feeling very diligent I might scan the highlights the night before the big test. Even the pictures, the chief advantage the textbook had over “regular books,” were dull! Here’s a picture for you: another headless statue from a culture I knew nothing about. Or on this page: some guy wearing a white wig walking in a town I knew nothing about.
I am still woefully ignorant about history, but thanks to men like Owen Chadwick, I no longer hold to the misguided idea that history is dull. Reading Chadwick—or Russell Kirk or Paul Johnson—opens your eyes to the fact that history is real life, and that just as our lives include fascinating people and climactic moments and unfold like a story, so do the best stories from the past.
The Reformation, as befitting a book about a massive paradigm-shift that impacted the Western hemisphere and beyond, is chock-full of fascinating characters and big moments. You want drama? You can’t do better than Martin Luther addressing the Diet of Worms—unless of course it’s the anguish of Thomas More telling his family he must accept the death penalty.
That said, it must be admitted that Chadwick is an academic. He’s not writing to put you on the edge of your seat, and he occasionally assumes that his audience has more background knowledge than we actually do (in the case of this reader, at least). Chadwick will not take you to the heights or let you twist in suspense as he withholds the final chapter of a climactic scene. What he does, however, is provide a readable, trustworthy overview of the key figures and moments of the Reformation. Students need not read all of this volume, but certain chapters are indispensable (to see which ones, consult the eleventh grade reading list by clicking here).
-by Jeff Baldwin