Prof. Collinson (right) with other scholars at the British Academy conference in September
Patrick Collinson is Emeritus Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Trinity College. He is a preeminent historian of post-Reformation English religious history, and his name will be familiar to anyone who has researched the early modern period in depth. His first major monograph, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, was a ground-breaking work that changed the way many conceived the role of puritanism as a movement within the Church of England. (I hope to post a detailed summary of it here soon.) Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote about it in the Sunday Times: "His erudition is unrivalled, his industry indefatigable. He has traced the Puritan underground movement in detail, identified its agents, discovered its local centres and secret workings."
Prof. Collinson has written several books and articles about puritanism and related subjects. Recently he published a very readable, concise volume about the Reformation. I had the privilege of chatting with him at a recent British Academy Conference in London, and asked if he would be willing to answer a few Conventicle questions. Fortunately for us, he obliged. We are very thankful for his contribution.
Some of Prof. Collinson's comments may puzzle those who draw on the writings of the puritans for spiritual enrichment, primarily. It will help to remember that he has developed his career as a historian of the period in which the puritans lived, first and foremost – not as a proponent of any particular theological tradition. To what extent should one's personal religious views affect the way he or she writes history? I will leave that discussion for the comments section. Feel free to voice your thoughts.
Again, many thanks to this founding father of contemporary puritan studies for sharing his time and his wisdom.
What factors led you to research the puritans?
The subject was proposed by my supervisor, Professor Sir John Neale. He needed to know more about the Elizabethan puritans as grist for the mill of the second volume of Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments on which he was at the time engaged. Moreover, he had recently been sent all the notes and drafts of a thesis on the subject which his pupil Edna Bibby had been working on when she sadly died (in the year that I was born, 1929). This material was handed to me, and I was given a room in University College London to keep it in. It was an odd thing for Neale to have done. I would not say to a doctoral student: 'Oh, by the way, here is the greater part of a thesis on this subject which someone else already wrote.' The Bibby archive saved me time. But I did a great deal of work myself – more than at any time before or since.
Given my own religious background, and the fact that I had taken a particular interest in ecclesiastical history as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I found that I was not averse to undertaking a major study of the Elizabethan puritans. (Unlike A.L. Rowse who, reviewing my first book for the English Historical Review, called it 'a thoroughly rebarbative subject'.)
Many scholars view the publication of your book, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, as a watershed moment for the contemporary study of post-Reformation English religious history. What, in your view, differentiated your work from studies that came before it?
A flattering comment, but perhaps justified. What differentiated? I was not writing denominational history, and I include Anglicans among the denominations. Nor was I writing the kind of history which Marshall Moon Knappen wrote in his Tudor Puritanism, described in its subtitle as 'A Study in the History of Idealism'. I have no interest in 'idealism' (if such a substance exists), nor in its history if it does. My work was archive-based to an extent perhaps only possible in the University of London in the years of my doctoral research: 1952 to 1956. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that I saw everything relevant to my subject, and especially the manuscript evidence.
What I contributed to our understanding of puritanism (developed and refined in many other publications over the next forty years) was that it (if 'it' ever existed) amounted to much more than the peripheral deviance from the Church of the Elizabethan Settlement, and the beginnings of the Nonconformity of the next four centuries. It was not outwith the Church of England but the most dynamic force within it. That argument depended upon a distinction between moderate and extreme elements (something we now associate with Islam and Islamicism) which was at the core of my original work. There were traces of naivety (and perhaps of idealism!, certainly of Guardian-reading pinkness) in my portrayal of moderate puritans like Archbishop Edmund Grindal (if Grindal was some kind of puritan). That has been thoroughly exposed in the acute and unsentimental work of Elisha to my Elijah, Professor Peter Lake.
With what virtues of the puritans are you most consistently impressed or inspired?
History fails to impress or inspire me. I refer you to a quotation from Lord Acton, used as a motto prefacing The Elizabethan Puritan Movement: 'I think our studies ought to be all but purposeless. They want to be pursued with chastity, like mathematics.'
At present, what aspects of puritan history are still in great need of exploration? (Or,) upon what areas do you think the next generation of scholars will be focussed?
I am sceptical about the concept of 'puritan history'. That very formulation involves, to my mind, an unacceptable degree of of reification in respect of an attributed category which makes sense only in the total context of the religious/social/cultural history of England in the century and a half following the Reformation. It is most necessary to apply to 'puritanism' the sophisticated and rigorous revisionism now (thanks to historians like Alexandra Walsham, Michael Questier and Peter Lake) applied to post-Reformation English Catholicism.
What is the most important bit of advice you would offer to those who are just beginning a career in historical research?
Don't do it! No, I didn't mean it. Brush up your Latin (or learn it) so that you can read all those things written by the Latinate literati of 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Bring French and especially German to the task as well. Break out of disabling English insularity. Put 'puritanism' into its European context. (Why not take a good look at the Rhenish Palatinate?) Avoid working on some tiny corner, or individual, not yet 'done'. But (in spite of all that) choose and shape a topic which can make a good Ph.D. thesis in three years, and a book in five or six. It was ten years after I passed my Ph.D. examination that my major monograph was published (admittedly, reasons for that – especially five years in the University of Khartoum) but nowadays I wouldn't have ten years, the academic marketplace being what it is.
Other works by Prof. Collinson:
Elizabeth I (Very Interesting People Series, 2007)
Lady Margaret Beaufort and Her Professors of Divinity at Cambridge: 1502-1649 (2003)
Elizabethan Essays (1994)
The Birthpangs of Protestant England (1988)
The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559-1625 (1982)
Archbishop Grindal, 1519-1583: The Struggle for a Reformed Church (1979)