Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch is a fellow of St Cross College and professor of the History of the Church at Oxford.

Who kicked them out? St Patrick’s Purgatory

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 1 August 2019

What​ do we know about St Patrick? Most people could probably place him in Ireland, amid every short cut to Irishness – shamrocks, Guinness, lots of green things – while a little more knowledge may attach to him the legend that he is responsible for Ireland’s lack of snakes, having ordered them all to leave. The picture becomes more complicated for those who have...

Nobody’s perfect: ‘The Holy Land’

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 27 September 2018

The Middle East​ isn’t short of ruins (there are many more now than there were a few years ago), and until the turn of the millennium archaeologists believed that those at Khirbet Qeiyafa, twenty miles south-west of Jerusalem, belonged to a large farm of the fourth to third centuries bce. It was an interesting, ancient but hardly unusual site. But then excavations beginning in 2007...

A Bonanza for Lawyers: The Huguenot Dispersal

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 21 September 2017

I must​ make a declaration of interest in reviewing this book: the author’s surname suggests that we are distant relatives. My mother’s family name was also Chappell: they dropped the ‘e’ from the end as they faded into the general population of this country, after arriving from France to settle in Staffordshire, the heartland of England’s nascent...

The World Took Sides: Martin Luther

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 11 August 2016

Next autumn​ marks the half-millennium since an event now so mythic that some have doubted it ever took place. If it did, the date was 31 October 1517. The main actor belonged to a religious Order known as the Hermits of Saint Augustine, Martin Luther by name, though he also tried out a hybrid Greek/Latin polish for his surname by dressing it up as ‘Eleutherius’, ‘the...

Tidy-Mindedness: The Crusades

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 24 September 2015

Here is​ a description of terrorism: ‘Observers were stunned by the insurgents’ violence. By the time they reached the city, they had already acquired a fearsome reputation, but never anything like this massacre … wars had always been conducted within mutually agreed limits; in horror it was reported that they did not spare the elderly, the women, or the sick.’ I...

How to Be a Knight: William Marshal

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 21 May 2015

Among​ many technical advances in archaeology in recent years, dendrochronology is one of the most satisfying. Now cloven and carved wood can speak to us and tell us its age. It needs the prompting of a computer, but informed by masses of e-data charting the sequences of variations in tree-rings, we can know when and even roughly where a tree was felled. Carpentry can often be far older...

Young Man’s Nostalgia: William Byrd

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 31 July 2014

We know​ a gratifying amount about William Byrd, partly thanks to quite recent archival rediscoveries, and Kerry McCarthy splendidly and concisely presents it all in this intelligent and affectionate biography. Alas, the one thing we don’t have is a contemporary portrait, not even anything as clumsy as the universally recognisable dome-headed icon of Shakespeare: the portrait-image of...

Faking the Canon: Forging the Bible

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 6 February 2014

On my bookshelves is a handsome set of late Victorian printed books in a plum-coloured binding. I take down a volume, and read on the spine the name ‘David Copperfield’; underneath, in slightly smaller letters, is another name, ‘Charles Dickens’. I open the book, and find the same combination repeated on the title page. I have heard of Dickens, and conclude that what I...

The snake slunk off: Jesus the Zealot

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 10 October 2013

Academics, chief among them theologians, are deeply envious of Reza Aslan’s stroke of luck in encountering a particularly stupid Fox News reporter during his round of publicity interviews for this book. Apparently having got no further than the publisher’s blurb in wrestling with the work, she asked Aslan why he as a Muslim had written a study of the life of the founder of...

One Enormous Room: Council of Trent

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 9 May 2013

‘I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.’ It’s one of the great historical putdowns: the patrician Whig punchline to Kenneth Clark’s scrutiny of Counter-Reformation art and architecture in his incomparable TV series Civilisation, before he turns from the camera and walks away...

Mumpsimus, Sumpsimus: Common Prayer

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 24 May 2012

The publication of this definitive edition of the Book of Common Prayer heralds a significant anniversary; it is 350 years since the final version of the book was authorised by Parliament in 1662. It comes hard on the heels of the quatercentenary celebrations last year for another milestone of Stuart English prose composition, the King James Bible, and although I was surprised by the large...

The Chief Inhabitant: Jerusalem

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 14 July 2011

Where might you seek Jerusalem? You could start in Bologna, which since at least the ninth century CE has boasted a Jerusalem theme park called Santo Stefano, a complex of churches and chapels around the octagon of San Sepolcro. At the centre of San Sepolcro’s columned Romanesque splendour is a full-size medieval reproduction of the superstructure of the Holy Sepulchre, which helps us...

Rome’s New Mission: Early Christianity

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2 June 2011

Fortunate is the reader seeking the story of early Christianity in Britain. At its heart is one of the greatest and most readable of medieval historians, the Venerable Bede, and its modern exponents include such engaging and stylish writers as Charles Thomas, Leslie Alcock and Henry Mayr-Harting. The literary sources have attracted much idiosyncratic talent, for they possess the fascination...

How good is it? Inside the KJB

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 3 February 2011

The quatercentenary commemorative King James Bible (KJB) sits on my desk as I write: a satisfying artefact in its chocolate livery enriched by opulently gilded top, tail and fore edges, with stout chocolate slipcase to match, impressive in its folio bulk, though not nearly as bulky as the originals of 1611, which needed a sturdy lectern to bear them, announcing their presence with a swagger...

Overstatements: Anti-Semitism

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 10 June 2010

The leprous spawn of scattered Israel Spreads its contagion in your English blood; Teeming corruption rises like a flood Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell. Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell In markets redolent of Jewish mud, And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell.

That is Lord Alfred Douglas on Judaism,...

Evil Just Is: The Italian Inquisition

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 13 May 2010

This is one of Christopher Black’s verdicts on the work of the Roman Inquisition:

The human casualties among major thinkers were fewer than might have been expected; Bruno might have been saved, Galileo could have suffered worse; Campanella endured lengthy imprisonment; Giannone and Crudeli were partly just unlucky.

So that’s all right, then: just unlucky. Back in the 1980s, one of...

Paraphernalia: Tudor Spin

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 19 November 2009

The recent fuss over the fifth centenary of Henry VIII’s coronation (we will all be heartily sick of him by the end of 2009) has concealed the real surprise in the Tudor achievement: the rebranding of a failed cross-channel state as an island kingdom. In 1485, Henry’s father seized power in what had once been an example to all Europe of how to centralise government in a monarchy....

The focus of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book is a great church with one of the most recognisable profiles in Europe: Durham Cathedral. The ‘last office’ – ‘office’ in its specialised meaning of a communal act of worship – was the last sung service of the Benedictine monks, which closed their life at Durham in the time of Henry VIII, on 31 December 1539....

Something about Mary: The First Queen of England

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 18 October 2007

To understand someone, meet their mother – and so it was with the Tudor princesses. Mary, the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, was straightforward, pious, brave in a crisis, not especially bright. Her whole life was shaped by her mother’s straightforwardness and bravery in a crisis: when Henry VIII wanted Katherine to accept that she had never been married to him, she refused to...


Pain and Peril

24 May 2012

A.E.J. Fitchett refers to my comments on the service of ‘churching’ in the Book of Common Prayer and suggests that I am thinking of its 1549 predecessor in referring to ‘overtones of purification from ritual uncleanness’, rather than the version re-edited in 1662, with its greater emphasis on thanksgiving (Letters, 30 August). Formally he might be right; but his insight escaped...

In​ 1517 a fierce commercial struggle broke out in England between two enterprising competitors in the busy trade of saving souls. The English Province of Austin Friars and Our Lady’s...

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Wrong Kind of Noise: Silence is Best

Marina Warner, 19 December 2013

By a bizarre twist, G.K. Chesterton may be en route to sanctity: it was reported in August that the Bishop of Northampton has begun a suit for his canonisation. Diarmaid MacCulloch doesn’t...

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Our Supersubstantial Bread: God’s Plot

Frank Kermode, 25 March 2010

Eamon Duffy, whose opinion of this book will not be lightly disputed, remarks on its jacket that ‘everyone who reads it will learn things they didn’t know.’ Most lay reviewers...

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What should we mean by ‘Reformation’? Was it a ‘paradigm shift’ of the kind proposed by Thomas Kuhn, a new set of answers to old questions, a Darwinian moment? Perhaps....

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Close Shaves

Gerald Hammond, 31 October 1996

The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in studies of the Reformation period and this book by Diarmaid MacCulloch is the piece which completes the jigsaw, putting at the centre of the...

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