I met Bill Gilbert only once a quick introduction on a Lawrence sidewalk. I never heard him lecture; I never listened to his conversations with colleagues and friends. I came to know him only through his writing.
I found in these pages a great conversationalist, a storyteller interested in much more than facts. This history is packed with human drama and abundant anecdotes, impressions, and gossip. Certainties and truth, however, are scarce that's how Bill wanted it. When interviewed for the K.U. Retirees' Club Oral History Project, Bill shared one of his favorite quotes: "History is a damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss."
He obviously loved history precisely because it was complex and uncertain. He makes no excuses for the elements that affect, change and even distort truth: passion, rivalries, political intrigue, lies, anger, love of God, devotion to country, and hatred of enemies.
History may not be absolutely true, but clearly Bill found it absolutely fascinating. It gave him endless opportunity to study and reflect and then to share those reflections with others. It is his passion to share that enlivens this book and that invites us to learn more. In The Renaissance and the Reformation, he gives us the basic outline and seems to say, "Go find the rest of the story." The reader in me could almost hear Bill digress, chuckle, and pause to collect his next thought. The editor in me wishes Bill and I could have sat down for long talks. "What do you want this sentence to stress?" I might have asked, and his reply, most likely, would have been thoughtful and punctuated with additional details. Because we couldn't chat, I was left to decide what editing changes Bill would have agreed to if he and I were deep in an editor-writer conversation.
In the end, the book emerges almost exactly as Bill wrote it. It has his voice. His occasional use of the first person captures the tone he might have used while lecturing; his commas reflect his speech, which must have been filled with numerous asides and interesting tidbits. He chose the words and the illustrations; he arranged the information. His bibliography and endnotes refer to what were then current works and theories and have not been altered or updated to suit the present day.
In many ways, this book is a time capsule, a peek back into how Bill and his fellow historians viewed the Renaissance and Reformation. It also gives us a way to know the historian Bill Gilbert, a man who sought to understand history, but not to judge its players.
He obviously believed that the actions glimpsed in history no matter how morally or spiritually discouraging are no different from those we can find in the present. The tales of persecution told in Chapter 24 were written before Moslem fundamentalists came to power in Iran, before religious wars rended Yugoslavia, and before photos of African refuge camps and genocide filled the media. The past and the present, Bill would tell us, have much in common. Everything is part of the human journey.
This book is also a journey, a two-person adventure undertaken first by Bill and then by Edwyna. Bill worked on THE BOOK for years. He was tenured at KU before "Publish or perish" became the professional mantra, so he didn't feel pushed to write. Instead he focused on reading and teaching because he found those activities so much more fascinating and rewarding than writing. He wrote many professional articles, but he never had a book published in hardcover. The completed manuscript Edwyna found attests to the fact that Bill wished to be published.
Edwyna fulfilled that wish. She brought shape and order to a manuscript that without her love would have found its way into a disposable pile of old papers. She took each comma, each factual inconsistency seriously, and dug through countless references until she was satisfied that what would be attributed to Bill would be correct something they could both be proud of. Her diligence, patience, perseverance, respect for knowledge, and curiosity made it possible for THE BOOK to emerge in hardcover, complete with the wonderful photos she secured. She made my job as editor both easy and often superfluous.