In Our Time

In Our Time

United Kingdom

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of ideas


The 12th Century Renaissance  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the changes in the intellectual world of Western Europe in the 12th Century, and their origins. This was a time of Crusades, the formation of states, the start of Gothic architecture, a reconnection with Roman and Greek learning and their Arabic development and the start of the European universities, and has become known as The 12th Century Renaissance. The image above is part of Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, Chartres Cathedral, from 1180. With Laura Ashe Associate Professor of English at Worcester College, University of Oxford Elisabeth van Houts Honorary Professor of European Medieval History at the University of Cambridge and Giles Gasper Reader in Medieval History at Durham University Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss plasma, the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas. As over ninety-nine percent of all observable matter in the Universe is plasma, planets like ours, with so little plasma and so much solid, liquid and gas, appear all the more remarkable. On the grand scale, plasma is what the Sun is made from and, when we look into the night sky, almost everything we can see with the naked eye is made of plasma. On the smallest scale, here on Earth, scientists make plasma to etch the microchips on which we rely for so much. Plasma is in the fluorescent light bulbs above our heads and, in laboratories around the world, it is the subject of tests to create, one day, an inexhaustible and clean source of energy from nuclear fusion. With Justin Wark Professor of Physics and Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Oxford Kate Lancaster Research Fellow for Innovation and Impact at the York Plasma Institute at the University of York and Bill Graham Professor of Physics at Queens University, Belfast Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, and of the traditions that have built around her for over 3,000 years. According to the creation story of the Puranas, she came to existence in the churning of the ocean of milk. Her prominent status grew alongside other goddesses in the mainly male world of the Vedas, as female deities came to be seen as the Shakti, the energy of the gods, without which they would be powerless. Lakshmi came to represent the qualities of blessing, prosperity, fertility, beauty and good fortune and, more recently, political order, and she has a significant role in Diwali, one of the most important of the Hindu festivals. With Jessica Frazier Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies at the University of Oxford Jacqueline Suthren-Hirst Senior Lecturer in South Asian Studies at the University of Manchester and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad Professor of Comparative Religion and Philosophy at Lancaster University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Animal Farm  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Animal Farm, which Eric Blair published under his pen name George Orwell in 1945. A biting critique of totalitarianism, particularly Stalinism, the essay sprung from Orwell's experiences fighting Fascists in Spain: he thought that all on the left were on the same side, until the dominant Communists violently suppressed the Anarchists and Trotskyists, and Orwell had to escape to France to avoid arrest. Setting his satire in an English farm, Orwell drew on the Russian Revolution of 1917, on Stalin's cult of personality and the purges. The leaders on Animal Farm are pigs, the secret police are attack dogs, the supporters who drown out debate with "four legs good, two legs bad" are sheep. At first, London publishers did not want to touch Orwell's work out of sympathy for the USSR, an ally of Britain in WW2, but the Cold War gave it a new audience and Animal Farm became a commercial as well as a critical success. With Steven Connor Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge Mary Vincent Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield and Robert Colls Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Zeno's Paradoxes  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher from c490-430 BC whose paradoxes were described by Bertrand Russell as "immeasurably subtle and profound." The best known argue against motion, such as that of an arrow in flight which is at a series of different points but moving at none of them, or that of Achilles who, despite being the faster runner, will never catch up with a tortoise with a head start. Aristotle and Aquinas engaged with these, as did Russell, yet it is still debatable whether Zeno's Paradoxes have been resolved. With Marcus du Sautoy Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford Barbara Sattler Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and James Warren Reader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Invention of Photography  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the development of photography in the 1830s, when techniques for 'drawing with light' evolved to the stage where, in 1839, both Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot made claims for its invention. These followed the development of the camera obscura, and experiments by such as Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Niépce, and led to rapid changes in the 1840s as more people captured images with the daguerreotype and calotype. These new techniques changed the aesthetics of the age and, before long, inspired claims that painting was now dead. With Simon Schaffer Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge Elizabeth Edwards Emeritus Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University And Alison Morrison-Low, Research Associate at National Museums Scotland Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of the idea of Sovereignty, the authority of a state to govern itself and the relationship between the sovereign and the people. These ideas of external and internal sovereignty were imagined in various ways in ancient Greece and Rome, and given a name in 16th Century France by the philosopher and jurist Jean Bodin in his Six Books of the Commonwealth, where he said (in an early English translation) 'Maiestie or Soveraigntie is the most high, absolute, and perpetuall power over the citisens and subiects in a Commonweale: which the Latins cal Maiestatem, the Greeks akra exousia, kurion arche, and kurion politeuma; the Italians Segnoria, and the Hebrewes tomech shévet, that is to say, The greatest power to command.' Shakespeare also explored the concept through Richard II and the king's two bodies, Hobbes developed it in the 17th Century, and the idea of popular sovereignty was tested in the Revolutionary era in America and France. With Melissa Lane Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University Richard Bourke Professor in the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London and Tim Stanton Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss William Blake's collection of illustrated poems "Songs of Innocence and of Experience." He published Songs of Innocence first in 1789 with five hand-coloured copies and, five years later, with additional Songs of Experience poems and the explanatory phrase "Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." Blake drew on the street ballads and improving children's rhymes of the time, exploring the open and optimistic outlook of early childhood with the darker and more cynical outlook of adult life, in which symbols such as the Lamb belong to innocence and the Tyger to experience. With Sir Jonathan Bate Provost of Worcester College, University of Oxford Sarah Haggarty Lecturer at the Faculty of English and Fellow of Queens' College, University of Cambridge And Jon Mee Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Bronze Age Collapse  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Bronze Age Collapse, the name given by many historians to what appears to have been a sudden, uncontrolled destruction of dominant civilizations around 1200 BC in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia. Among other areas, there were great changes in Minoan Crete, Egypt, the Hittite Empire, Mycenaean Greece and Syria. The reasons for the changes, and the extent of those changes, are open to debate and include droughts, rebellions, the breakdown of trade as copper became less desirable, earthquakes, invasions, volcanoes and the mysterious Sea Peoples. With John Bennet Director of the British School at Athens and Professor of Aegean Archaeology at the University of Sheffield Linda Hulin Fellow of Harris Manchester College and Research Officer at the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford And Simon Stoddart Fellow of Magdalene College and Reader in Prehistory at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. It is said he noticed some blue-green penicillium mould on an uncovered petri dish at his hospital laboratory, and that this mould had inhibited bacterial growth around it. After further work, Fleming filtered a broth of the mould and called that penicillin, hoping it would be useful as a disinfectant. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain later shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine with Fleming, for their role in developing a way of mass-producing the life-saving drug. Evolutionary theory predicted the risk of resistance from the start and, almost from the beginning of this 'golden age' of antibacterials, scientists have been looking for ways to extend the lifespan of antibiotics. With Laura Piddock Professor of Microbiology at the University of Birmingham Christoph Tang Professor of Cellular Pathology and Professorial Fellow at Exeter College at the University of Oxford And Steve Jones Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College, London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Margery Kempe and English Mysticism  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the English mystic Margery Kempe (1373-1438) whose extraordinary life is recorded in a book she dictated, The Book of Margery Kempe. She went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, purchasing indulgences on her way, met with the anchoress Julian of Norwich and is honoured by the Church of England each 9th November. She sometimes doubted the authenticity of her mystical conversations with God, as did the authorities who saw her devotional sobbing, wailing and convulsions as a sign of insanity and dissoluteness. Her Book was lost for centuries, before emerging in a private library in 1934. The image (above), of an unknown woman, comes from a pew at Margery Kempe's parish church, St Margaret's, Kings Lynn and dates from c1375. With Miri Rubin Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London Katherine Lewis Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Huddersfield And Anthony Bale Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Gettysburg Address  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, ten sentences long, delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg after the Union forces had won an important battle with the Confederates. Opening with " Four score and seven years ago," it became one of the most influential statements of national purpose, asserting that America was "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Among those inspired were Martin Luther King Jr whose "I have a dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial 100 years later, echoed Lincoln's opening words. With Catherine Clinton Denman Chair of American History at the University of Texas and International Professor at Queen's University, Belfast Susan-Mary Grant Professor of American History at Newcastle University And Tim Lockley Professor of American History at the University of Warwick Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Muses  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Muses and their role in Greek mythology, when they were goddesses of poetry, song, music and dance: what the Greeks called mousike, 'the art of the Muses' from which we derive our word 'music.' While the number of Muses, their origin and their roles varied in different accounts and at different times, they were consistently linked with the nature of artistic inspiration. This raised a question for philosophers then and since: was a creative person an empty vessel into which the Muses poured their gifts, at their will, or could that person do something to make inspiration flow? With Paul Cartledge Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture and AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge Angie Hobbs Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield And Penelope Murray Founder member and retired Senior Lecturer, Department of Classics, University of Warwick Producer: Simon Tillotson Image: 'Apollo and the Muses (Parnassus)', 1631-1632. Oil on canvas. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).

Titus Oates and his 'Popish Plot'  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Titus Oates (1649-1705) who, with Israel Tonge, spread rumours of a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II. From 1678, they went to great lengths to support their scheme, forging evidence and identifying the supposed conspirators. Fearing a second Gunpowder Plot, Oates' supposed revelations caused uproar in London and across the British Isles, with many Catholics, particularly Jesuit priests, wrongly implicated by Oates and then executed. Anyone who doubted him had to keep quiet, to avoid being suspected a sympathiser and thrown in prison. Oates was eventually exposed, put on trial under James II and sentenced by Judge Jeffreys to public whipping through the streets of London, but the question remained: why was this rogue, who had faced perjury charges before, ever believed? With Clare Jackson Senior Tutor and Director of Studies in History at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge Mark Knights Professor of History at the University of Warwick And Peter Hinds Associate Professor of English at Plymouth University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, originally serialised in The Graphic in 1891 and, with some significant changes, published as a complete novel in 1892. The book was controversial even before serialisation, rejected by one publisher as too overtly sexual, to which a second added it did not publish 'stories where the plot involves frequent and detailed reference to immoral situations.' Hardy's description of Tess as 'A Pure Woman' in 1892 incensed some Victorian readers. He resented having to censor some of his scenes in the early versions, including references to Tess's baby following her rape by Alec d'Urberville, and even to a scene where Angel Clare lifted four milkmaids over a flooded lane (substituting transportation by wheelbarrow). The image above, from the 1891 edition, is captioned 'It Was Not Till About Three O'clock That Tess Raised Her Eyes And Gave A Momentary Glance Round. She Felt But Little Surprise At Seeing That Alec D'urberville Had Come Back, And Was Standing Under The Hedge By The Gate'. With Dinah Birch Professor of English Literature and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Impact at the University of Liverpool Francis O'Gorman Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds And Jane Thomas Reader in Victorian and early Twentieth Century literature at the University of Hull Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Euclid's Elements  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Euclid's Elements, a mathematical text book attributed to Euclid and in use from its appearance in Alexandria, Egypt around 300 BC until modern times, dealing with geometry and number theory. It has been described as the most influential text book ever written. Einstein had a copy as a child, which he treasured, later saying "If Euclid failed to kindle your youthful enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker." With Marcus du Sautoy Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford Serafina Cuomo Reader in Roman History at Birkbeck University of London And June Barrow-Green Professor of the History of Mathematics at the Open University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

1816, the Year Without a Summer  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact of the eruption of Mt Tambora, in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history and it had the highest death toll, devastating people living in the immediate area. Tambora has been linked with drastic weather changes in North America and Europe the following year, with frosts in June and heavy rains throughout the summer in many areas. This led to food shortages, which may have prompted westward migration in America and, in a Europe barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, led to widespread famine. With Clive Oppenheimer Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge Jane Stabler Professor in Romantic Literature at the University of St Andrews And Lawrence Goldman Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Neutron  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the neutron, one of the particles found in an atom's nucleus. Building on the work of Ernest Rutherford, the British physicist James Chadwick won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of the neutron in 1932. Neutrons play a fundamental role in the universe and their discovery was at the heart of developments in nuclear physics in the first half of the 20th century. With Val Gibson Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge and fellow of Trinity College Andrew Harrison Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Light Source and Professor in Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh And Frank Close Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oxford.

The Sikh Empire  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the rise of the Sikh Empire at the end of the 18th Century under Ranjit Singh, pictured above, who unified most of the Sikh kingdoms following the decline of the Mughal Empire. He became Maharaja of the Punjab at Lahore in 1801, capturing Amritsar the following year. His empire flourished until 1839, after which a decade of unrest ended with the British annexation. At its peak, the Empire covered the Punjab and stretched from the Khyber Pass in the west to the edge of Tibet in the east, up to Kashmir and down to Mithankot on the Indus River. Ranjit Singh is still remembered as "The Lion of the Punjab." With Gurharpal Singh Professor in Inter-Religious Relations and Development at SOAS, University of London Chandrika Kaul Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews And Susan Stronge Senior Curator in the Asian Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Agrippina the Younger  

Agrippina the Younger was one of the most notorious and influential of the Roman empresses in the 1st century AD. She was the sister of the Emperor Caligula, a wife of the Emperor Claudius and mother of the Emperor Nero. Through careful political manoeuvres, she acquired a dominant position for herself in Rome. In 39 AD she was exiled for allegedly participating in a plot against Caligula and later it was widely thought that she killed Claudius with poison. When Nero came to the throne, he was only 16 so Agrippina took on the role of regent until he began to exert his authority. After relations between Agrippina and Nero soured, he had her murdered. With: Catharine Edwards Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London Alice König Lecturer in Latin and Classical Studies at the University of St Andrews Matthew Nicholls Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Reading Producer: Victoria Brignell.

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