Episodes

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss T.E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia, a topic drawn from over 1200 suggestions for our Listener Week 2019. Although Lawrence started as an archaeologist in the Middle East, when World War I broke out he joined the British army and became an intelligence officer. His contact with a prominent Arab leader, Sharif Hussein, made him sympathetic to Hussein’s cause and during the Arab Revolt of 1916 he not only served the British but also the interests of Hussein. After the war he was dismayed by the peace settlement and felt that the British had broken an assurance that Sharif Hussein would lead a new Arab kingdom. Lawrence was made famous by the work of Lowell Thomas, whose film of Lawrence drew huge audiences in 1919, which led to his own book Seven Pillars of Wisdom and David Lean’s 1962 film with Peter O'Toole.

    In previous Listener Weeks, we've discussed Kafka's The Trial, The Voyages of Captain Cook, Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, Moby Dick and The Thirty Years War.

    With

    Hussein Omar
    Lecturer in Modern Global History at University College Dublin

    Catriona Pennell
    Associate Professor of Modern History and Memory Studies at the University of Exeter

    Neil Faulkner
    Director of Military History Live and Editor of the magazine Military History Matters

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of Li Shizhen (1518-1593) whose compendium of natural medicines is celebrated in China as the most complete survey of natural remedies of its time. He trained as a doctor and worked at the Ming court before spending almost 30 years travelling in China, inspecting local plants and animals for their properties, trying them out on himself and then describing his findings in his Compendium of Materia Medica or Bencao Gangmu, in 53 volumes. He's been called the uncrowned king of Chinese naturalists, and became a scientific hero in the 20th century after the revolution.

    With

    Craig Clunas
    Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at the University of Oxford

    Anne Gerritsen
    Professor in History at the University of Warwick

    And

    Roel Sterckx
    Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History at the University of Cambridge

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Missing episodes?

    Click here to refresh the feed.

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the most powerful woman in the Crusader states in the century after the First Crusade. Melisende (1105-61) was born and raised after the mainly Frankish crusaders had taken Jerusalem from the Fatimids, and her father was King of Jerusalem. She was married to Fulk from Anjou, on the understanding they would rule together, and for 30 years she vied with him and then their son as they struggled to consolidate their Frankish state in the Holy Land.

    The image above is of the coronation of Fulk with Melisende, from Livre d'Eracles, Guillaume de Tyr (1130?-1186)
    Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

    With

    Natasha Hodgson
    Senior Lecturer in Medieval History and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Nottingham Trent University

    Katherine Lewis
    Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Huddersfield

    and

    Danielle Park
    Visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the novel written by Dostoevsky and published in 1866, in which Raskolnikov, a struggling student, justifies his murder of two women, as his future is more valuable than their lives. He thinks himself superior, above the moral laws that apply to others. The police have little evidence against him but trust him to confess, once he cannot bear the mental torture of his crime - a fate he cannot avoid, any more than he can escape from life in St Petersburg and his personal failures.

    The image above is from a portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasili Perov, 1872.

    With

    Sarah Hudspith
    Associate Professor in Russian at the University of Leeds

    Oliver Ready
    Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford, Research Fellow at St Antony’s College and a translator of this novel

    And

    Sarah Young
    Associate Professor in Russian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 1691 peace treaty that ended the Williamite War in Ireland, between supporters of the deposed King James II and the forces of William III and his allies. It followed the battles at Aughrim and the Boyne and sieges at Limerick, and led to the disbanding of the Jacobite army in Ireland, with troops free to follow James to France for his Irish Brigade. The Catholic landed gentry were guaranteed rights on condition of swearing loyalty to William and Mary yet, while some Protestants thought the terms too lenient, it was said the victors broke those terms before the ink was dry.

    The image above is from British Battles on Land and Sea, Vol. I, by James Grant, 1880, and is meant to show Irish troops leaving Limerick as part of The Flight of the Wild Geese - a term used for soldiers joining continental European armies from C16th-C18th.

    With

    Jane Ohlmeyer
    Chair of the Irish Research Council and Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin

    Dr Clare Jackson
    Senior Tutor, Trinity Hall, and Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

    and

    Thomas O'Connor
    Professor of History at Maynooth University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what happens when parents from different species have offspring, despite their genetic differences. In some cases, such as the zebra/donkey hybrid in the image above, the offspring are usually infertile but in others the genetic change can lead to new species with evolutionary advantages. Hybrids can occur naturally, yet most arise from human manipulation and Darwin's study of plant and animal domestication informed his ideas on natural selection.

    With

    Sandra Knapp
    Tropical Botanist at the Natural History Museum

    Nicola Nadeau
    Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Steve Jones
    Senior Research Fellow in Genetics at University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the work of the man who, in his lifetime, was called The Caledonian Bard and whose fame and influence was to spread around the world. Burns (1759-1796) was born in Ayrshire and his work as a tenant farmer earned him the label The Ploughman Poet, yet it was the quality of his verse that helped his reputation endure and grow. His work inspired other Romantic poets and his personal story and ideas combined with that, giving his poems a broad strength and appeal - sung by revolutionaries and on Mao's Long March, as well as on New Year's Eve and at Burns Suppers.

    With

    Robert Crawford
    Professor of Modern Scottish Literature and Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews

    Fiona Stafford
    Professor of English at the University of Oxford

    and

    Murray Pittock
    Bradley Professor of English Literature and Pro Vice Principal at the University of Glasgow

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas explored in HG Wells' novella, published in 1895, in which the Time Traveller moves forward to 802,701 AD. There he finds humanity has evolved into the Eloi and Morlocks, where the Eloi are small but leisured fruitarians and the Morlocks live below ground, carry out the work and have a different diet. Escaping the Morlocks, he travels millions of years into the future, where the environment no longer supports humanity.

    The image above is from a painting by Anton Brzezinski of a scene from The Time Machine, with the Time Traveller meeting the Eloi

    With

    Simon Schaffer
    Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University

    Amanda Rees
    Historian of science at the University of York

    And

    Simon James
    Professor in the Department of English Studies at Durham University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) on the education of children, as set out in his novel or treatise Emile, published in 1762. He held that children are born with natural goodness, which he sought to protect as they developed, allowing each to form their own conclusions from experience, avoiding the domineering influence of others. In particular, he was keen to stop infants forming the view that human relations were based on domination and subordination. Rousseau viewed Emile as his most imporant work, and it became very influential. It was also banned and burned, and Rousseau was attacked for not following these principles with his own children, who he abandoned, and for proposing a subordinate role for women in this scheme.

    The image above is of Emile playing with a mask on his mother's lap, from a Milanese edition published in 1805.

    With

    Richard Whatmore
    Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Co-Director of the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History

    Caroline Warman
    Professor of French Literature and Thought at Jesus College, Oxford

    and

    Denis McManus
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the work and ideas of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994), awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for revealing the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin and who later determined the structure of insulin. She was one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography and described by a colleague as 'a crystallographers' crystallographer'. She remains the only British woman to have won a Nobel in science, yet rejected the idea that she was a role model for other women, or that her career was held back because she was a woman. She was also the first woman since Florence Nightingale to receive the Order of Merit, and was given the Lenin Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts to bring together scientists from the East and West in pursuit of nuclear disarmament.

    With

    Georgina Ferry
    Science writer and biographer of Dorothy Hodgkin

    Judith Howard
    Professor of Chemistry at Durham University

    and

    Patricia Fara
    Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas developed by the Anglican priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), drawn from his reading of scripture, in which Jesus would suddenly take His believers up into the air, and those left behind would suffer on Earth until He returned with His church to rule for a thousand years before Final Judgement. Some believers would look for signs that civilization was declining, such as wars and natural disasters, or for new Roman Empires that would harbour the Antichrist, and from these predict the time of the Rapture. Darby helped establish the Plymouth Brethren, and later his ideas were picked up in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and soon became influential, particularly in the USA.

    With

    Elizabeth Phillips
    Research Fellow at the Margaret Beaufort Institute at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University

    Crawford Gribben
    Professor of Early Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast

    and

    Nicholas Guyatt
    Reader in North American History at the University of Cambridge

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in September 1812, Napoleon captured Moscow and waited a month for the Russians to meet him, to surrender and why, to his dismay, no-one came. Soon his triumph was revealed as a great defeat; winter was coming, supplies were low; he ordered his Grande Armée of six hundred thousand to retreat and, by the time he crossed back over the border, desertion, disease, capture, Cossacks and cold had reduced that to twenty thousand. Napoleon had shown his weakness; his Prussian allies changed sides and, within eighteen months they, the Russians and Austrians had captured Paris and the Emperor was exiled to Elba.

    With

    Janet Hartley
    Professor Emeritus of International History, LSE

    Michael Rowe
    Reader in European History, King’s College London

    And

    Michael Rapport
    Reader in Modern European History, University of Glasgow

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • In the 500th edition of the programme, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophical idea of free will.

    Free will - the extent to which we are free to choose our own actions - is one of the most absorbing philosophical problems, debated by almost every great thinker of the last two thousand years. In a universe apparently governed by physical laws, is it possible for individuals to be responsible for their own actions? Or are our lives simply proceeding along preordained paths? Determinism - the doctrine that every event is the inevitable consequence of what goes before - seems to suggest so.

    Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza regarded it as a delusion. Albert Einstein wrote: "Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion." But in the Enlightenment, philosophers including David Hume found ways in which free will and determinism could be reconciled. Recent scientific developments mean that this debate remains as lively today as it was in the ancient world.

    With:

    Simon Blackburn
    Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge

    Helen Beebee
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham

    Galen Strawson
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading

    Producer: Thomas Morris

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the context and impact of Pablo Picasso's iconic work, created soon after the bombing on 26th April 1937 that obliterated much of the Basque town of Guernica, and its people. The attack was carried out by warplanes of the German Condor Legion, joined by the Italian air force, on behalf of Franco's Nationalists. At first the Nationalists denied responsibility, blaming their opponents for creating the destruction themselves for propaganda purposes, but the accounts of journalists such as George Steer, and the prominence of Picasso's work, kept the events of that day under close scrutiny. Picasso's painting has gone on to become a symbol warning against the devastation of war.

    With

    Mary Vincent
    Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield

    Gijs van Hensbergen
    Historian of Spanish Art and Fellow of the LSE Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies

    and

    Dacia Viejo Rose
    Lecturer in Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge
    Fellow of Selwyn College

    Producer: Simon Tillotson.

  • Augustine's Confessions
    In Our Time

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss St Augustine of Hippo's account of his conversion to Christianity and his life up to that point. Written c397AD, it has many elements of autobiography with his scrutiny of his earlier life, his long relationship with a concubine, his theft of pears as a child, his work as an orator and his embrace of other philosophies and Manichaeism. Significantly for the development of Christianity, he explores the idea of original sin in the context of his own experience. The work is often seen as an argument for his Roman Catholicism, a less powerful force where he was living in North Africa where another form of Christianity was dominant, Donatism. While Augustine retells many episodes from his own life, the greater strength of his Confessions has come to be seen as his examination of his own emotional development, and the growth of his soul.

    With

    Kate Cooper
    Professor of History at the University of London and Head of History at Royal Holloway

    Morwenna Ludlow
    Professor of Christian History and Theology at the University of Exeter

    and

    Martin Palmer
    Visiting Professor in Religion, History and Nature at the University of Winchester

    Producer: Simon Tillotson.

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas and life of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, Emmy Noether. Noether’s Theorem is regarded as one of the most important mathematical theorems, influencing the evolution of modern physics. Born in 1882 in Bavaria, Noether studied mathematics at a time when women were generally denied the chance to pursue academic careers and, to get round objections, she spent four years lecturing under a male colleague’s name. In the 1930s she faced further objections to her teaching, as she was Jewish, and she left for the USA when the Nazis came to power. Her innovative ideas were to become widely recognised and she is now considered to be one of the founders of modern algebra.

    With

    Colva Roney Dougal
    Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews

    David Berman
    Professor in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary, University of London

    Elizabeth Mansfield
    Professor of Mathematics at the University of Kent

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the jewels of medieval English poetry. It was written c1400 by an unknown poet and then was left hidden in private collections until the C19th when it emerged. It tells the story of a giant green knight who disrupts Christmas at Camelot, daring Gawain to cut off his head with an axe if he can do the same to Gawain the following year. Much to the surprise of Arthur's court, who were kicking the green head around, the decapitated body reaches for his head and rides off, leaving Gawain to face his promise and his apparently inevitable death the following Christmas.

    The illustration above is ©British Library Board Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95

    With

    Laura Ashe
    Professor of English Literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford

    Ad Putter
    Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Bristol

    And

    Simon Armitage
    Poet Laureate and Professor of Poetry at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the philosophy of hope. To the ancient Greeks, hope was closer to self-deception, one of the evils left in Pandora's box or jar, in Hesiod's story. In Christian tradition, hope became one of the theological virtues, the desire for divine union and the expectation of receiving it, an action of the will rather than the intellect. To Kant, 'what may I hope' was one of the three basic questions which human reason asks, while Nietzsche echoed Hesiod, arguing that leaving hope in the box was a deception by the gods, reflecting human inability to face the demands of existence. Yet even those critical of hope, like Camus, conceded that life was nearly impossible without it.

    With

    Beatrice Han-Pile
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex

    Robert Stern
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Judith Wolfe
    Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the planet Venus which is both the morning star and the evening star, rotates backwards at walking speed and has a day which is longer than its year. It has long been called Earth’s twin, yet the differences are more striking than the similarities. Once imagined covered with steaming jungles and oceans, we now know the surface of Venus is 450 degrees celsius, and the pressure there is 90 times greater than on Earth, enough to crush an astronaut. The more we learn of it, though, the more we learn of our own planet, such as whether Earth could become more like Venus in some ways, over time.

    With

    Carolin Crawford
    Public Astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

    Colin Wilson
    Senior Research Fellow in Planetary Science at the University of Oxford

    And

    Andrew Coates
    Professor of Physics at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London

    Produced by: Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the works of Wharton (1862-1937) such as The Age of Innocence for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and was the first woman to do so, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Her novels explore the world of privileged New Yorkers in the Gilded Age of the late C19th, of which she was part, drawing on her own experiences and written from the perspective of the new century, either side of WW1 . Among her themes, she examined the choices available to women and the extent to which they could ever really be free, even if rich.

    With

    Dame Hermione Lee
    Biographer, former President of Wolfson College, Oxford

    Bridget Bennett
    Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Leeds

    And

    Laura Rattray
    Reader in North American Literature at the University of Glasgow

    Producer: Simon Tillotson