Episodes

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the years of bloody conflict that saw Simon de Montfort (1205-65) become the most powerful man in England, with Henry III as his prisoner. With others, he had toppled Henry in 1258 in a secret, bloodless coup and established provisions for more parliaments with broader representation, for which he was later known as the Father of the House of Commons. When Henry III regained power in 1261, Simon de Montfort rallied forces for war, with victory at Lewes in 1264 and defeat and dismemberment in Evesham the year after. Although praised for supporting parliaments, he also earned a reputation for unleashing dark, violent forces in English politics and, infamously, his supporters murdered hundreds of Jewish people in London and elsewhere.

    With

    David Carpenter
    Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London

    Louise Wilkinson
    Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln

    And

    Sophie Thérèse Ambler
    Lecturer in Later Medieval British and European History at Lancaster University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43BC-17/18AD) who, as he described it, was destroyed by 'carmen et error', a poem and a mistake. His works have been preserved in greater number than any of the poets of his age, even Virgil, and have been among the most influential. The versions of many of the Greek and Roman myths we know today were his work, as told in his epic Metamorphoses and, together with his works on Love and the Art of Love, have inspired and disturbed readers from the time they were created. Despite being the most prominent poet in Augustan Rome at the time, he was exiled from Rome to Tomis on the Black Sea Coast where he remained until he died. It is thought that the 'carmen' that led to his exile was the Art of Love, Ars Amatoria, supposedly scandalising Augustus, but the 'error' was not disclosed.

    With

    Maria Wyke
    Professor of Latin at University College London

    Gail Trimble
    Brown Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Trinity College at the University of Oxford

    And

    Dunstan Lowe
    Senior Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

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  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the treaties France entered into with the United States of America in 1778, to give open support to the USA in its revolutionary war against Britain and to promote French trade across the Atlantic. This alliance had profound consequences for all three. The French navy, in particular, played a decisive role in the Americans’ victory in their revolution, but the great cost of supporting this overseas war fell on French taxpayers, highlighting the need for reforms which in turn led to the French Revolution. Then, when France looked to its American ally for support in the new French revolutionary wars with Britain, Americans had to choose where their longer term interests lay, and they turned back from the France that had supported them to the Britain they had just been fighting, and France and the USA fell into undeclared war at sea.

    The image above is a detail of Bataille de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, with Rochambeau commanding the French expeditionary force in 1781

    With

    Frank Cogliano
    Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh

    Kathleen Burk
    Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London

    And

    Michael Rapport
    Reader in Modern European History at the University of Glasgow


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the form of Christianity adopted by Ostrogoths in the 4th century AD, which they learned from Roman missionaries and from their own contact with the imperial court at Constantinople. This form spread to the Vandals and the Visigoths, who took it into Roman Spain and North Africa, and the Ostrogoths brought it deeper into Italy after the fall of the western Roman empire. Meanwhile, with the Roman empire in the east now firmly committed to the Nicene Creed not the Arian, the Goths and Vandals faced conflict or conversion, as Arianism moved from an orthodox view to being a heresy that would keep followers from heaven and delay the Second Coming for all.

    The image above is the ceiling mosaic of the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, commissioned by Theodoric, ruler of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, around the end of the 5th century

    With

    Judith Herrin
    Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, Emeritus, at King's College London

    Robin Whelan
    Lecturer in Mediterranean History at the University of Liverpool

    And

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

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Laplace (1749-1827) who was a giant in the world of mathematics both before and after the French Revolution. He addressed one of the great questions of his age, raised but side-stepped by Newton: was the Solar System stable, or would the planets crash into the Sun, as it appeared Jupiter might, or even spin away like Saturn threatened to do? He advanced ideas on probability, long the preserve of card players, and expanded them out across science; he hypothesised why the planets rotate in the same direction; and he asked if the Universe was deterministic, so that if you knew everything about all the particles then you could predict the future. He also devised the metric system and reputedly came up with the name 'metre'.

    With

    Marcus du Sautoy
    Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford

    Timothy Gowers
    Professor of Mathematics at the College de France

    And

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

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the conflict between Russia and Japan from February 1904 to September 1905, which gripped the world and had a profound impact on both countries. Wary of Russian domination of Korea, Japan attacked the Russian Fleet at Port Arthur and the ensuing war gave Russia a series of shocks, including the loss of their Baltic Fleet after a seven month voyage, which reverberated in the 1905 Revolution. Meanwhile Japan, victorious, advanced its goal of making Europe and America more wary in East Asia, combining rapid military modernisation and Samurai traditions when training its new peasant conscripts. The US-brokered peace failed to require Russia to make reparations, which became a cause of Japanese resentment towards the US.

    With

    Simon Dixon
    The Sir Bernard Pares Professor of Russian History at University College London

    Naoko Shimazu
    Professor of Humanities at Yale NUS College, Singapore

    And

    Oleg Benesch
    Reader in Modern History at the University of York

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most influential economists from the age of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Ricardo (1772 -1823) reputedly made his fortune at the Battle of Waterloo, and he made his lasting impact with his ideas on free trade. At a time when nations preferred to be self-sufficient, to produce all their own food and manufacture their own goods, and to find markets for export rather than import, Ricardo argued for free trade even with rivals for the benefit of all. He contended that existing economic policy unduly favoured landlords above all others and needed to change, and that nations would be less likely to go to war with their trading partners if they were more reliant on each other. For the last two hundred years, Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage in support of free trade has been developed and reinterpreted by generations of economists across the political spectrum.

    With

    Matthew Watson
    Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick

    Helen Paul
    Lecturer in Economics and Economic History at the University of Southampton

    And

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

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Euripides' great tragedy, which was first performed in Athens in 405 BC when the Athenians were on the point of defeat and humiliation in a long war with Sparta. The action seen or described on stage was brutal: Pentheus, king of Thebes, is torn into pieces by his mother in a Bacchic frenzy and his grandparents condemned to crawl away as snakes. All this happened because Pentheus had denied the divinity of his cousin Dionysus, known to the audience as god of wine, theatre, fertility and religious ecstasy.

    The image above is a detail of a Red-Figure Cup showing the death of Pentheus (exterior) and a Maenad (interior), painted c. 480 BC by the Douris painter. This object can be found at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

    With

    Edith Hall
    Professor of Classics at King’s College London

    Emily Wilson
    Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

    And

    Rosie Wyles
    Lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the devastating mass extinctions of the Late Devonian Period, roughly 370 million years ago, when around 70 percent of species disappeared. Scientists are still trying to establish exactly what happened, when and why, but this was not as sudden as when an asteroid hits Earth. The Devonian Period had seen the first trees and soils and it had such a diversity of sea life that it’s known as the Age of Fishes, some of them massive and armoured, and, in one of the iconic stages in evolution, some of them moving onto land for the first time. One of the most important theories for the first stage of this extinction is that the new soils washed into oceans, leading to algal blooms that left the waters without oxygen and suffocated the marine life.

    The image above is an abstract group of the huge, armoured Dunkleosteus fish, lost in the Late Devonian Extinction

    With

    Jessica Whiteside
    Associate Professor of Geochemistry in the Department of Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton

    David Bond
    Professor of Geology at the University of Hull

    And

    Mike Benton
    Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at the School of Life Sciences, University of Bristol.

  • In this 900th edition of the programme, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the best known and most influential of the poems of the Romantic movement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798 after discussions with his friend Wordsworth. He refined it for the rest of his life, and it came to define him, a foreshadowing of his opium-addicted, lonely wandering and deepening sense of guilt. The poem tells of a sailor compelled to tell and retell the story of a terrible voyage in his youth, this time as guests are heading to a wedding party, where he stoppeth one of three.

    The image above is from Gustave Doré's illustration of the mariner's shooting of the albatross, for an 1877 German language edition of the poem

    With

    Sir Jonathan Bate
    Professor of Environmental Humanities at Arizona State University

    Tom Mole
    Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh

    And

    Rosemary Ashton
    Emeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the man who, according to Machiavelli, was the last of the Five Good Emperors. Marcus Aurelius, 121 to 180 AD, has long been known as a model of the philosopher king, a Stoic who, while on military campaigns, compiled ideas on how best to live his life, and how best to rule. These ideas became known as his Meditations, and they have been treasured by many as an insight into the mind of a Roman emperor, and an example of how to avoid the corruption of power in turbulent times.

    The image above shows part of a bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

    With

    Simon Goldhill
    Professor of Greek Literature and Culture and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge

    Angie Hobbs
    Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Catharine Edwards
    Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea and experience of Christian pilgrimage in Europe from the 12th to the 15th centuries, which figured so strongly in the imagination of the age. For those able and willing to travel, there were countless destinations from Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela to the smaller local shrines associated with miracles and relics of the saints. Meanwhile, for those unable or not allowed to travel there were journeys of the mind, inspired by guidebooks that would tell the faithful how many steps they could take around their homes to replicate the walk to the main destinations in Rome and the Holy Land, passing paintings of the places on their route.

    The image above is of a badge of St Thomas of Canterbury, worn by pilgrims who had journeyed to his shrine.

    With

    Miri Rubin
    Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London

    Kathryn Rudy
    Professor of Art History at the University of St Andrews

    And

    Anthony Bale
    Professor of Medieval Studies and Dean of the School of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most famous museum objects in the world, shown in the image above in replica, and dating from around 196 BC. It is a damaged, dark granite block on which you can faintly see three scripts engraved: Greek at the bottom, Demotic in the middle and Hieroglyphs at the top. Napoleon’s soldiers found it in a Mamluk fort at Rosetta on the Egyptian coast, and soon realised the Greek words could be used to unlock the hieroglyphs. It was another 20 years before Champollion deciphered them, becoming the first to understand the hieroglyphs since they fell out of use 1500 years before and so opening up the written culture of ancient Egypt to the modern age.

    With
    Penelope Wilson
    Associate Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at Durham University

    Campbell Price
    Curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum

    And

    Richard Bruce Parkinson
    Professor of Egyptology and Fellow of The Queen’s College, University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the outstanding French mathematicians and natural philosophers of the 18th Century, celebrated across Europe. Emilie du Châtelet, 1706-49, created a translation of Newton’s Principia from Latin into French that helped spread the light of mathematics on the emerging science, and her own book Institutions de Physique, with its lessons on physics, was welcomed as profound. She had the privileges of wealth and aristocracy, yet had to fight to be taken seriously as an intellectual in a world of ideas that was almost exclusively male.

    With

    Patricia Fara
    Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge

    David Wootton
    Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York

    And

    Judith Zinsser
    Professor Emerita of History at Miami University of Ohio and biographer of Emilie du Châtelet.

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Northumbrian man who, for 500 years, was the pre-eminent English saint, to be matched only by Thomas Becket after his martyrdom in 1170. Now at Durham, Cuthbert was buried first on Lindisfarne in 687AD, where monks shared vivid stories of his sanctifying miracles, his healing, and his power over nature, and his final tomb became a major site of pilgrimage. In his lifetime he was both hermit and kingmaker, bishop and travelling priest, and the many accounts we have of him, including two by Bede, tell us much of the values of those who venerated him so soon after his death.

    The image above is from a stained glass window in the south aisle of the nave in Durham Cathedral: 'St Cuthbert praying before his cell in the Farne Island'

    With

    Jane Hawkes
    Professor of Medieval Art History at the University of York

    Sarah Foot
    The Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral

    And

    John Hines
    Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the plague that broke out in Constantinople 541AD, in the reign of Emperor Justinian. According to the historian Procopius, writing in Byzantium at the time, this was a plague by which the whole human race came near to being destroyed, embracing the whole world, and blighting the lives of all mankind. The bacterium behind the Black Death has since been found on human remains from that time, and the symptoms described were the same, and evidence of this plague has since been traced around the Mediterranean and from Syria to Britain and Ireland. The question of how devastating it truly was, though, is yet to be resolved.

    With

    John Haldon
    Professor of Byzantine History and Hellenic Studies Emeritus at Princeton University

    Rebecca Flemming
    Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge

    And

    Greg Woolf
    Director of the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss F Scott Fitzgerald’s finest novel, published in 1925, one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. It is told by Nick Carraway, neighbour and friend of the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby. In the age of jazz and prohibition, Gatsby hosts lavish parties at his opulent home across the bay from Daisy Buchanan, in the hope she’ll attend one of them and they can be reunited. They were lovers as teenagers but she had given him up for a richer man who she soon married, and Gatsby is obsessed with winning her back.

    The image above is of Robert Redford as Gatsby in a scene from the film 'The Great Gatsby', 1974.

    With

    Sarah Churchwell
    Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of London

    Philip McGowan
    Professor of American Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast

    And

    William Blazek
    Associate Professor and Reader in American Literature at Liverpool Hope University

    Produced by Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss solar eclipses, some of life’s most extraordinary moments, when day becomes night and the stars come out before day returns either all too soon or not soon enough, depending on what you understand to be happening. In ancient China, for example, there was a story that a dragon was eating the sun and it had to be scared away by banging pots and pans if the sun were to return. Total lunar eclipses are more frequent and last longer, with a blood moon coloured red like a sunrise or sunset. Both events have created the chance for scientists to learn something remarkable, from the speed of light, to the width of the Atlantic, to the roundness of Earth, to discovering helium and proving Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

    With

    Carolin Crawford
    Public Astronomer based at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge and a fellow of Emmanuel College


    Frank Close
    Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford

    And

    Lucie Green
    Professor of Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London


    Producers: Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Chairman Mao and the revolt he led within his own party from 1966, setting communists against each other, to renew the revolution that he feared had become too bourgeois and to remove his enemies and rivals. Universities closed and the students formed Red Guard factions to attack the 'four olds' - old ideas, culture, habits and customs - and they also turned on each other, with mass violence on the streets and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Over a billion copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book were printed to support his cult of personality, before Mao himself died in 1976 and the revolution came to an end.

    The image above is of Red Guards, holding The Little Red Book, cheering Mao during a meeting to celebrate the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, August 1966

    With

    Rana Mitter
    Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford

    Sun Peidong
    Visiting Professor at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po, Paris

    And

    Julia Lovell
    Professor in Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck, University of London

    Produced by Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss John Wesley (1703 - 1791) and the movement he was to lead and inspire. As a student, he was mocked for approaching religion too methodically and this jibe gave a name to the movement: Methodism. Wesley took his ideas out across Britain wherever there was an appetite for Christian revival, preaching in the open, especially the new industrial areas. Others spread Methodism too, such as George Whitefield, and the sheer energy of the movement led to splits within it, but it soon became a major force.

    With

    Stephen Plant
    Dean and Runcie Fellow at Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge

    Eryn White
    Reader in Early Modern History at Aberystwyth University

    And

    William Gibson
    Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes University and Director of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History

    Produced by Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson