Episodes

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the people, plants and animals once living on land now under the North Sea, now called Doggerland after Dogger Bank, inhabited up to c7000BC or roughly 3000 years before the beginnings of Stonehenge. There are traces of this landscape at low tide, such as the tree stumps at Redcar (above); yet more is being learned from diving and seismic surveys which are building a picture of an ideal environment for humans to hunt and gather, with rivers and wooded hills. Rising seas submerged this land as glaciers melted, and the people and animals who lived there moved to higher ground, with the coasts of modern-day Britain on one side and Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France on the other.

    With

    Vince Gaffney
    Anniversary Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Bradford

    Carol Cotterill
    Marine Geoscientist at the British Geological Survey

    And

    Rachel Bynoe
    Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Southampton

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of real and imagined machines that appear to be living, and the questions they raise about life and creation. Even in myth they are made by humans, not born. The classical Greeks built some and designed others, but the knowledge of how to make automata and the principles behind them was lost in the Latin Christian West, remaining in the Greek-speaking and Arabic-speaking world. Western travellers to those regions struggled to explain what they saw, attributing magical powers. The advance of clockwork raised further questions about what was distinctly human, prompting Hobbes to argue that humans were sophisticated machines, an argument explored in the Enlightenment and beyond.

    The image above is Jacques de Vaucanson's mechanical duck (1739), which picked up grain, digested and expelled it. If it looks like a duck...

    with

    Simon Schaffer
    Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University

    Elly Truitt
    Associate Professor of Medieval History at Bryn Mawr College

    And

    Franziska Kohlt
    Doctoral Researcher in English Literature and the History of Science at the University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

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  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the works and life of one of the most popular writers in Europe in C19th, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876) who wrote under the name George Sand. When she wrote her first novel under that name, she referred to herself as a man. This was in Indiana (1832), which had the main character breaking away from her unhappy marriage. It made an immediate impact as it overturned the social conventions of the time and it drew on her own early marriage to an older man, Casimir Dudevant. Once Sand's identity was widely known, her works became extremely popular in French and in translation, particularly her rural novels, outselling Hugo and Balzac in Britain, perhaps buoyed by an interest in her personal life, as well as by her ideas on the rights and education of women and strength of her writing.

    With

    Belinda Jack
    Fellow and Tutor in French at Christ Church, University of Oxford

    Angela Ryan
    Senior Lecturer in French at University College Cork

    And

    Nigel Harkness
    Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of French at Newcastle University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the theoretical physicist Dirac (1902-1984), whose achievements far exceed his general fame. To his peers, he was ranked with Einstein and, when he moved to America in his retirement, he was welcomed as if he were Shakespeare. Born in Bristol, he trained as an engineer before developing theories in his twenties that changed the understanding of quantum mechanics, bringing him a Nobel Prize in 1933 which he shared with Erwin Schrödinger. He continued to make deep contributions, bringing abstract maths to physics, beyond predicting anti-particles as he did in his Dirac Equation.

    With

    Graham Farmelo
    Biographer of Dirac and Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge

    Valerie Gibson
    Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College

    And

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

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the collection of poems published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, “never before imprinted”. Yet, while some of Shakespeare's other poems and many of his plays were often reprinted in his lifetime, the Sonnets were not a publishing success. They had to make their own way, outside the main canon of Shakespeare’s work: wonderful, troubling, patchy, inspiring and baffling, and they have appealed in different ways to different times. Most are addressed to a man, something often overlooked and occasionally concealed; one early and notorious edition even changed some of the pronouns.

    With:

    Hannah Crawforth
    Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at King’s College London

    Don Paterson
    Poet and Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews

    And

    Emma Smith
    Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of one of the great historians, best known for his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published 1776-89). According to Gibbon (1737-94) , the idea for this work came to him on 15th of October 1764 as he sat musing amidst the ruins of Rome, while barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. Decline and Fall covers thirteen centuries and is an enormous intellectual undertaking and, on publication, it became a phenomenal success across Europe.

    The image above is of Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton, oil on mahogany panel, 1773.

    With

    David Womersley
    The Thomas Wharton Professor of English Literature at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford

    Charlotte Roberts
    Lecturer in English at University College London

    And

    Karen O’Brien
    Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Charles Booth's survey, The Life and Labour of the People in London, published in 17 volumes from 1889 to 1903. Booth (1840-1916), a Liverpudlian shipping line owner, surveyed every household in London to see if it was true, as claimed, that as many as a quarter lived in poverty. He found that it was closer to a third, and that many of these were either children with no means of support or older people no longer well enough to work. He went on to campaign for an old age pension, and broadened the impact of his findings by publishing enhanced Ordnance Survey maps with the streets coloured according to the wealth of those who lived there.

    The image above is of an organ grinder on a London street, circa 1893, with children dancing to the Pas de Quatre

    With

    Emma Griffin
    Professor of Modern British History at the University of East Anglia

    Sarah Wise
    Adjunct Professor at the University of California

    And

    Lawrence Goldman
    Emeritus Fellow in History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the insight into our relationship with the world that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) shared in his book The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. It was as revolutionary, in his view, as when the Polish astronomer Copernicus realised that Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the Sun around Earth. Kant's was an insight into how we understand the world around us, arguing that we can never know the world as it is, but only through the structures of our minds which shape that understanding. This idea, that the world depends on us even though we do not create it, has been one of Kant’s greatest contributions to philosophy and influences debates to this day.

    The image above is a portrait of Immanuel Kant by Friedrich Wilhelm Springer

    With

    Fiona Hughes
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex

    Anil Gomes
    Associate Professor and Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford

    And

    John Callanan
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the period between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the unexpected restoration of his son Charles II in 1660, known as The Interregnum. It was marked in England by an elusive pursuit of stability, with serious consequences in Scotland and notorious ones in Ireland. When Parliament executed Charles it had also killed Scotland and Ireland’s king, without their consent; Scotland immediately declared Charles II king of Britain, and Ireland too favoured Charles. In the interests of political and financial security, Parliament's forces, led by Oliver Cromwell, soon invaded Ireland and then turned to defeating Scotland. However, the improvised power structures in England did not last and Oliver Cromwell's death in 1658 was followed by the threat of anarchy. In England, Charles II had some success in overturning the changes of the 1650s but there were lasting consequences for Scotland and the notorious changes in Ireland were entrenched.

    The Dutch image of Oliver Cromwell, above, was published by Joost Hartgers c1649

    With

    Clare Jackson
    Senior Tutor at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge

    Micheál Ó Siochrú
    Professor in Modern History at Trinity College Dublin

    And

    Laura Stewart
    Professor in Early Modern History at the University of York

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the great novels of China’s Ming era, and perhaps the most loved. Written in 1592, it draws on the celebrated travels of a real monk from China to India a thousand years before, and on a thousand years of retellings of that story, especially the addition of a monkey as companion who, in the novel, becomes supersimian. For most readers the monk, Tripitaka, is upstaged by this irrepressible Monkey with his extraordinary powers, accompanied by the fallen but recovering deities, Pigsy and Sandy.

    The image above, from the caricature series Yoshitoshi ryakuga or Sketches by Yoshitoshi, is of Monkey creating an army by plucking out his fur and blowing it into the air, and each hair becomes a monkey-warrior.

    With

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

    Chiung-yun Evelyn Liu
    Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

    And

    Craig Clunas
    Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at Trinity College, University of Oxford


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the search for Longitude while at sea. Following efforts by other maritime nations, the British Government passed the Longitude Act in 1714 to reward anyone who devised reliable means for ships to determine their longitude at sea. Mariners could already calculate how far they were north or south, the Latitude, using the Pole Star, but voyaging across the Atlantic to the Caribbean was much less predictable as navigators could not be sure how far east or west they were, a particular problem when heading for islands. It took fifty years of individual genius and collaboration in Britain and across Europe, among astronomers, clock makers, mathematicians and sailors, for the problem to be resolved.

    With

    Rebekah Higgitt
    Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland

    Jim Bennett
    Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum

    And

    Simon Schaffer
    Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • 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

  • 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.