Episodes

  • The philosopher Mary Astell (1666 – 1731) has been described as “the first English feminist”. Born in Newcastle in relatively poor circumstances in the aftermath of the upheaval of the English Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy, she moved to London as a young woman and became part of an extraordinary circle of intellectual and aristocratic women. In her pioneering publications, she argued that women’s education should be expanded, that men and women’s minds were the same and that no woman should be forced to marry against her will. Perhaps her most famous quotation is: “If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?” Today, she is one of just a handful of female philosophers to be featured in the multi-volume Cambridge History of Political Thought. The image above is from Astell's "Reflections upon Marriage", 3rd edition, 1706, held by the British Library (Shelfmark 8415.bb.27) With: Hannah Dawson Senior Lecturer in the History of Ideas at King’s College London Mark Goldie Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge Teresa Bejan Associate Professor of Political Theory at Oriel College, University of Oxford 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

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  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origin of this personification of the English everyman and his development as both British and Britain in the following centuries. He first appeared along with Lewis Baboon (French) and Nicholas Frog (Dutch) in 1712 in a pamphlet that satirised the funding of the War of the Spanish Succession. The author was John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), a Scottish doctor and satirist who was part of the circle of Swift and Pope, and his John Bull was the English voter, overwhelmed by taxes that went not so much into the war itself but into the pockets of its financiers. For the next two centuries, Arbuthnot’s John Bull was a gift for cartoonists and satirists, especially when they wanted to ridicule British governments for taking advantage of the people’s patriotism.

    The image above is by William Charles, a Scottish engraver who emigrated to the United States, and dates from 1814 during the Anglo-American War of 1812.

    With

    Judith Hawley
    Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London

    Miles Taylor
    Professor of British History and Society at Humboldt, University of Berlin

    And

    Mark Knights
    Professor of History at the University of Warwick

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the largest and arguably the most astonishing religious structure on Earth, built for Suryavarman II in the 12th Century in modern-day Cambodia. It is said to have more stone in it than the Great Pyramid of Giza, and much of the surface is intricately carved and remarkably well preserved. For the last 900 years Angkor Wat has been a centre of religion, whether Hinduism, Buddhism or Animism or a combination of those, and a source of wonder to Cambodians and visitors from around the world.

    With

    Piphal Heng
    Postdoctoral scholar at the Cotsen Institute and the Programme for Early Modern Southeast Asia at UCLA

    Ashley Thompson
    Hiram W Woodward Chair of Southeast Asian Art at SOAS University of London

    And

    Simon Warrack
    A stone conservator who has worked extensively at Angkor Wat

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the celebrated Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas (1914 - 1953). He wrote some of his best poems before he was twenty in the first half of his short, remarkable life, and was prolific in the second half too with poems such as those set in London under the Blitz and reworkings of his childhood in Swansea, and his famous radio play Under Milk Wood (performed after his death). He was read widely and widely heard: with his reading tours in America and recordings of his works that sold in their hundreds of thousands after his death, he is credited with reviving the act of poetry as performance in the 20th century.

    With

    Nerys Williams
    Associate Professor of Poetry and Poetics at University College Dublin

    John Goodby
    Professor of Arts and Culture at Sheffield Hallam University

    And

    Leo Mellor
    The Roma Gill Fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the abrupt transformation of stars after shining brightly for millions or billions of years, once they lack the fuel to counter the force of gravity. Those like our own star, the Sun, become red giants, expanding outwards and consuming nearby planets, only to collapse into dense white dwarves. The massive stars, up to fifty times the mass of the Sun, burst into supernovas, visible from Earth in daytime, and become incredibly dense neutron stars or black holes. In these moments of collapse, the intense heat and pressure can create all the known elements to form gases and dust which may eventually combine to form new stars, new planets and, as on Earth, new life.

    The image above is of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, approximately 10,000 light years away, from a once massive star that died in a supernova explosion that was first seen from Earth in 1690

    With

    Martin Rees
    Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge

    Carolin Crawford
    Emeritus Member of the Institute of Astronomy and Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

    And

    Mark Sullivan
    Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Southampton

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) on history. Hegel, one of the most influential of the modern philosophers, described history as the progress in the consciousness of freedom, asking whether we enjoy more freedom now than those who came before us. To explore this, he looked into the past to identify periods when freedom was moving from the one to the few to the all, arguing that once we understand the true nature of freedom we reach an endpoint in understanding. That end of history, as it's known, describes an understanding of freedom so far progressed, so profound, that it cannot be extended or deepened even if it can be lost.

    With

    Sally Sedgwick
    Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Boston University

    Robert Stern
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Stephen Houlgate
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Czech educator Jan Amos Komenský (1592-1670) known throughout Europe in his lifetime under the Latin version of his name, Comenius. A Protestant and member of the Unity of Brethren, he lived much of his life in exile, expelled from his homeland under the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and he wanted to address the deep antagonisms underlying the wars that were devastating Europe especially The Thirty Years War (1618-1648). A major part of his plan was Universal Education, in which everyone could learn about everything, and better understand each other and so tolerate their religious differences and live side by side. His ideas were to have a lasting influence on education, even though the peace that followed the Thirty Years War only entrenched the changes in his homeland that made his life there impossible.

    The image above is from a portrait of Comenius by Jürgen Ovens, 1650 - 1670, painted while he was living in Amsterdam and held in the Rikjsmuseum

    With

    Vladimir Urbanek
    Senior Researcher in the Department of Comenius Studies and Early Modern Intellectual History at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences

    Suzanna Ivanic
    Lecturer in Early Modern European History at the University of Kent

    And

    Howard Hotson
    Professor of Early Modern Intellectual History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Anne’s College

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss two of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, who wrote in the 8th century in the Tang Era. Li Bai (701-762AD) is known for personal poems, many of them about drinking wine, and for finding the enjoyment in life. Du Fu (712-770AD), a few years younger, is more of an everyman, writing in the upheaval of the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763AD). Together they have been a central part of Chinese culture for over a millennium, reflecting the balance between the individual and the public life, and one sign of their enduring appeal is that there is rarely agreement on which of them is the greater.

    The image above is intended to depict Du Fu.

    With

    Tim Barrett
    Professor Emeritus of East Asian History at SOAS, University of London

    Tian Yuan Tan
    Shaw Professor of Chinese at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow at University College

    And

    Frances Wood
    Former Curator of the Chinese Collections at the British Library

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact of David I of Scotland (c1084-1153) on his kingdom and on neighbouring lands. The youngest son of Malcolm III, he was raised in exile in the Anglo-Norman court and became Earl of Huntingdon and Prince of Cumbria before claiming the throne in 1124. He introduced elements of what he had learned in England and, in the next decades, his kingdom saw new burghs, new monasteries, new ways of governing and the arrival of some very influential families, earning him the reputation of The Perfect King.

    With

    Richard Oram
    Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at the University of Stirling

    Alice Taylor
    Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London

    And

    Alex Woolf
    Senior Lecturer in History at the University of St Andrews

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the accounts by Eusebius of Caesarea (c260-339 AD) and others of the killings of Christians in the first three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus. Eusebius was writing in a time of peace, after The Great Persecution that had started with Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD and lasted around eight years. Many died under Diocletian, and their names are not preserved, but those whose deaths are told by Eusebius became especially celebrated and their stories became influential. Through his writings, Eusebius shaped perceptions of what it meant to be a martyr in those years, and what it meant to be a Christian.

    The image above is of The Martyrdom of Saint Blandina (1886) at the Church of Saint-Blandine de Lyon, France

    With:

    Candida Moss
    Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham

    Kate Cooper
    Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London

    And

    James Corke-Webster
    Senior Lecturer in Classics, History and Liberal Arts at King’s College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the French playwright who, in 1791, wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. This was Olympe de Gouges (1748-93) and she was responding to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789, the start of the French Revolution which, by excluding women from these rights, had fallen far short of its apparent goals. Where the latter declared ‘men are born equal’, she asserted ‘women are born equal to men,’ adding, ‘since women are allowed to mount the scaffold, they should also be allowed to stand in parliament and defend their rights’. Two years later this playwright, novelist, activist and woman of letters did herself mount the scaffold, two weeks after Marie Antoinette, for the crime of being open to the idea of a constitutional monarchy and, for two hundred years, her reputation died with her, only to be revived with great vigour in the last 40 years.

    With

    Catriona Seth
    Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford

    Katherine Astbury
    Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick

    And

    Sanja Perovic
    Reader in 18th century French studies at King’s College London


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of our ancestors, Homo erectus, who thrived on Earth for around two million years whereas we, Homo sapiens, emerged only in the last three hundred thousand years. Homo erectus, or Upright Man, spread from Africa to Asia and it was on the Island of Java that fossilised remains were found in 1891 in an expedition led by Dutch scientist Eugène Dubois. Homo erectus people adapted to different habitats, ate varied food, lived in groups, had stamina to outrun their prey; and discoveries have prompted many theories on the relationship between their diet and the size of their brains, on their ability as seafarers, on their creativity and on their ability to speak and otherwise communicate.

    The image above is from a diorama at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, depicting the Turkana Boy referred to in the programme.

    With

    Peter Kjærgaard
    Director of the Natural History Museum of Denmark and Professor of Evolutionary History at the University of Copenhagen

    José Joordens
    Senior Researcher in Human Evolution at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre and Professor of Human Evolution at Maastricht University

    And

    Mark Maslin
    Professor of Earth System Science at University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the influential novella of John Polidori (1795-1821) published in 1819 and attributed first to Lord Byron (1788-1824) who had started a version of it in 1816 at the Villa Diodati in the Year Without A Summer. There Byron, his personal physician Polidori, Mary and Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont had whiled away the weeks of miserable weather by telling ghost stories, famously giving rise to Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'. Emerging soon after, 'The Vampyre' thrilled readers with its aristocratic Lord Ruthven who glutted his thirst with the blood of his victims, his status an abrupt change from the stories of peasant vampires of eastern and central Europe that had spread in the 18th Century with the expansion of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The connection with Lord Byron gave the novella a boost, and soon 'The Vampyre' spawned West End plays, penny dreadfuls such as 'Varney the Vampire', Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula', F.W Murnau's film 'Nosferatu A Symphony of Horror', and countless others.

    The image above is of Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) as Count Mora in Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer's 'Vampires of Prague' (1935)

    With

    Nick Groom
    Professor of Literature in English at the University of Macau

    Samantha George
    Associate Professor of Research in Literature at the University of Hertfordshire

    And

    Martyn Rady
    Professor Emeritus of Central European History at University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the astonishing work of Michelangelo (1477-1564) in this great chapel in the Vatican, firstly the ceiling with images from Genesis (of which the image above is a detail) and later The Last Judgement on the altar wall. For the Papacy, Michelangelo's achievement was a bold affirmation of the spiritual and political status of the Vatican, of Rome and of the Catholic Church. For the artist himself, already famous as the sculptor of David in Florence, it was a test of his skill and stamina, and of the potential for art to amaze which he realised in his astonishing mastery of the human form.

    With

    Catherine Fletcher
    Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University

    Sarah Vowles
    The Smirnov Family Curator of Italian and French Prints and Drawings at the British Museum

    And

    Matthias Wivel
    The Aud Jebsen Curator of Sixteenth-Century Italian Paintings at the National Gallery

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what is reputedly the most performed of all Greek tragedies. Antigone, by Sophocles (c496-c406 BC), is powerfully ambiguous, inviting the audience to reassess its values constantly before the climax of the play resolves the plot if not the issues. Antigone is barely a teenager and is prepared to defy her uncle Creon, the new king of Thebes, who has decreed that nobody should bury the body of her brother, a traitor, on pain of death. This sets up a conflict between generations, between the state and the individual, uncle and niece, autocracy and pluralism, and it releases an enormous tragic energy that brings sudden death to Antigone, her fiance Haemon who is also Creon's son, and to Creon's wife Eurydice, while Creon himself is condemned to a living death of grief.

    With

    Edith Hall
    Professor of Classics at Durham University

    Oliver Taplin
    Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Oxford

    And

    Lyndsay Coo
    Senior Lecturer in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at the University of Bristol


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea of charismatic authority developed by Max Weber (1864-1920) to explain why people welcome some as their legitimate rulers and follow them loyally, for better or worse, while following others only dutifully or grudgingly. Weber was fascinated by those such as Napoleon (above) and Washington who achieved power not by right, as with traditional monarchs, or by law as with the bureaucratic world around him in Germany, but by revolution or insurrection. Drawing on the experience of religious figures, he contended that these leaders, often outsiders, needed to be seen as exceptional, heroic and even miraculous to command loyalty, and could stay in power for as long as the people were enthralled and the miracles they had promised kept coming. After the Second World War, Weber's idea attracted new attention as a way of understanding why some reviled leaders once had mass support and, with the arrival of television, why some politicians were more engaging and influential on screen than others.

    With

    Linda Woodhead
    The FD Maurice Professor and Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College London

    David Bell
    The Lapidus Professor in the Department of History at Princeton University

    And

    Tom Wright
    Reader in Rhetoric at the University of Sussex

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the study of earthquakes. A massive earthquake in 1755 devastated Lisbon, and this disaster helped inspire a new science of seismology which intensified after San Francisco in 1906 and advanced even further with the need to monitor nuclear tests around the world from 1945 onwards. While we now know so much more about what lies beneath the surface of the Earth, and how rocks move and crack, it remains impossible to predict when earthquakes will happen. Thanks to seismology, though, we have a clearer idea of where earthquakes will happen and how to make some of them less hazardous to lives and homes.

    With

    Rebecca Bell
    Senior lecturer in Geology and Geophysics at Imperial College London

    Zoe Mildon
    Lecturer in Earth Sciences and Future Leaders Fellow at the University of Plymouth

    And

    James Hammond
    Reader in Geophysics at Birkbeck, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ancient Sanskrit text the Arthashastra, regarded as one of the major works of Indian literature. Written in the style of a scientific treatise, it provides rulers with a guide on how to govern their territory and sets out what the structure, economic policy and foreign affairs of the ideal state should be. According to legend, it was written by Chanakya, a political advisor to the ruler Chandragupta Maurya (reigned 321 – 297 BC) who founded the Mauryan Empire, the first great Empire in the Indian subcontinent. As the Arthashastra asserts that a ruler should pursue his goals ruthlessly by whatever means is required, it has been compared with the 16th-century work The Prince by Machiavelli. Today, it is widely viewed as presenting a sophisticated and refined analysis of the nature, dynamics and challenges of rulership, and scholars value it partly because it undermines colonial stereotypes of what early South Asian society was like.

    With

    Jessica Frazier
    Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

    James Hegarty
    Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at Cardiff University

    And

    Deven Patel
    Associate Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

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