Episodes

  • In a programme first broadcast in 2016, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Baltic Crusades, the name given to a series of overlapping attempts to convert the pagans of North East Europe to Christianity at the point of the sword. From the 12th Century, Papal Bulls endorsed those who fought on the side of the Church, the best known now being the Teutonic Order which, thwarted in Jerusalem, founded a state on the edge of the Baltic, in Prussia. Some of the peoples in the region disappeared, either killed or assimilated, and the consequences for European history were profound.

    With

    Aleks Pluskowski
    Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading

    Nora Berend
    Fellow of St Catharine's College and Reader in European History at the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge

    and

    Martin Palmer
    Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • "He who saw the Deep" are the first words of the standard version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the subject of this discussion between Melvyn Bragg and his guests which was first broadcast in 2016. Gilgamesh is often said to be the oldest surviving great work of literature, with origins in the third millennium BC, and it passed through thousands of years on cuneiform tablets. Unlike epics of Greece and Rome, the intact story of Gilgamesh became lost to later generations until tablets were discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853 near Mosul and later translated. Since then, many more tablets have been found and much of the text has been reassembled to convey the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk the sheepfold, and Enkidu who the gods created to stop Gilgamesh oppressing his people. Together they fight Humbaba, monstrous guardian of the Cedar Forest, and kill the Bull of Heaven, for which the gods make Enkidu mortally ill. Gilgamesh goes on a long journey as he tries unsuccessfully to learn how to live forever, learning about the Great Deluge on the way, but his remarkable building works guarantee that his fame will last long after his death.

    With

    Andrew George
    Professor of Babylonian at SOAS, University of London

    Frances Reynolds
    Shillito Fellow in Assyriology at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford and Fellow of St Benet's Hall

    and

    Martin Worthington
    Lecturer in Assyriology at the University of Cambridge


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

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  • In a programme first broadcast in 2017, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sought to define the difference between right and wrong by applying reason, looking at the intention behind actions rather than at consequences. He was inspired to find moral laws by natural philosophers such as Newton and Leibniz, who had used reason rather than emotion to analyse the world around them and had identified laws of nature. Kant argued that when someone was doing the right thing, that person was doing what was the universal law for everyone, a formulation that has been influential on moral philosophy ever since and is known as the Categorical Imperative. Arguably even more influential was one of his reformulations, echoed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which he asserted that humanity has a value of an entirely different kind from that placed on commodities. Kant argued that simply existing as a human being was valuable in itself, so that every human owed moral responsibilities to other humans and was owed responsibilities in turn.

    With

    Alison Hills
    Professor of Philosophy at St John's College, Oxford

    David Oderberg
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading

    and

    John Callanan
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King's College, London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson.

  • In a programme first broadcast in 2015, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the problem of P versus NP, which has a bearing on online security. There is a $1,000,000 prize on offer from the Clay Mathematical Institute for the first person to come up with a complete solution. At its heart is the question "are there problems for which the answers can be checked by computers, but not found in a reasonable time?" If the answer to that is yes, then P does not equal NP. However, if all answers can be found easily as well as checked, if only we knew how, then P equals NP. The area has intrigued mathematicians and computer scientists since Alan Turing, in 1936, found that it’s impossible to decide in general whether an algorithm will run forever on some problems. Resting on P versus NP is the security of all online transactions which are currently encrypted: if it transpires that P=NP, if answers could be found as easily as checked, computers could crack passwords in moments.

    With

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

    Timothy Gowers
    Royal Society Research Professor in Mathematics at the University of Cambridge

    And

    Leslie Ann Goldberg
    Professor of Computer Science and Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • In a programme first broadcast in 2016, 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

  • In a programme first broadcast in May 2019, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) Gothic story of a Swiss natural philosopher, Victor Frankenstein, and the creature he makes from parts of cadavers and which he then abandons, horrified by his appearance, and never names. Rejected by all humans who see him, the monster takes his revenge on Frankenstein, killing those dear to him. Shelley started writing Frankenstein when she was 18, prompted by a competition she had with Byron and her husband Percy Shelley to tell a ghost story while they were rained in in the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.

    The image of Mary Shelley, above, was first exhibited in 1840.

    With

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

    Michael Rossington
    Professor of Romantic Literature at Newcastle University

    And

    Jane Thomas
    Professor of Victorian and Early 20th Century Literature at the University of Hull

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    This programme is a repeat

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the bonds that Scottish Presbyterians made between themselves and their monarchs in the 16th and 17th Centuries, to maintain their form of worship. These covenants bound James VI of Scotland to support Presbyterians yet when he became James I he was also expected to support episcopacy. That tension came to a head under Charles I who found himself on the losing side of a war with the Covenanters, who later supported Parliament before backing the future Charles II after he had pledged to support them. Once in power, Charles II failed to deliver the religious settlement the Covenanters wanted, and set about repressing them violently. Those who refused to renounce the covenants were persecuted in what became known as The Killing Times, as reflected in the image above.

    With

    Roger Mason
    Professor of Scottish History at the University of St Andrews

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

    And

    Scott Spurlock
    Professor of Scottish and Early Modern Christianities at the University of Glasgow

    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 origins of horses, from their dog sized ancestors to their proliferation in the New World until hunted to extinction, their domestication in Asia and their development since. The genetics of the modern horse are the most studied of any animal, after humans, yet it is still uncertain why they only have one toe on each foot when their wider family had more, or whether speed or stamina has been more important in their evolution. What is clear, though, is that when humans first chose to ride horses, as well as eat them, the future of both species changed immeasurably.

    With

    Alan Outram
    Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Exeter

    Christine Janis
    Honorary Professor in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol and Professor Emerita in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University

    And

    John Hutchinson
    Professor in Evolutionary Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the debate in Valladolid, Spain in 1550, over Spanish rights to enslave the native peoples in the newly conquered lands. Bartolomé de Las Casas (pictured above), the Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, was trying to end the encomienda system in which those who now owned the land could also take the people in forced labour. Juan Gines Sepulveda, a philosopher, argued for the colonists' property rights over people, asserting that some native Americans were 'natural slaves' as defined by Aristotle. Valladolid became seen as the first open attempt by European colonists to discuss the ethics of slavery, and Las Casas became known as 'Saviour of the Indians' and an advocate for human rights, although for some time he argued that African slaves be imported to do the work in place of the native people, before repenting.

    With

    Caroline Dodds Pennock
    Senior Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield

    John Edwards
    Faculty Fellow in Spanish at the University of Oxford

    And

    Julia McClure
    Lecturer in Late Medieval and Early Modern Global History at the University of Glasgow

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great Roman military disaster of 9 AD when Germanic tribes under Arminius ambushed and destroyed three legions under Varus. According to Suetonius, emperor Augustus hit his head against the wall when he heard the news, calling on Varus to give him back his legions. The defeat ended Roman expansion east of the Rhine. Victory changed the development of the Germanic peoples, both in the centuries that followed and in the nineteenth century when Arminius, by then known as Herman, became a rallying point for German nationalism.

    With

    Peter Heather
    Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London

    Ellen O'Gorman
    Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Bristol

    And

    Matthew Nicholls
    Fellow and Senior Tutor at St John’s College, Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • 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 Alcuin of York, c735-804AD, who promoted education as a goal in itself, and had a fundamental role in the renaissance at Charlemagne's court. He wrote poetry and many letters, hundreds of which survive and provide insight into his life and times. He was born in or near York and spent most of his life in Northumbria before accepting an invitation to Charlemagne's court in Aachen. To this he brought Anglo-Saxon humanism, encouraging a broad liberal education for itself and the better to understand Christian doctrine. He left to be abbot at Marmoutier, Tours, where the monks were developing the Carolingian script that influenced the Roman typeface.

    The image above is Alcuin’s portrait, found in a copy of the Bible made at his monastery in Tours during the rule of his successor Abbot Adalhard (834–843). Painted in red on gold leaf, it shows Alcuin with a tonsure and a halo, signifying respect for his memory at the monastery where he had died in 804. His name and rank are spelled out alongside: Alcvinvs abba, ‘Alcuin the abbot’. It is held at the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg -Kaiser-Heinrich-Bibliothek - Msc.Bibl.1,fol.5v (photo by Gerald Raab).


    With

    Joanna Story
    Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester

    Andy Orchard
    Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Pembroke College

    And

    Mary Garrison
    Lecturer in History at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the flow of particles from the outer region of the Sun which we observe in the Northern and Southern Lights, interacting with Earth's magnetosphere, and in comet tails that stream away from the Sun regardless of their own direction. One way of defining the boundary of the solar system is where the pressure from the solar wind is balanced by that from the region between the stars, the interstellar medium. Its existence was suggested from the C19th and Eugene Parker developed the theory of it in the 1950s and it has been examined and tested by a series of probes in C20th up to today, with more planned.

    With

    Andrew Coates
    Professor of Physics and Deputy Director in charge of the Solar System at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London

    Helen Mason OBE
    Reader in Solar Physics at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, Fellow at St Edmund's College

    And

    Tim Horbury
    Professor of Physics at Imperial College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and the social unrest that followed, as the French capital was cut off from the rest of the country and food was scarce. When the French government surrendered Paris to the Prussians, power gravitated to the National Guard in the city and to radical socialists, and a Commune established in March 1871 with the red flag replacing the trilcoleur. The French government sent in the army and, after bloody fighting, the Communards were defeated by the end of May 1871.

    The image above is from an engraving of the fire in the Tuileries Palace, May 23, 1871

    With

    Karine Varley
    Lecturer in French and European History at the University of Strathclyde

    Robert Gildea
    Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford

    And

    Julia Nicholls
    Lecturer in French and European Studies at King’s College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Catullus (c84-c54 BC) who wrote some of the most sublime poetry in the late Roman Republic, and some of the most obscene. He found a new way to write about love, in poems to the mysterious Lesbia, married and elusive, and he influenced Virgil and Ovid and others, yet his explicit poems were to blight his reputation for a thousand years. Once the one surviving manuscript was discovered in the Middle Ages, though, anecdotally as a plug in a wine butt, he inspired Petrarch and the Elizabethan poets, as he continues to inspire many today.

    The image above is of Lesbia and her Sparrow, 1860, artist unknown

    With

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

    Simon Smith
    Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Kent, poet and translator of Catullus

    and

    Maria Wyke
    Professor of Latin at University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the discovery in 1922 of Tutankhamun's 3000 year old tomb and its impact on the understanding of ancient Egypt, both academic and popular. The riches, such as the death mask above, were spectacular and made the reputation of Howard Carter who led the excavation. And if the astonishing contents of the tomb were not enough, the drama of the find and the control of how it was reported led to a craze for 'King Tut' that has rarely subsided and has enthused and sometimes confused people around the world, seeking to understand the reality of Tutankhamun's life and times.

    With

    Elizabeth Frood
    Associate Professor of Egyptology, Director of the Griffith Institute and Fellow of St Cross at the University of Oxford

    Christina Riggs
    Professor of the History of Visual Culture at Durham University and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford

    And

    John Taylor
    Curator at the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and poetry of WH Auden (1907-1973) up to his departure from Europe for the USA in 1939. As well as his personal life, he addressed suffering and confusion, and the moral issues that affected the wider public in the 1930s and tried to unpick what was going wrong in society and to understand those times. He witnessed the rise of totalitarianism in the austerity of that decade, travelling through Germany to Berlin, seeing Spain in the Civil War and China during its wars with Japan, often collaborating with Christopher Isherwood. In his lifetime his work attracted high praise and intense criticism, and has found new audiences in the fifty years since his death, sometimes taking literally what he meant ironically.

    With

    Mark Ford
    Poet and Professor of English at University College London

    Janet Montefiore
    Professor Emerita of 20th Century English Literature at the University of Kent

    And

    Jeremy Noel-Tod
    Senior Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history and social impact of coffee. From its origins in Ethiopia, coffea arabica spread through the Ottoman Empire before reaching Western Europe where, in the 17th century, coffee houses were becoming established. There, caffeinated customers stayed awake for longer and were more animated, and this helped to spread ideas and influence culture. Coffee became a colonial product, grown by slaves or indentured labour, with coffea robusta replacing arabica where disease had struck, and was traded extensively by the Dutch and French empires; by the 19th century, Brazil had developed into a major coffee producer, meeting demand in the USA that had grown on the waggon trails.

    With

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

    Markman Ellis
    Professor of 18th Century Studies at Queen Mary University of London

    And

    Jonathan Morris
    Professor in Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • 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