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In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas, people and events that have shaped our world.

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The California Gold Rush

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the California Gold Rush. In 1849 the recent discovery of gold at Coloma, near Sacramento in California, led to a massive influx of prospectors seeking to make their fortunes. Within a couple of years the tiny settlement of San Francisco had become a major city, with tens of thousands of immigrants, the so-called Forty-Niners, arriving by boat and over land. The gold rush transformed the west coast of America and its economy, but also uprooted local populations of Native Americans and made irreversible changes to natural habitats.With:Kathleen BurkProfessor of Modern and Contemporary History at University College LondonJacqueline Fear-SegalReader in American History and Culture at the University of East AngliaFrank CoglianoProfessor of American History at the University of Edinburgh.


2 Apr 2015

Rank #1

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The Long March

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss a foundation story for China as it was reshaped under Mao Zedong. In October 1934, around ninety thousand soldiers of the Red Army broke out of a siege in Jiangxi in the south east of the country, hoping to find a place to regroup and rebuild. They were joined by other armies, and this turned into a very long march to the west and then north, covering thousands of miles of harsh and hostile territory, marshes and mountains, pursued by forces of the ruling Kuomintang for a year. Mao Zedong was among the marchers and emerged at the head of them, and he ensured the officially approved history of the Long March would be an inspiration and education for decades to come.WithRana MitterProfessor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of OxfordSun ShuyunHistorian, writer of 'The Long March' and film makerAndJulia LovellProfessor in Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson


29 Nov 2018

Rank #2

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Holbein at the Tudor Court

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) during his two extended stays in England, when he worked at the Tudor Court and became the King's painter. Holbein created some of the most significant portraits of his age, including an image of Henry VIII, looking straight at the viewer, hands on hips, that has dominated perceptions of him since. The original at Whitehall Palace was said to make visitors tremble at its majesty. Holbein was later sent to Europe to paint the women who might be Henry's fourth wife; his depiction of Anne of Cleves was enough to encourage Henry to marry her, a decision Henry quickly regretted and for which Thomas Cromwell, her supporter, was executed. His paintings still shape the way we see those in and around the Tudor Court, including Cromwell, Thomas More, the infant Prince Edward (of which there is a detail, above), The Ambassadors and, of course, Henry the Eighth himself.WithSusan FoisterCurator of Early Netherlandish, German and British Painting at the National GalleryJohn GuyA fellow of Clare College, University of CambridgeAndMaria HaywardProfessor of Early Modern History at the University of SouthamptonProducer: Simon Tillotson.


15 Oct 2015

Rank #3

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The Thirty Years War

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the war in Europe which begain in 1618 and continued on such a scale and with such devastation that its like was not seen for another three hundred years. It pitched Catholics against Protestants, Lutherans against Calvinists and Catholics against Catholics across the Holy Roman Empire, drawing in their neighbours and it lasted for thirty gruelling years, from the Defenestration of Prague to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Many more civilians died than soldiers, and famine was so great that even cannibalism was excused. This topic was chosen from several hundred suggested by listeners this autumn.The image above is a detail from a painting of The Battle of White Mountain on 7-8 November 1620, by Pieter Snayers (1592-1667)WithPeter WilsonChichele Professor of the History of War at the University of OxfordUlinka RublackProfessor of Early Modern European History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John’s CollegeAndToby OsborneAssociate Professor in History at Durham UniversityProducer: Simon Tillotson


6 Dec 2018

Rank #4

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Aristotle's Biology

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the remarkable achievement of Aristotle (384-322BC) in the realm of biological investigation, for which he has been called the originator of the scientific study of life. Known mainly as a philosopher and the tutor for Alexander the Great, who reportedly sent him animal specimens from his conquests, Aristotle examined a wide range of life forms while by the Sea of Marmara and then on the island of Lesbos. Some ideas, such as the the spontaneous generation of flies, did not survive later scrutiny, yet his influence was extraordinary and his work was unequalled until the early modern period.The image above is of the egg and embryo of a dogfish, one of the animals Aristotle described accurately as he recorded their development.WithArmand LeroiProfessor of Evolutionary Development Biology at Imperial College LondonMyrto HatzimichaliLecturer in Classics at the University of CambridgeAndSophia ConnellLecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson


7 Feb 2019

Rank #5

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The Mabinogion

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the eleven stories of Celtic mythology and Arthurian romance known as The Mabinogion, most of which were told and retold for generations before being written down in C14th. Among them are stories of Pwyll and Rhiannon and their son Pryderi, of Culhwch and Olwen, of the dream of the Emperor Macsen, of Lludd and Llefelys, of magic and giants and imagined history. With common themes but no single author, they project an image of the Island of Britain before the Anglo-Saxons and Normans and before Edward I's conquest of Wales. They came to new prominence, worldwide, from C19th with the translation into English by Lady Charlotte Guest aided by William Owen Pughe.The image above is of Cynon ap Clydno approaching the Castle of Maidens from the tale of Owain, or the Lady of the FountainWith Sioned DaviesProfessor in the School of Welsh at Cardiff UniversityHelen FultonProfessor of Medieval Literature at the University of BristolAndJuliette WoodAssociate Lecturer in the School of Welsh at Cardiff UniversityProducer: Simon Tillotson.


10 May 2018

Rank #6

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The Plague of Justinian

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 HaldonProfessor of Byzantine History and Hellenic Studies Emeritus at Princeton UniversityRebecca FlemmingSenior Lecturer in Classics at the University of CambridgeAndGreg WoolfDirector of the Institute of Classical Studies, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson


21 Jan 2021

Rank #7

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Crime and Punishment

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.WithSarah HudspithAssociate Professor in Russian at the University of LeedsOliver Ready Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford, Research Fellow at St Antony’s College and a translator of this novelAnd Sarah YoungAssociate Professor in Russian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson


14 Nov 2019

Rank #8

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The American Populists

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what, in C19th America's Gilded Age, was one of the most significant protest movements since the Civil War with repercussions well into C20th. Farmers in the South and Midwest felt ignored by the urban and industrial elites who were thriving as the farmers suffered droughts and low prices. The farmers were politically and physically isolated. As one man wrote on his abandoned farm, 'two hundred and fifty miles to the nearest post office, one hundred miles to wood, twenty miles to water, six inches to Hell'. They formed the Populist or People's Party to fight their cause, put up candidates for President, won several states and influenced policies. In the South, though, their appeal to black farmers stimulated their political rivals to suppress the black vote for decades and set black and poor white farmers against each other, tightening segregation. Aspects of the Populists ideas re-emerged effectively in Roosevelt's New Deal, even if they are mainly remembered now, if at all, thanks to allegorical references in The Wizard of Oz.The caricature above is of William Jennings Bryan, Populist-backed Presidential candidate.With Lawrence GoldmanProfessor of History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of LondonMara KeireLecturer in US History at the University of OxfordAndChristopher PhelpsAssociate Professor of American Studies at the University of NottinghamProducer: Simon Tillotson.


15 Jun 2017

Rank #9

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Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Central Asian polymath al-Biruni and his eleventh-century book the India.Born in around 973 in the central Asian region of Chorasmia, al-Biruni became an itinerant scholar of immense learning, a master of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and many languages. He corresponded with the age's greatest scientist, Avicenna, and made significant contributions to many fields of knowledge.In 1017 al-Biruni became a member of the court of the ruler Mahmud of Ghazna. Over the course of the next thirteen years he wrote the India, a comprehensive account of Hindu culture which was the first book about India by a Muslim scholar. It contains detailed information about Hindu religion, science and everyday life which have caused some to call it the first work of anthropology.With:James MontgomeryProfessor of Classical Arabic at the University of CambridgeHugh KennedyProfessor of Arabic in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of LondonAmira BennisonSenior Lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of CambridgeProducer: Thomas Morris.


31 Aug 2017

Rank #10

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The Mexican-American War

Melvyn and guests discuss the 1846-48 conflict after which the United States of Mexico lost half its territory to the United States of America. The US gained land covered by the states of Texas, Utah, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and part of Colorado. The outcome had a profound impact on Native Americans and led to civil war in defeated Mexico. It also raised the question of whether slavery would be legal in this acquired territory - something that would only be resolved in the US Civil War, which this victory hastened.With Frank CoglianoProfessor of American History at the University of EdinburghJacqueline Fear-SegalProfessor of American and Indigenous Histories at the University of East AngliaAndThomas RathLecturer in Latin American History at University College LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson.


28 Jun 2018

Rank #11

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss enzymes, the proteins that control the speed of chemical reactions in living organisms. Without enzymes, these reactions would take place too slowly to keep organisms alive: with their actions as catalysts, changes which might otherwise take millions of years can happen hundreds of times a second. Some enzymes break down large molecules into smaller ones, like the ones in human intestines, while others use small molecules to build up larger, complex ones, such as those that make DNA. Enzymes also help keep cell growth under control, by regulating the time for cells to live and their time to die, and provide a way for cells to communicate with each other. With Nigel RichardsProfessor of Biological Chemistry at Cardiff UniversitySarah BarryLecturer in Chemical Biology at King's College LondonAnd Jim NaismithDirector of the Research Complex at HarwellBishop Wardlaw Professor of Chemical Biology at the University of St AndrewsProfessor of Structural Biology at the University of OxfordProducer: Simon Tillotson.


1 Jun 2017

Rank #12

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Louis Pasteur

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and his extraordinary contribution to medicine and science. It is said few people have saved more lives than Pasteur. A chemist, he showed that otherwise identical molecules could exist as 'left' and 'right-handed' versions and that molecules produced by living things were always left-handed. He proposed a germ theory to replace the idea of spontaneous generation. He discovered that microorganisms cause fermentation and disease. He began the process named after him, pasteurisation, heating liquids to 50-60 C to kill microbes. He saved the beer and wine industries in France when they were struggling with microbial contamination. He saved the French silk industry when he found a way of protecting healthy silkworm eggs from disease. He developed vaccines against anthrax and rabies and helped establish immunology. Many of his ideas were developed further after his lifetime, but one of his legacies was a charitable body, the Pasteur Institute, to continue research into infectious disease.With Andrew MendelsohnReader in the School of History at Queen Mary, University of LondonAnne HardyHonorary Professor at the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicineand Michael WorboysEmeritus Professor in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester Producer: Simon Tillotson.


18 May 2017

Rank #13

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The Cultural Revolution

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 WithRana MitterProfessor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of OxfordSun PeidongVisiting Professor at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po, ParisAndJulia LovellProfessor in Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck, University of LondonProduced by Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson


17 Dec 2020

Rank #14

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The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the text and context of The Book of the Dead, also known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the ancient Egyptian collections of spells which were intended to help the recently deceased navigate the underworld. They flourished under the New Kingdom from C16th BC until the end of the Ptolemaic era in C1st BC, and drew on much earlier traditions from the walls of pyramids and on coffin cases. Almost 200 spells survive, though no one collection contains all of them, and one of the best known surrounds the weighing of the heart, the gods' final judgement of the deceased's life.With John TaylorCurator at the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British MuseumKate SpenceSenior Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology at Cambridge University and Fellow of Emmanuel Collegeand Richard ParkinsonProfessor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and Fellow of the Queen's CollegeProducer: Simon Tillotson.


27 Apr 2017

Rank #15

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Dorothy Hodgkin

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 FerryScience writer and biographer of Dorothy HodgkinJudith HowardProfessor of Chemistry at Durham UniversityandPatricia FaraFellow of Clare College, CambridgeProducer: Simon Tillotson


3 Oct 2019

Rank #16

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Thomas Paine's Common Sense

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Thomas Paine and his pamphlet "Common Sense" which was published in Philadelphia in January 1776 and promoted the argument for American independence from Britain. Addressed to The Inhabitants of America, it sold one hundred and fifty thousand copies in the first few months and is said, proportionately, to be the best-selling book in American history. Paine had arrived from England barely a year before. He vigorously attacked monarchy generally and George the Third in particular. He argued the colonies should abandon all hope of resolving their dispute with Britain and declare independence immediately. Many Americans were scandalised. More were inspired and, for Paine's vision of America's independent future, he has been called a Founding Father of the United States.With Kathleen BurkProfessor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History at University College LondonNicholas GuyattUniversity Lecturer in American History at the University of CambridgeAndPeter ThompsonAssociate Professor of American History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Cross CollegeProducer: Simon Tillotson.


21 Jan 2016

Rank #17