One of the best radio programs for history lovers, In Our Time runs every Thursday at 9:00 am and 9:30 pm. The show deals with a wide variety of topics related to history, from the battle of Thermopylae to the Spanish Civil War. Other episodes deal with topics related to literature, philosophy, religion and science. Programs that deal with the Middle Ages are listed below. For more information, please visit the In Our Time website. Listening to these episodes requires RealPlayer.
If you look hard at the English statute book you will find the following lines:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land”.
These words have been there for 794 years because they are clause 39 of Magna Carta. Issued by King John in 1215, Magna Carta is seen as the foundation of English law and liberty. It includes clauses on universal justice but also on the fishing rights in the upper Thames, and whether Magna Carta is a true proclamation of law or a hotchpotch of baronial ambition has been debated ever since. One thing is certain, it was written in French before it was written in English.
One night in Baghdad, the 9th century Caliph Al-Mamun was visited by a dream. The philosopher Aristotle appeared to him, saying that the reason of the Greeks and the revelation of Islam were not opposed. On waking, the Caliph demanded that all of Aristotle’s works be translated into Arabic. And they were.
And it wasn’t just Aristotle. Over the next 200 years Greek philosophy, medicine, engineering and maths were all poured and sometimes squeezed into Arabic. It was a translation movement of extraordinary depth and scope so that, hundreds of years before Aristotle reached the West, the intellect of Greece was woven into the tapestry of Arab thought.
In 632 the prophet Muhammad died and left behind the nascent religion of Islam among a few tribes in the Arabian Desert. They were relatively small in number, they were divided among themselves and they were surrounded by vast and powerful empires.
Yet within 100 years Arab armies controlled territory from Northern Spain to Southern Iran and Islamic ideas had begun to profoundly refashion the societies they touched. It is one of the most extraordinary and significant events in world history.
But how did the Arab armies achieve such extensive victories, how did they govern the people they conquered and what was the relationship between the achievements of the Arabs and the religious beliefs they carried with them?
In October 1347, a Genoese trading ship arrived at the busy port of Messina in Sicily. Readying to dock, it would have nosed in among many similar ships doing similar things. But this ship was special because this ship had rats and the rats had fleas and the fleas had plague. Within four years, over a third of the population of Europe lay dead. This was the Black Death and its terrible progress was captured by the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio who declared “in those years a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat”.
The Black Death devastated Europe, changed its economics and broke up its society, but did the disease also bring subtler transformations in its art, its religion and its intellectual outlook?
‘Norman saw on English oak,
On English neck a Norman yoke;
Norman spoon in English dish,
And England ruled as Normans wish.’
Taken from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, these words encapsulate the idea of ‘the Norman Yoke’ – that the Battle of Hastings sparked the cruel oppression of Anglo-Saxon liberties by a foreign ruling class. Certainly, William the Conqueror writ large his occupying power in castles and cathedrals, but how true is the idea of a Norman yoke or were tales of beastly Normans and suffering Saxons invented by later generations looking for the origins of Englishness?
When he was an old man, Michael Sherbrook remembered in writing the momentous events of his youth: “All things of price were either spoiled, plucked away or defaced to the uttermost…it seemed that every person bent himself to filch and spoil what he could. Nothing was spared but the ox-houses and swincotes…”
He was talking about the destruction of Roche Abbey, but it could have been Lewes or Fountains, Glastonbury, Tintern or Walsingham, names that haunt the religious past as their ruins haunt the landscape.
These were the monasteries, suddenly and for many shockingly, destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII. But was the destruction of monastic culture in this country an overdue religious reform or the grandest of larcenies?
In modern day Iran, just down the road from the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, there is a picture carved into a rock. It depicts a king, triumphant on horseback, facing two defeated enemies. This is no pair of petty princes, they are Roman Emperors – Philip and Valerian – and the king towering above them is Shapur I of the Sassanian Empire. So complete was his victory that Shapur is reputed to have used Valerian as a footstool when mounting his horse.
Founded in 226 AD, the Sassanian Empire lasted over 400 years. It traded goods from Constantinople to Beijing, handed regular defeats to the Roman army and only fell to the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. It still influences Persian identity to this day.
Charles VI, a madman and the King of France, was dead and his kingdom hung in the balance. The French aristocracy were at war with each other, English soldiers occupied Paris and Charles’ crown was up for grabs, contested by his own son, the Dauphin, and the seven-year-old King of England, Henry VI. But as the English army pressed down through France, the only thing that seemed to stand between the English King and the French Crown was the city of Orleans.
Looking back on the events that followed, the Duke of Bedford wrote to King Henry VI and declared “all things prospered for you till the time of the siege of Orleans, taken in hand God knoweth by what advice”.
But what happened at the siege of Orleans, did Joan of Arc really rescue the city and how significant was the battle in changing the course of the 100 Years’ War and the subsequent histories of England and France?
Genghis Khan – born Temujin in the 12th Century, he was cast out by his tribe when he was just a child and left to struggle for survival on the harsh Steppes of what is now Mongolia. From these humble beginnings he went on to become Genghis Khan, leader of the greatest continuous land-based empire the world has ever seen. His conquered territories stretched from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Manchuria, from the Siberian forest to what is now Afghanistan.
He was a charismatic commander and a shrewd military tactician. He was swift to promote those who served him well, ignoring race or creed, but vengeful to those who crossed him, killing every inhabitant of a resistant town, even the cats and dogs. Generally regarded as barbarians by their enemies, the Mongol armies were in fact disciplined and effective.
So how did Genghis create such an impressive fighting force? How did he draw together such diverse peoples to create a wealthy and successful Empire? And what was his legacy for the territories he conquered?
When Sultan Mehmet the Second rode into the city of Constantinople on a white horse in 1453, it marked the end of a thousand years of the Byzantine Empire. After holding out for 53 days, the city had fallen. And as one contemporary witness described it: “The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm”. It was the end of the classical world and the crowning of an Ottoman Empire that would last until 1922.
Constantinople was a city worth fighting for – its position as a bridge between Europe and Asia and its triangular shape with a deep water port made it ideal both for trade and defence. It was also rumoured to harbour great wealth. Whoever conquered it would reap rewards both material and political. Earlier attempts to capture the city had largely failed – so why did the Ottomans succeed this time? What difference did the advances in weaponry such as cannons make in the outcome of the battle? And what effect did the fall of Constantinople have on the rest of the Christian world?
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” – the opening words of a rousing sermon, said to be by John Ball, which fires a broadside at the deeply hierarchical nature of fourteenth century England. Ball, along with Wat Tyler, was one of the principal leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt – his sermon ends: “I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty”. The subsequent events of June 1381 represent a pivotal and thrilling moment in England’s history, characterised by murder and mayhem, beheadings and betrayal, a boy-King and his absent uncle, and a general riot of destruction and death. By most interpretations, the course of this sensational story threatened to undermine the very fabric of government as an awareness of deep injustice was awakened in the general populace. But who were the rebels and how close did they really come to upending the status quo? And just how exaggerated are claims that the Peasants’ Revolt laid the foundations of the long-standing English tradition of radical egalitarianism?
In 800 AD on Christmas Day in Rome, Pope Leo III proclaimed Charlemagne Emperor. According to the Frankish historian Einhard, Charlemagne would never have set foot in St Peter’s that day if he had known that the Pope intended to crown him. But Charlemagne accepted his coronation with magnanimity. Regarded as the first of the Holy Roman Emperors, Charlemagne became a touchstone for legitimacy until the institution was brought to an end by Napoleon in 1806.
A Frankish King who held more territory in Western Europe than any man since the Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s lands extended from the Atlantic to Vienna and from Northern Germany to Rome. His reign marked a period of enormous cultural and literary achievement. But at its foundation lay conquest, conversion at the point of a sword and a form of Christianity that was obsessed with sin, discipline and correction.
How did Charlemagne become the most powerful man in Western Europe and how did he finance his conquest? Why was he able to draw Europe’s most impressive scholars to his court? How successful was he in his quest to reform his church and educate the clergy? And can the Carolingian period really be called a Renaissance?
The Abbasid Caliphs were the dynastic rulers of the Islamic world between the middle of the eighth and the tenth centuries. They headed a Muslim empire that extended from Tunisia through Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Persia to Uzbekistan and the frontiers of India. But unlike previous conquerors, the Abbasid Caliphs presided over a multicultural empire where conversion was a relatively peaceful business.
As Vikings raided the shores of Britain, the Abbasids were developing sophisticated systems of government, administration and court etiquette. Their era saw the flowering of Arabic philosophy, mathematics and Persian literature. The Abbasids were responsible for patronising the translation of Classical Greek texts and transmitting them back to a Europe emerging from the Dark Ages.
So who were the Abbasid Caliphs and how did they come to power? What was their cultural significance? What factors can account for their decline and fall? And why do they represent a Golden Age of Islamic civilisation?
In the spring of 1520 six thousand Englishmen and women packed their bags and followed their King across the sea to France. They weren’t part of an invasion force but were attendants to King Henry VIII and travelling to take part in the greatest and most conspicuous display of wealth and culture that Europe had ever seen. They were met by Francis I of France and six thousand French noblemen and servants on English soil in Northern France and erected their temporary palaces, elaborate tents, jousting pavilions and golden fountains spewing forth red, white and claret wine in the Val D’Or. For just over two weeks they created a temporary town the size of Norwich, England’s second city, on the ‘Camp du Drap D’Or’, or Field of the Cloth of Gold.
What drove the French and the English to create such an extraordinary event? What did the two sides do when they got there, and what – if anything – was achieved?
Abelard and Heloise – love, sex and theology in 12th century Paris – The story of Abelard and Heloise is a tale of literature and philosophy, theology and scandal, and above all love in the high Middle Ages. They were two of the greatest minds of their time and Abelard, a famous priest and teacher, wrote of how their affair began in his biography, Historia Calamitatum, “Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts”.
Years later, when she was an Abbess at the head of her own convent, Heloise wrote to Abelard: “Even during the celebration of Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers”.
The Battle of Edington in 878 is taken by many to be the great founding Battle of England. It is the conflict in which Alfred, King of Wessex, came back from an impossible position to defeat the Vikings and launch a grand project to establish a new entity of Englishness, what he called the ‘Anglecynn’ in the South of the island of Britain.
How did Alfred manage to defeat the Vikings when he had been so thoroughly routed? What motivated his project to fashion Englishness? And without Edington, would there be no England?
In The Prince, Machiavelli’s great manual of power, he wrote, “since men love as they themselves determine but fear as their ruler determines, a wise prince must rely upon what he and not others can control”. He also advised, “One must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Those who simply act like lions are stupid. So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage”.
What times was Machiavelli living through to take such a brutal perspective on power? How did he gain the experience to provide this advice to rulers? And was he really the amoral, or even evil figure that so many have liked to paint him?
In 731 AD, in the most far-flung corner of the known universe, a book was written that represented a height of scholarship and erudition that was not to be equalled for centuries to come. It was called the Ecclesiastical History of the Angle Peoples and its author was Bede. A long way from Rome, in a monastery at Jarrow in the North East of England, his works cast a light across the whole of Western Civilisation and Bede became a bestseller, an internationally renowned scholar and eventually a saint. His Ecclesiastical History has been in copy or in print ever since it was written in the eighth century and his edition of the Bible remains the Catholic Church’s most authoritative Latin version to this day.
How did Bede achieve such ascendancy from such an obscure part of Christendom? And what was so remarkable about his work?
“Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,
With grace and myyt of chivalry;
The God for hym wrouyt marvelously,
Wherefore Englonde may calle, and cry
Deo gratias redde pro victoria.”
The great victory was Agincourt as described in the Agincourt Carol , when the ‘happy few’ of Henry V’s English army vanquished the French forces on St Crispin’s Day 1415.
It is a battle that has resounded through the centuries and has been used by so many to mean so much. But how important was the battle in the strategic struggles of the time? What were the pressures at home that drove Henry’s march through France? And what is the cultural legacy of Agincourt?
400 BC to 200 AD is known as the Axial Age, when great civilisations in Asia and the Mediterranean forged the ideas that dominated the next two thousand years. In China the equivalent to the Golden Age in Greece was the Warring States Period. It was a time of political turmoil, economic change and intellectual ferment that laid the foundations for the first Chinese Empire. Astronomy was systematised, the principles of Yin and Yang were invented, Confucianism grew and Taoism emerged, as a hundred schools of thought are reputed to have vied for the patronage of rival kings.
Why was a period of war such a fertile age for culture and thought, what kinds of ideas were developed and how do they still inform the thinking of nearly a fifth of the world’s population?
Edward Gibbon wrote of the decline of the Roman Empire, “While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol.”
But how far is the growth of Christianity implicated in the destruction of the great culture of Rome? How critical were the bawdy incursions of the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths and the Vandals to the fall of the Roman Empire? Should we even be talking in terms of blame and decline at all?
St Augustine wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, Edward Gibbon famously tackled it in the eighteenth and it is a question that preoccupies us today.
The first printed version of the Robin Hood story begins like this:
“Lithe and Lysten, gentylmen/That be of frebore blode
I shall tell of a good yeman/His name was Robyn Hode/
Robyn was a proude outlawe/Whyles he walked on grounde
So curteyse an outlawe as he was one/Was never none yfound”.
Robin Hood is described as a ‘yeoman’ – a freeman, and though he is courteous there is not even a hint of the aristocrat he later became. In fact, in the early ballads there is no Maid Marian, no Friar Tuck, Robin does not live in the time of bad Prince John, or the crusades, does not lead a large and merry gang, and certainly never robs the rich to give to the poor. Though he always remains a trickster, and a man with a bow in a wood.
Why does this most malleable of myths go through so many changes and so many centuries? And was there ever a real outlaw Robin Hood on whom the ballads, plays, novels and movies are based?
About 2000 years ago, Tacitus noted that “the climate is wretched”, Herodian said, “the atmosphere in the country is always gloomy”, Dio said “they live in tents unclothed and unshod, and share their women” and the historian Strabo said on no account should the Romans make it part of the Empire because it will never pay its way. But invade they did, and Britain became part of the Roman Empire for almost four hundred years.
But what brought Romans to Britain and what made them stay? Did they prove the commentators wrong and make Britain amount to something in the Empire? Did the Romans come and go without much trace, or do those four centuries still colour our national life and character today?
The medieval kingdom of Bohemia was at the crossroads of Europe and, during the 15th century, at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. Under Charles IV, its cosmopolitan capital Prague became a cultural and intellectual centre, attracting scholars and artists from all over Europe.
But Prague was awash with religious and political dissent. At its core stood the anarchist philosopher Jan Hus, whose ideas anticipated the Lutheran Reformation by a full century. He was burnt at the stake, but his followers, the Hussites, embarked on a series of wars that continue to mark the Czech and German characters even today.
Why was Bohemia such a crucible of dissent and how were its ideas exported to the rest of Europe? What did it mean to be Bohemian then and how was the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, with its ferment of religious, national and ethnic ideologies, divided up to form the states of modern Central Europe?
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. This famous phrase is written above the gate of Hell in a 14th century poem by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The poem is called the Divine Comedy and Hell is known as Dante’s Inferno.
The warning is well made, for beyond it is a panoply of horror – severed heads, talking trees, demons, monsters and punishments both cruel and unusual.
But the Inferno is more than just a journey into the macabre – it is a map of medieval spirituality, a treasure-house of classical learning and an acute study of human psychology. It is also one of the greatest poems ever written.
Once upon a time a wealthy merchant grew hot in the sun and sat down under a tree. Having eaten a date, he threw aside the stone, and immediately there appeared before him a Genie of enormous height, who, holding a drawn sword in his hand, approached him, and said, rise, that I may kill thee.
This is from The Arabian Nights, a collection of miraculous tales including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor. Forged in the medieval Arab world, it became so popular in Europe that the 18th century Gothic writer Horace Walpole declared “Read Sinbad the Sailor’s Voyages and you will grow sick of Aeneas”.
“In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Canterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sundry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Canterbury wolden ryde.”
Geoffrey Chaucer immortalised the medieval pilgrimage and the diversity of fourteenth century English society in his Canterbury Tales . As each pilgrim takes his, or her, turn to tell their tale on the road to Canterbury, Chaucer brings to life the voices of a knight, a miller, a Wife of Bath and many more besides.
Chaucer was born the son of a London vintner, yet rose to high office in the court of Richard II. He travelled throughout France and Italy where he came into contact with the works of Dante, Boccaccio, Machaut and Froissart. He translated Boethius, wrote dream poetry, a defence of women and composed the tragic masterpiece Troilus and Criseyde.
So what do we know of the man who is called the Father of English Literature? How did he introduce the themes of continental writing to an English speaking audience? And why does his poetry still seem to speak so directly to us today?
He was sired by an incubus and born of a virgin; he was a prophet, a shape-shifter, a king-maker and a mad man of the woods. In a literary career spanning 1500 years, Merlin, or originally Myrddin, put the sword in the stone, built Stonehenge, knew the truth behind the Holy Grail and discovered the Elixir of Life. “Beware Merlin for he knows all things by the devil’s craft” say the poisoners in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur; but he is also on the side of the good and is almost Christ-like in some of the versions of his tale, and his prophesies were pored over by the medieval Church.
Who was Merlinus Ambrosius, as he is sometimes known? Where does his legend spring from and how has it been appropriated and adapted over time?
For hundreds of years in the Middle Ages, the only way to read Ovid was through the prism of a Christian moralising text. Ovid’s sensual tales of metamorphosis and pagan gods were presented as veiled allegories, and the famous story of Zeus descending to Danae in a shower of gold was explained as the soul receiving divine illumination. But in 1478 Botticelli finished Primavera, the first major project on a mythological theme for a thousand years, and by 1554 Titian completed a very different version of Danae - commissioned by a Cardinal, no less – where she expectantly awaits her union with Zeus in what is a nakedly sexual pose.
What happened to bring the myths and eroticism of antiquity back into the culture of Europe? And how was it possible for a Church that was prosecuting for heresy to exalt in pagan imagery, even in the Vatican itself?