19 episodes

Monthly series in which historical novelist Sarah Dunant delves into the past for stories and moments that help frame the present, bringing to life worlds that span the centuries.

When Greeks Flew Kites BBC

    • History

Monthly series in which historical novelist Sarah Dunant delves into the past for stories and moments that help frame the present, bringing to life worlds that span the centuries.

    Beyond Reason

    Beyond Reason

    This month, Sarah Dunant looks at what history can tell us about irrationality. Conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination movements and climate change denial are modern examples of ideas that stubbornly cling on in the face of facts.

    Drawing on a range of historical moments, Sarah scrutinises the idea of the rational and irrational, showing that the boundary between the two is complicated.

    Ohio University’s Myrna Perez Sheldon describes a 1981 court case in Alabama which saw the muscle-flexing of a newly powerful Creationist movement, and one which blindsided liberal scientific consensus.

    Political theorist Hugo Drochon delves into an early conspiracy theory, born both in the chaotic, plot-ridden aftermath of the French Revolution but also within the arch-rational framework of the Enlightenment.

    Agnes Arnold-Forster of the University of Roehampton traces the roots of the anti-vaccination movement back to the compulsory vaccination legislation and ensuing riots of 19th century England, arguing that history shows the question of mistrust and social disconnection between people and elites is key to understanding what might seem to be irrational behaviour.

    And Elsa Richardson from the University of Strathclyde takes us into the lives and minds of the isolated island communities of Highland Scotland, demonstrating the accepted, normal and rational status that Second Sight - a form of prophetic vision had for both the Gaelic inhabitants and three centuries of curious Anglophone scientists.

    Readers: Karina Fernandez and Gary MacKay
    Presenter: Sarah Dunant
    Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
    Executive Producer: David Prest
    A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

    • 27 min
    Consider the Walrus: what can history tell us about the climate crisis?

    Consider the Walrus: what can history tell us about the climate crisis?

    This month, Sarah Dunant looks to the past to help us think about the most pressing issue facing the world today - climate change. Although the problem is a relatively modern one, humans have been grappling with the damage that they inflict on the environment throughout history.

    Scientists and campaigners are calling for urgent measures to halt the climate and ecological crises. While history might not be able to solve those problems directly it can tell us something about why governments and leaders do take action.

    Alice Bell was a historian of science and now works for the climate charity 10:10. She tells the story of Greta Thunberg’s ancestor Svante Arhennius, the Swedish scientist whose work first discovered the impact that carbon dioxide emissions could have on global temperature.

    Bathsheba Demuth of Brown University tells the extraordinary story of how cold war national security concerns on the Arctic Soviet and US border led two superpowers to recognise the importance of the walrus, halting their drastic overhunting.

    The University of Stirling’s Phil Slavin shows how environmental legislation and concern about clean air predates the industrial revolution by seven centuries, in the form of Edward I’s pioneering clean air legislation banning the burning of sea-coal, a concern that was only deepened by the impact of the Black Death.

    And the foresight of the Venetian Empire is explained by Joyce Chaplin of Harvard University, who details the meticulous planning and conservation of wood necessary to preserve its naval power and status for future generations.

    Readers: Ruby Richardson and Peter Marinker
    Presenter: Sarah Dunant
    Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
    Executive Producer: David Prest
    A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

    • 27 min
    Fake History

    Fake History

    This month, Sarah Dunant explores the history of fake history.

    In March this year, the Christchurch attacker invoked a twisted interpretation of medieval history and the crusades to justify his terrorist attack on a mosque. In this programme, Dr Levi Roach contextualises the Battle of Tours, the historical event invoked by the Christchurch attacker, and explains how groups on the extremes, especially in the digital realm, are able to misuse and misrepresent history for their ideological ends.

    Fake history and contested narratives are nothing new. Since history has been recorded, the past has been massaged, misread, selectively interpreted or simply invented, in order to justify ideology, politics, or cultural identity.

    Egyptologist Richard Parkinson dissects the dangers of well-intentionally reading LGBT history in the ancient world, and argues that our political beliefs prime us to see what we want to see.

    Professor Margaret MacMillan charts how the rise of nationalism in the 19th century spurred on the creative reinterpretation of past events to give young and fragile countries an identity to rally around.

    Professor Audrey Truschke unpicks a piece of 17th century Indian history that has, for centuries, been used by all sides to justify their political views, and which has only become more contested, toxic, and dangerous in the modern world - catching the historian themselves in the middle of it.

    Reader: Peter Marinker
    Presenter: Sarah Dunant
    Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
    Executive Producer: David Prest
    A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

    • 27 min
    Into the World

    Into the World

    At a moment when Brexit and our carbon footprints are prompting us to reassess what it means to move around the world, Sarah Dunant looks at the long history of travel and the ways it has enchanted and alarmed us across the centuries.

    The anxieties over young Tudor travellers returning radicalised from Catholic Europe was a phenomenon that gripped England after the break with Rome. Nandini Das argues that fears over travel helped to define a nation. 

    Professor Eric Zuelow shows how the Nazi regime turned travel into a highly sophisticated propaganda tool, organising tours and trips specifically designed to cement ideas of racial superiority and national identity. 

    In the Middle Ages, travel is seen to be a startlingly tolerant and cosmopolitan experience, as the naturally curious medieval mind seeks to expand the borders of its world in a spirit of generosity. Whether the fantastical journeys of Sir John Mandeville or the diplomatic missions of Dominican Friars to Mongol Kings, Sebastian Sobecki explains how new discoveries were always understood through their existing religious and cultural lenses.

    And as the destructive nature of travel and excessive footfall becomes clearer, John Slight explains how the new travel technology of the 19th century led to an explosion in the number of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, threatening the infrastructure, political stability and even its physical environment, as this small town crumbled under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of visitors.

    Presenter: Sarah Dunant
    Readers: Karina Fernandez and Keith Wickham

    Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
    Executive Producer: David Prest

    A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

    • 27 min
    The Shame Game

    The Shame Game

    Shame is back.

    This month, Sarah Dunant delves into the long and deep history of shame, exploring how it has shaped our lives and behaviour at every point in history. Whether it’s thieves on display in the medieval stocks or the forcible head-shaving of French women suspected of fraternising with the Nazis, shame has always been at the centre of society’s attempts to regulate itself.

    But the potency of this most raw of emotions can sometimes prove a double-edged sword.

    Oxford Brookes' Professor David Nash explains how shaming rituals and "rough music" were a widespread and common feature of European community life right up to the nineteenth century.

    Dr Mary Flannery of Oxford University describes how medieval women were instructed and encouraged to feel shame in order to shape their behaviour, and looks at the example of "Jane Shore" and her notorious walk of shame.

    The extraordinary and troubling public shaming and shaving of thousands of woman accused of collaboration in occupied France is explored by Charlotte Walmsley.

    And the lifelong historian of shame, Peter Stearns at George Mason University in Virginia considers the history of corporate shaming and what happens when people (and presidents) just won't feel shame.

    At a time when shame is back as a force on the public stage, but also an apparently alien concept to some of our political leaders, Sarah looks to the history of shame to think about how we might wield or be wary of it today.

    Readers: Karina Fernandez
    Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
    Executive Producer: David Prest
    A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

    • 27 min
    Deadlock

    Deadlock

    Sarah Dunant presents a monthly dive into stories from the past that might help us make sense of today.

    This month, as the gears of government grind to a standstill on both sides of the Atlantic, Sarah looks to historical deadlocks and the sometimes radical ways they were resolved.

    From the elder statesman called from his plough to become Rome’s first benign dictator, through the random selection of citizens resolving bitter conflicts in Imperial China, Medieval Florence and beyond, to the figure of St Hild the Anglo-Saxon woman whose grace in defeat sealed the future of Christianity in Britain - Sarah traces stories of paralysed systems and deep divisions, to shed a little light on how today’s entrenched leaders and struggling democracies might find a route out of impasse.

    Sarah’s guests are:
    Professor Natalia Sobrevilla Perea, University of Kent
    Professor Yves Sintomer, University of Paris 8
    Dr Hetta Howes, City, University of London
    Dr Luke Pitcher, University of Oxford

    Presenter: Sarah Dunant
    Readers: Keith Wickham and Karina Fernandez

    Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
    Executive Producer: David Prest

    A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

    • 27 min

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