299 episodes

Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts

The Forum BBC World Service

    • Society & Culture
    • 4.6 • 217 Ratings

Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts

    Samurai: Japan’s elite warrior class

    Samurai: Japan’s elite warrior class

    The reality behind the stereotypical image of Japan’s fearsome elite warriors is more nuanced than we are led to believe. It is thought the samurai developed as a social class in medieval Japan, when the term could encompass lowly foot soldiers or mercenaries, and often untrustworthy ones at that. A far cry from the skilled fighters who supposedly pledged undying loyalty to their lord, and followed a code of honour.

    In fact, it was during peacetime that the image of the samurai came to be defined when their role as warriors was no longer necessary. During Japan’s aggressive imperial expansion in the early 20th Century, the samurai ideal was once again manipulated for nationalistic purposes.

    Rajan Datar’s guests include Michael Wert, who has published several books on Japan’s warrior class, including Samurai: A Concise History. He is associate professor of East Asian History at Marquette University in Milwaukee; Marcia Yonemoto, professor and hair of the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the author of The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, which examines the role of women in Japan’s military-bureaucratic state; and Polina Serebriakova, whose doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge in the UK focuses on warrior leaders in medieval Japan.

    Producer: Fiona Clampin

    (Image: Illustration portrait of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Credit: Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

    • 39 min
    Ice cream: A cool history

    Ice cream: A cool history

    There are almost as many ice cream origin stories as there are flavours, but where did the frozen treat really come from, and who invented it?

    Rajan Datar explores the dessert’s murky history, from the harvesting and flavouring of snow in China and the Middle East thousands of years ago, to the experimental kitchens of the European aristocracy.

    Ice cream’s evolution has, of course, closely followed that of refrigeration – we learn why salt was crucial for keeping early versions cold, and hear about the daring entrepreneur who began the global ice trade. Plus, who really invented the ice cream cone?

    Producer: Simon Tulett

    Contributors:

    Robin Weir, author of ‘Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide’;
    Najmieh Batmanglij, Iranian-American chef and cookbook author;
    Dr Melissa Calaresu, Cambridge University.

    (Picture: A woman licking an ice cream. Credit: Getty images)

    To find out how to make ice cream yourself visit www.bbc.co.uk/food/ice_cream

    • 43 min
    The Popol Vuh: Central American epic that survived Spanish conquest

    The Popol Vuh: Central American epic that survived Spanish conquest

    Mythological sagas are often fantastical and push the imagination to the limit but the Popol Vuh, which originates in what is Guatemala today, has a gallery of extraordinary characters both good and bad. They get involved in a series of mind-boggling battles and challenges and this eventually leads to the creation of the human race. The Maya K’iche’ story of the Popol Vuh has come down to us in an 18th-Century transcription and Spanish translation by a priest called Francisco Ximenez, and as with many ancient stories, there are tantalising questions about the history of the manuscript and the origins of the tale itself.

    Rajan Datar traces the meanings and significance of the Popol Vuh with the help of Frauke Sachse who is director of Pre-Columbian Studies at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington DC; Iyaxel Cojti Ren, professor at the University of Texas; Allen Christenson who is professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah as well as an ethnographer and author of a new translation and critical edition of the Popol Vuh.
    The reader is Florencia Cordeu.

    (Image: A Mayan ball player at the Great Ball Court in Chichen-Itza. Credit: Independent Picture Service/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

    • 39 min
    The Koryo Kingdom: Medieval dynasty that united Korea

    The Koryo Kingdom: Medieval dynasty that united Korea

    Today Korea is divided between North and South, but the founding of the Koryo Kingdom in the 10th Century was the first time the peninsula was truly united and when a sense of nationhood emerged. The Koryo Kingdom is remembered for some of the finest cultural achievements in the country’s history; it developed the world’s first printing press – 200 years before the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg came up with his own version, and it is also a period marked by beautiful ceramics and art. But what is less well known is how progressive its politics and society were; promotion was based on merit, women were given greater rights, and monarchs ruled through co-operation. It was also a turbulent time with personal intrigue and back stabbing at court, and constant threats of foreign invasion.

    Rajan Datar finds out more about the Koryo Kingdom. He is joined by Sang’ah Kim, the Korean Collections’ Curator at the British Museum in London; Dr Charlotte Horlyck, reader in Korean Art History at SOAS, University of London, who has written about the collecting of Koryo Art in the early 20th Century; Edward (Ned) Shultz, professor emeritus in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii, and Dr Juhn Ahn, associate professor in Buddhism and Korean studies at the University of Michigan in the United States and author of Buddhas and Ancestors: Religion and Wealth in 14th Century Korea.

    Producer: Anne Khazam

    (Photo: Trinity, gilded bronze statues from Goryeo dynasty, 10th-11th Century, Korean civilisation. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

    • 39 min
    Insulin: The discovery that transformed diabetic care

    Insulin: The discovery that transformed diabetic care

    The story of the discovery and development of insulin is a tale full of twists and turns, Nobel prizes and fierce rivalries. Scientists in the late 19th Century established the connection between the pancreas and diabetes, isolated the hormone insulin, and even patented the extract that lowered blood sugar. But it was not until a Canadian team published results in 1922 of their attempts to inject insulin into a patient that diabetes was transformed from a fatal condition to a manageable one.

    Bridget Kendall is joined by science historian Dr Alison Li, who has studied the life of one of insulin's early pioneers in her book J.B. Collip and the development of medical research in Canada; Dr Viktor Joergens, a retired diabetologist who for more than two decades was the executive director of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. He is also the co-author of Unveiling Diabetes: Milestones in Diabetology; and Dr Kersten Hall, visiting fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds, and the author of Insulin - The Crooked Timber: A History From Thick Brown Muck to Wall Street Gold.

    Producer: Fiona Clampin

    (Photo: Charles Herbert Best, Canadian physiologist who assisted Frederick Banting to isolate Insulin, in his laboratory. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

    • 39 min
    Eunuchs and empires

    Eunuchs and empires

    Since ancient times the practice of castrating pre-pubescent boys, and sometimes men, was thought to make them loyal servants, suitable for roles at the heart of many imperial courts. Some historians believe this began with human slaves who were treated in the same way as animals – as lesser beings to be managed and controlled – with no free choice.

    The effects of castration on the male body – the loss of testosterone being the principal one – had a huge impact on how eunuchs have been viewed throughout history. Being unable to father children who could threaten lines of succession, certain eunuchs rose to power precisely because of their exclusive access to the inner workings of empires. Castrated men were also prized for their singing voices in 17th and 18th century Europe, as Dr Brianna Robertson-Kirkland explains.

    Bridget Kendall discusses this painful episode with Norman Kutcher, Professor in the Department of History at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in the US. He specialises in imperial Chinese history, and he’s the author of Eunuch and Emperor in the Great Age of Qing Rule; Dr Kathryn Reusch, conservation technician at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who's published widely on the topic of castration in relation to archaeological remains; and Shaun Tougher, Professor of Late Roman and Byzantine History at Cardiff University. He’s written many books and articles on eunuchs, including The Roman Castrati: Eunuchs in the Roman Empire.

    Produced by Fiona Clampin for the BBC World Service.

    (Photo: A group of court eunuchs in a Tang Dynasty mural from the tomb of Prince Zhanghuai (circa 618-907). Credit: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

    • 39 min

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5
217 Ratings

217 Ratings

Azucarious ,

Top notch!

Thanks for all the wonderful work! Fascinating topics with engaging presentation.

Peanutforlife ,

Entertaining variety of topics!

Love all of the different topics of discussion. Nice flow, and the hosts/speakers have pleasant voices to listen to. Thank you for keeping me curious, and getting me through my repetitive manufacturing job!

Latin teacher ,

excellent, adult topics

Knowledgeable adult conversation on history and other topics. No trendy bits. Along the lines of BBC’s “In Our Time.”

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