Early Modern In Our Time

I am a massive fan of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time programme. The range of subjects covered is truly mind-boggling, and the BBC has been really great at archiving the series over time: the website is an absolute treasure trove, and I love that you can search by period as well as by topic. The programme makers assume a certain level of engagement on the part of the listener, so you rarely find yourself feeling talked down to. I’ve learned a lot about subjects I’d never assumed I’d be interested in, all because they appeared to me in the form of an IOT podcast. Also, I always seem to have a commute of about 40 minutes, so a single episode enlivens my morning journey – but then I know other people who listen to it whilst cooking, baking and ironing. It’s a really handy way to get to know an unfamiliar subject – or to get really riled about what’s been left out of the discussion of a familiar subject, I suppose!

For newcomers, the format is simple – the host Melvyn Bragg leads a discussion on a given topic with three experts for 40 minutes, broadcast live on Thursday mornings. For the history/religion/literature/culture ones, this usually takes the form of a bit of background to the topic, discussion of the key aspects relating to the person/event/work at hand, and then a brief discussion of impact and legacy. Recently, subscribers to the podcast sometimes get a bonus discussion of a few minutes, after the live broadcast has ended, where the experts are asked about the things that didn’t get covered.

For scholars and students, it’s certainly not perfect – 40 minutes is not very long to get into something, it’s even shorter than the length of a standard lecture, and so things necessarily get truncated or edged out. Understandably, there’s a bit of a tendency to go for established names when in some instances there are other (younger, less well-known?) scholars working more obviously on the topic in question. But it does allow for discussion between the contributors (which tends to be robust rather than heated) and so it gives at least a general impression of how academic debates unfold.

I’d love to know more about how the topics are chosen – I’m not surprised at the focus on English material, and to be be fair, there seems to be a pretty good effort to consider non-Eurocentric topics in recent series. But pretty much nothing on seventeenth century France? No Louis XIV? No Thirty Years War  -although that could come back to the ‘what can you reasonably do in 40 minutes’ issue.

Also, there’s little chance for the contributors to explain what their knowledge is based on – that becomes problematic for students wanting to use In Our Time broadcasts when writing essays and dissertations. There’s no easy way to footnote the content of a podcast. However the supporting website has begun to provide a reading list so people can follow up the issues raised in the programme, and there are now links to the contributors’ web pages.

For the interested amateur, or someone wanting to refresh their memory, or just feel productive on their morning commute, it’s hard to beat In Our Time. Thankfully, the early modern has been pretty well-served over the years: find a selection of In Our Time episodes that will interest scholars and students of early modern France, Britain and Europe after the jump. Let me know if I’ve overlooked any of your favourites, if you’re a big IOT fan, and if there are similar kinds of broadcast that you’d recommend.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre –  with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Mark Greengrass & Penny Roberts

The Field of the Cloth of Gold – with Steven Gunn, John Guy & Penny Roberts

Calvinism – with Justin Champion, Susan Hardman & Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Fire of London – with Lisa Jardine, Vanessa Harding & Jonathan Sawday

The Book of Common Prayer – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Alexandra Walsham and Martin Palmer

Erasmus – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy & Jill Kraye

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Justin Champion & Elizabeth Evenden

The Jesuits – with Nigel Aston, Simon Ditchfield & Dame Olwen Hufton

Toleration – with Justin Champion, David Wootton and Sarah Barber

Witchcraft – with Alison Rowlands, Lyndal Roper & Malcolm Gaskill

The Battle of Lepanto – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Kate Fleet and Noel Malcolm

The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror – Mike Broers, Rebecca Sprang & Tim Blanning

The Dutch East India Company – with Anne Goldgar, Chris Nierstrasz & Helen Paul

Holbein at the Tudor Court – with Susan Foister, John Guy & Maria Hayward

The Medici – with Evelyn Welch, Robert Black and Catherine Fletcher

The French Revolution’s Legacy – with Stefan Collini, Anne Janowitz & Andrew Roberts

The Divine Right of Kings – with Justin Champion, Tom Healy & Clare Jackson

The Death of Elizabeth I – with John Guy, Clare Jackson & Helen Hackett

The Dissolution of the Monasteries – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Diane Purkiss & George Bernard

Constantinople Siege and Fall – with Roger Crowley, Judith Herrin & Colin Imber

The Spanish Armada – with Diane Purkiss, Mia Rodriguez-Salgado & Nicholas Rodger

The Tudor State – with John Guy, Christopher Haigh and Christine Carpenter

The Trial of Charles I – with Justin Champion, Diane Purkiss and David Wootton

The Diet of Worms – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, David Bagchi & Charlotte Methuen

The Siege of Munster – with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Charlotte Methuen & Lucy Wooding



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Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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