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BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg

In Our Time

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

In Our Time

  • Karma

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the doctrine of Karma as developed initially among Hindus, Jains and Buddhists in India from the first millennium BCE. Common to each is an idea, broadly, that you reap what you sow: how you act in this world has consequences either for your later life or your future lives, depending on your view of rebirth and transmigration. From this flow different ideas including those about free will, engagement with the world or disengagement, the nature of ethics and whether intention matters, and these ideas continue to develop today.


    Monima Chadha Professor of Indian Philosophy and Tutorial Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

    Jessica Frazier Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies


    Karen O’Brien-Kop Lecturer in Asian Religions at Kings College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    In Our Time is a BBC Studios Audio Production

    Reading list:

    J. Bronkhorst, Karma (University of Hawaii Press, 2011)

    J. H. Davis (ed.), A Mirror is for Reflection: Understanding Buddhist Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2017), especially ‘Buddhism Without Reincarnation? Examining the Prospects of a “Naturalized” Buddhism’ by J. Westerhoff

    J. Ganeri (ed.), Ethics and Epics: Philosophy, Culture, and Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002), especially ‘Karma and the Moral Order’ by B. K. Matilal

    Y. Krishan, The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brāhmaṇical, Buddhist and Jaina Traditions (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1997)

    N.K.G. Mendis (ed.), The Questions of King Milinda: An Abridgement of Milindapañha (Buddhist Publication Society, 1993)

    M. Siderits, How Things Are: An Introduction to Buddhist Metaphysics (Oxford University Press, 2022)

    M. Vargas and J. Dorris (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology (Oxford Univesrity Press, 2022), especially ‘Karma, Moral Responsibility and Buddhist Ethics’ by B. Finnigan

    J. Zu, 'Collective Karma Cluster Concepts in Chinese Canonical Sources: A Note' (Journal of Global Buddhism, Vol.24: 2, 2023)

  • Fielding's Tom Jones

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss "The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling" (1749) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754), one of the most influential of the early English novels and a favourite of Dickens. Coleridge wrote that it had one of the 'three most perfect plots ever planned'. Fielding had made his name in the theatre with satirical plays that were so painful for their targets in government that, from then until the 1960s, plays required approval before being staged; seeking other ways to make a living, Fielding turned to law and to fiction. 'Tom Jones' is one of the great comic novels, with the tightness of a farce and the ambition of a Greek epic as told by the finest raconteur. While other authors might present Tom as a rake and a libertine, Fielding makes him the hero for his fundamental good nature, so offering a caution not to judge anyone too soon, if ever.


    Judith Hawley Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London

    Henry Power Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter


    Charlotte Roberts Associate Professor of English Literature at University College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    In Our Time is a BBC Studios Audio Production

    Reading list:

    Martin C. Battestin with Ruthe R. Battestin, Henry Fielding: A Life (Routledge, 1989)

    J. M. Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750–1840 (Oxford University Press, 2012) S. Dickie, Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2011)

    J.A. Downie (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Oxford University Press, 2020)

    Henry Fielding (ed. John Bender and Simon Stern), The History of Tom Jones (Oxford University Press, 2008)

    Henry Fielding (ed. Tom Keymer), The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (Penguin Classics, 1996)

    Ronald Paulson, The Life of Henry Fielding: A Critical Biography (Wiley Blackwell, 2000)

    Henry Power, Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015)

    Claude Rawson, Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal under Stress (first published 1972; Routledge, 2021)

    Claude Rawson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

  • The Orkneyinga Saga

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Saga of the Earls of Orkney, as told in the 13th Century by an unknown Icelander. This was the story of arguably the most important, strategically, of all the islands in the British Viking world, when the Earls controlled Shetland, Orkney and Caithness from which they could raid the Irish and British coasts, from Dublin round to Lindisfarne. The Saga combines myth with history, bringing to life the places on those islands where Vikings met, drank, made treaties, told stories, became saints, plotted and fought.


    Judith Jesch Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham

    Jane Harrison Archaeologist and Research Associate at Oxford and Newcastle Universities


    Alex Woolf Senior Lecturer in History at the University of St Andrews

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

    In Our Time is a BBC Studios Audio Production

    Reading list:

    Theodore M. Andersson, The Growth of Medieval Icelandic Sagas, 1180-1280, (Cornell University Press, 2012)

    Margaret Clunies Ross, The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

    Robert Cook (trans.), Njals Saga (Penguin, 2001)

    Barbara E. Crawford, The Northern Earldoms: Orkney and Caithness from AD 870 to 1470 (John Donald Short Run Press, 2013)

    Shami Ghosh, Kings’ Sagas and Norwegian History: Problems and Perspectives (Brill, 2011)

    J. Graham-Campbell and C. E. Batey, Vikings in Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2002)

    David Griffiths, J. Harrison and Michael Athanson, Beside the Ocean: Coastal Landscapes at the Bay of Skaill, Marwick, and Birsay Bay, Orkney: Archaeological Research 2003-18 (Oxbow Books, 2019)

    Jane Harrison, Building Mounds: Orkney and the Vikings (Routledge, forthcoming)

    Ármann Jakobsson and Sverrir Jakobsson (eds.), The Routledge Research Companion to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (Routledge, 2017)

    Judith Jesch, The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015)

    Judith Jesch, ‘Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney, a Poet of the Viking Diaspora’ (Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 4, 2013)

    Judith Jesch, The Poetry of Orkneyinga Saga (H.M. Chadwick Memorial Lectures, University of Cambridge, 2020)

    Devra Kunin (trans.), A History of Norway and the Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Olafr (Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001)

    Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)

    Tom Muir, Orkney in the Sagas (Orkney Islands Council, 2005)

    Else Mundal (ed.), Dating the Sagas: Reviews and Revisions (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013)

    Heather O’Donoghue, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction, (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) Heather O'Donoghue and Eleanor Parker (eds.), The Cambridge History of Old Norse-Icelandic Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2024), especially 'Landscape and Material Culture' by Jane Harrison and ‘Diaspora Sagas’ by Judith Jesch

    Richard Oram, Domination and Lordship, Scotland 1070-1230, (Edinburgh University Press, 2011)

    Olwyn Owen (ed.), The World of Orkneyinga Saga: The Broad-cloth Viking Trip (Orkney Islands Council, 2006)

    Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (trans.), Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney (Penguin Classics, 1981)

    Snorri Sturluson (trans. tr. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes), Heimskringla, vol. I-III (Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011-2015)

    William P. L. Thomson, The New History of Orkney (Birlinn Ltd, 2008)

    Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), especially chapter 7

  • Marsilius of Padua

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the canonical figures from the history of political thought. Marsilius of Padua (c1275 to c1343) wrote 'Defensor Pacis' (The Defender of the Peace) around 1324 when the Papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the French King were fighting over who had supreme power on Earth. In this work Marsilius argued that the people were the source of all power and they alone could elect a leader to act on their behalf; they could remove their leaders when they chose and, afterwards, could hold them to account for their actions. He appeared to favour an elected Holy Roman Emperor and he was clear that there were no grounds for the Papacy to have secular power, let alone gather taxes and wealth, and that clerics should return to the poverty of the Apostles. Protestants naturally found his work attractive in the 16th Century when breaking with Rome. In the 20th Century Marsilius has been seen as an early advocate for popular sovereignty and republican democracy, to the extent possible in his time.


    Annabel Brett Professor of Political Thought and History at the University of Cambridge

    George Garnett Professor of Medieval History and Fellow and Tutor at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford


    Serena Ferente Professor of Medieval History at the University of Amsterdam

    Producer: Simon Tillotson In Our Time is a BBC Sounds Audio Production

    Reading list:

    Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner (eds), Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2016), especially 'Popolo and law in Marsilius and the jurists' by Serena Ferente

    J. Canning, Ideas of Power in the Late Middle Ages, 1296-1417 (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

    H.W.C. Davis (ed.), Essays in Mediaeval History presented to Reginald Lane Poole (Clarendon Press, 1927), especially ‘The authors cited in the Defensor Pacis’ by C.W. Previté-Orton

    George Garnett, Marsilius of Padua and ‘The Truth of History’ (Oxford University Press, 2006)

    J.R. Hale, J.R.L. Highfield and B. Smalley (eds.), Europe in the Late Middle Ages (Faber and Faber, 1965), especially ‘Marsilius of Padua and political thought of his time’ by N. Rubinstein

    Joel Kaye, 'Equalization in the Body and the Body Politic: From Galen to Marsilius of Padua’ (Mélanges de l'Ecole Française de Rome 125, 2013)

    Xavier Márquez (ed.), Democratic Moments: Reading Democratic Texts (Bloomsbury, 2018), especially ‘Consent and popular sovereignty in medieval political thought: Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor pacis’ by T. Shogimen

    Marsiglio of Padua (trans. Cary J. Nederman), Defensor Minor and De Translatione Imperii (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

    Marsilius of Padua (trans. Annabel Brett), The Defender of the Peace (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

    Gerson Moreño-Riano (ed.), The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2006)

    Gerson Moreno-Riano and Cary J. Nederman (eds), A Companion to Marsilius of Padua (Brill, 2012)

    A. Mulieri, S. Masolini and J. Pelletier (eds.), Marsilius of Padua: Between history, Politics, and Philosophy (Brepols, 2023)

    C. Nederman, Community and Consent: The Secular Political Theory of Marsiglio of Padua’s Defensor Pacis (Rowman and Littlefield, 1995)

    Vasileios Syros, Marsilius of Padua at the Intersection of Ancient and Medieval Traditions of Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, 2012)

  • Empress Dowager Cixi

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the woman who, for almost fifty years, was the most powerful figure in the Chinese court. Cixi (1835-1908) started out at court as one of the Emperor's many concubines, yet was the only one who gave him a son to succeed him and who also possessed great political skill and ambition. When their son became emperor he was still a young child and Cixi ruled first through him and then, following his death, through another child emperor. This was a time of rapid change in China, when western powers and Japan humiliated the forces of the Qing empire time after time, and Cixi had the chance to push forward the modernising reforms the country needed to thrive. However, when she found those reforms conflicted with her own interests or those of the Qing dynasty, she was arguably obstructive or too slow to act and she has been personally blamed for some of those many humiliations even when the fault lay elsewhere.


    Yangwen Zheng Professor of Chinese History at the University of Manchester

    Rana Mitter The S.T. Lee Professor of US-Asia Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School


    Ronald Po Associate Professor in the Department of International History at London School of Economics and Visiting Professor at Leiden University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson In Our Time is a BBC Studios Audio Production

    Reading list:

    Pearl S. Buck, Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China (first published 1956; Open Road Media, 2013)

    Katharine A. Carl, With the Empress Dowager (first published 1906; General Books LLC, 2009)

    Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

    Princess Der Ling, Old Buddha (first published 1929; Kessinger Publishing, 2007) Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (University of California Press, 1987)

    John K. Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History (Harvard University Press, 2006)

    Peter Gue Zarrow and Rebecca Karl (eds.), Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China (Harvard University Press, 2002)

    Grant Hayter-Menzies, Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling (Hong Kong University Press, 2008)

    Keith Laidler, The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China (Wiley, 2003)

    Keith McMahon, Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020)

    Anchee Min, The Last Empress (Bloomsbury, 2011)

    Ying-Chen Peng, Artful Subversion: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Image Making (Yale University Press, 2023).

    Sarah Pike Conger, Letters from China: with Particular Reference to the Empress Dowager and the Women of China (first published 1910; Forgotten Books, 2024)

    Stephen Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age (Atlantic Books, 2019)

    Liang Qichao (trans. Peter Zarrow), Thoughts From the Ice-Drinker's Studio: Essays on China and the World (Penguin Classics, 2023)

    Sterling Seagrave, Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (Vintage, 1993)

    Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (first published 1991; W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)

    X. L. Woo, Empress Dowager Cixi: China's Last Dynasty and the Long Reign of a Formidable Concubine (Algora Publishing, 2003)

    Zheng Yangwen, Ten Lessons in Modern Chinese History (Manchester University Press, 2018)