At its peak, its influence stretched from western India to eastern China via the farthest reaches of the Indonesian archipelago. It had a fleet of 130 twelve hundred tonne ships and commanded an army of 200,000 troops that came to dominate the Indian subcontinent. It funded governments, toppled princes and generated spectacular amounts of money from trading textiles and spices. But this wasn’t an empire, it wasn’t even a state, it was a company. The East India Company, founded in 1600, lasted for 258 years before the British state gained full control of its activities. In that time it had redrawn the map of India, built an empire and reinvented the fashions and the foodstuffs of Britain.
But how did the East India Company become so powerful? How did it change both India and Britain and how was the idea of a company running a country ever accepted by the British Crown?
Temujin 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?
This week we explore the mammoth undertaking that was the Encyclopédie – one of its editors, D’Alembert, described its mission as giving an overview of knowledge, as if gazing down on a vast labyrinth of all the branches of human knowledge, observing where they separate or unite and even catching sight of the secret routes between them. It was a project that attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment - Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot - striving to bring together all that was known of the world in one comprehensive encyclopedia. No subject was too great or too small, so while Voltaire wrote of “fantasie” and “elegance”, Diderot rolled up his sleeves and got to grips with trades and crafts, even jam-making.
The resulting Encyclopédie was a bestseller - running to 28 volumes over more than 20 years, amidst censorship, bans, betrayals and reprieves. It even got them excited on this side of the Channel, with subscribers including Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson and Charles Burney.
So what drove these men to such lengths that they were prepared to risk ridicule, prison, even exile? How did the Encyclopédie embody the values of the Enlightenment? And what was its legacy – did it really fuel the French Revolution?
By the time the exhibition closed, one quarter of the entire British population had visited Crystal Palace, the first pre-fabricated building of its kind, to marvel at an extraordinary array of exhibits amongst which were: the biggest diamond in the world, a carriage drawn by kites, furniture made of coal, and a set of artificial teeth fitted with a swivel devise which allowed the user to yawn without displacing them. Its impact was huge in terms of the development of British manufacturing, the burgeoning of a global consumer market, the development of museums and the international standing of Britain culturally and technologically. How did the Exhibition crystallise a particular moment in early Victorian Britain? In what way did it capitalise on the dawn of mass travel and greater levels of international co-operation? How did fears of revolutionary Europe define the policing and organisation of the event? And how far, if at all, did the Great Exhibition go in blurring class distinctions?
The Great Fire of London was a conflagration of unimaginable proportions – up to a third of the city was destroyed – but the burning of London, the interpretation of the fire and the arguments and ideas about what should be rebuilt give an insight into a city and a period that housed the Royal Society and the restored Stuart monarchy, a place of religious anxiety and fear of foreign invasion in a country still haunted by the Civil War.
Mevlyn Bragg discusses the Great Reform Act of 1832, a landmark on the road to British democracy. Melvyn is joined by Dinah Birch, Professor of English at Liverpool University; Michael Bentley, Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews; and Catherine Hall, Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London.
Today we’re discussing the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order of priests who became known as “the school masters of Europe”. Founded in the 16th century by the soldier Ignatius Loyola, they became a major force throughout the world, from China to South America. “Give us a boy and we will return you a man, a citizen of his country and a child of God”, they declared. By the 17th century there were more than 500 schools established across Europe. Their ideas about a standardised curriculum and teaching became the basis for many education systems today.
They were also among the greatest patrons of art in early modern Europe, using murals and theatre to get their message across. However, their alleged influence over monarchs, their wealth and their adaptability to local customs abroad provoked suspicion, prompting their eventual suppression in the late 18th century. They were re-established in 1814 and now have more than twenty thousand members.
So why was education so important to the Jesuit movement? How much influence did they really have in the courts of Europe and in the colonies? And were they really at the heart of conspiracies to murder kings?
At its height, the Mughal Empire stretched from Bengal in the East to Gujarat in the West, and from Lahore in the North to Madras in the South. It covered the whole of present day northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and became famous for the Taj Mahal, the Koh-i-Noor and the Peacock Throne.
In 1631 a Dutch naturalist Johannes de Laet published his account of the vast Empire, “the nobles live in indescribable luxury and extravagance, caring only to indulge themselves whilst they can, in every kind of pleasure. Their greatest magnificence is in their women’s quarters, for they marry three or four wives or sometimes more”.
But were they really the opulent despots of European imagination? If so, how did they maintain such a vast territory? And to what extent was the success of the British Raj a legacy of their rule?
Melvyn Bragg considers the celestial harmonies of the planets, a Pythagorean concept which fascinated astrologists, artists and mathematicians for centuries. He is joined by Peter Forshaw, Postdoctoral Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London
Why did Modern Science develop in Europe when China seemed so much better placed to achieve it? This is called the Needham Question, after Joseph Needham, the 20th century British Sinologist who did more, perhaps, than anyone else to try and explain it.
Why did China’s early technological brilliance not lead to the development of modern science and how did momentous inventions like gunpowder and printing enter Chinese society with barely a ripple and yet revolutionise the warring states of Europe?
The Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century forced China to open its doors to trade with the western world. The Chinese had banned opium in its various forms several times, citing concern for public morals, but the prohibition was ignored. The East India Company held a monopoly on the production of opium in British India. Private British traders continued to smuggle large quantities of opium into China. In this way, the opium trade became a way of balancing a trade deficit brought about by Britain's own addiction to tea. The Chinese protested against the flouting of the ban but the British continued to trade, leading to a crackdown by Lin Tse-Hsu, a man appointed to be China's Opium Drugs Czar. He confiscated opium from the British traders and destroyed it. The British military response was severe, leading to the Nanking Treaty which opened up several of China's ports to foreign trade and gave Britain Hong Kong. The peace didn't last long and a Second Opium War followed. The Chinese fared little better in this conflict, which ended with another humiliating treaty. So what were the main causes of the Opium Wars? What were the consequences for the Qing dynasty? And how did the punitive treaties affect future relations with Britain?
"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?
Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans go home to their families and sit down to a meal. It’s called Thanksgiving and it echoes a meal that took place nearly 400 years ago, when a group of English religious exiles sat down, after a brutal winter, to celebrate their first harvest in the New World. They celebrated it in company with the American Indians who had helped them to survive. These settlers are called the Pilgrim Fathers and although they were not the first and certainly not the largest of the early settlements, they have retained a hold on the American imagination far out of proportion to their historical significance
The French mathematician Henri Poincaré declared: “The scientist does not study mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. And it is because simplicity, because grandeur, is beautiful that we preferably seek simple facts, sublime facts, and that we delight now to follow the majestic course of the stars.” Poincaré’s ground-breaking work in the 19th and early 20th century has indeed led us to the stars and the consideration of the shape of the universe itself.
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?
The Spanish Civil War was a defining war of the twentieth century. It was a brutal conflict that polarised Spain, pitting the Left against the Right, the anti-clericals against the Church, the unions against the landed classes and the Republicans against the Monarchists. It was a bloody war which saw, in the space of just three years, the murder and execution of 350,000 people. It was also a conflict which soon became internationalised, becoming a battleground for the forces of Fascism and Communism as Europe itself geared up for war.
But what were the roots of the Spanish Civil War? To what extent did Franco prosecute the war as a religious crusade? How did Franco institutionalise his victory after the war? And has Spain fully come to terms with its past?
The Spanish Inquisition set up in 1478 surpassed all Inquisitorial activity that had preceded it in terms of its reach and length. For 350 years under Papal Decree, Jews, then Muslims and Protestants were put through the Inquisitional Court and condemned to torture, imprisonment, exile and death. How did the early origins of the Inquisition in Medieval Europe spread to Spain? What were the motivations behind the systematic persecution of Jews, Muslims and Protestants? And what finally brought about an end to the Spanish Inquisition 350 years after it had first been decreed?
On Monday September 10th 1792 The Times of London carried a story covering events in revolutionary France:
"The streets of Paris, strewed with the carcases of the mangled victims, are become so familiar to the sight, that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow-creature, who is not even an object of suspicion, than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog".
These were the infamous September Massacres when Parisian mobs killed thousands of suspected royalists and set the scene for the events to come, when Madame La Guillotine took centre stage and The Terror ruled in France.
But how did the French Revolution descend into such extremes of violence? Who or what drove The Terror? And was it really an aberration of the revolutionary cause or the moment when it truly expressed itself?
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.
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of mankind’s attempt to understand the nature of time. With Dr Neil Johnson, theoretical physicist at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University and Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer 1999 on the subject of Time; Lee Smolin, cosmologist and Professor of Physics, Pennsylvania State University.
In 1928, as America heads towards the Wall Street Crash, Joseph Stalin reveals his master plan - nature is to be conquered by science, Russia to be made brutally, glitteringly modern and the world transformed by communist endeavour.
Into the heart of this vision stepped Trofim Lysenko, a self-taught geneticist who promised to turn Russian wasteland into a grain-laden Garden of Eden.
A reaction against Romanticism, the realist novel presented life as it was in urbanized, industrial Britain.
Attacked as ordinary, mundane, overly democratic and lacking the imaginative demands of poetry, its defendants argued that the ordinariness of life contained a complexity and depth previously unseen and unconsidered.
At its best the realist novel was like life itself - complex in appearance, rich in character, diverse in outlook, teeming with ideas and operating on several levels. It was a forum for the confusions of the Victorian age over Christianity and Darwinism, economics, morality and psychology, yet it was also a domestic novel concerned with the individuality of human relationships.
From the provincialism of George Eliot’s Middlemarch to Hardy’s bleak and brutal Wessex, Victorian Realism touched all the great Victorian authors, but can it truly be the touchstone of an age which produced the fantasy of Alice in Wonderland, the escapism of The Waterbabies and the abundant grotesquerie of Dickensian London?
Frankenstein may seem an outlandish tale, but Mary Shelley wrote it when science was alive with ideas about what differentiated the living from the dead. This was Vitalism, a belief that living things possessed some spark of life, some vital principle that lifted them above dull matter. Electricity was a very real candidate.
With Michael Ignatieff, writer, broadcaster and biographer of Isaiah Berlin; Sir Michael Howard, formerly Regius Professor of History, Oxford University and joint editor of the new Oxford History of the Twentieth
As part of the BBC's year of science programming, Melvyn Bragg looks at the history of the oldest scientific learned society of them all: the Royal Society.Episode one travels to Oxford, where the young Christopher Wren and friends experimented.
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The School of Athens – the fresco painted by the Italian Renaissance painter, Raphael, for Pope Julius II’s private library in the Vatican. The fresco depicts some of the most famous philosophers of ancient times, including Aristotle and Plato, engaged in discussion amidst the splendour of a classical Renaissance chamber. It is considered to be one of the greatest images in Western art not only because of Raphael’s skill as a painter, but also his ability to have created an enduring image that continues to inspire philosophical debate today.
Raphael captured something essential about the philosophies of these two men, but he also revealed much about his own time. That such a pagan pair could be found beside a Pope in private tells of the complexity of intellectual life at the time when classical learning was reborn in what we now call the Renaissance.
With Angie Hobbs, Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Warwick; Valery Rees, Renaissance scholar and senior member of the Language Department at the School of Economic Science; Jill Kraye, Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy and Librarian at the Warburg Institute at the University of London