A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute a brief film to the A Bit Lit YouTube channel, created by Andy Kesson and others as a forum for thoughts on literature, history and culture during lockdown. So here I am, talking about freedom and confinement, about emotional and spiritual spaces, about monasticism and... Continue Reading →
Even at the very beginning, their affair was barely private. He joked about it in his lectures and wrote love songs about her that were sung far and wide. But they were both, in their own way, already famous. By the 1110s, Peter Abelard was in his thirties, with a fast-growing reputation as a philosopher... Continue Reading →
The first note known to have sounded on Earth was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid, a kind of cricket, rubbing its wings together – a fact deduced by scientists from the insect’s remains, preserved in amber. Consider too the love life of the mosquito. When a male... Continue Reading →
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure and privilege of talking about the Dissolution of the Monasteries to Suzannah Lipscomb for her fantastic new podcast series #NotJustTheTudors. Do have a listen! The link is here.
It came to him in a dream, Dmitri Mendeleev told a friend. He had worried at the problem of how to classify the elements for three sleepless days and nights. Exhausted, he fell into a deep sleep and the answer came. Sadly, this may not be true. To begin with, Mendeleev – born in Siberia... Continue Reading →
I have a new poem called The Doctrine of Triangles up on Atrium Poetry this morning.
The Songhay Empire wouldn’t be the first military power to set too much store in its cavalry. But by the time it fell to Morocco at the end of the sixteenth century it had little cause for complacency about anything. Founded in 1464 out of the ruins of the Malian Empire, Songhay was the largest... Continue Reading →
Where do you begin with something that has no beginning? The drone – music characterised by the stasis of a constant tone – is so old a concept it might not be an idea at all, but simply a human refraction of the sound of the universe. It is there in the Om chant of... Continue Reading →
Constantine the Great might have authorised Christianity across the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, but it was the emperor Theodosius I, half a century later, who put the brute force of the imperial state behind the faith. Policy had vacillated through the 4th century. The emperor Julian (361-363) had been... Continue Reading →
“In my own village,” the filmmaker Luis Buñuel said of his birthplace in rural Spain, “the Middle Ages lasted until World War I.” Buñuel would escape the dead hand of the past through surrealism. But the Italian writer FT Marinetti went one better: he invented futurism, launched like a political movement through a manifesto on... Continue Reading →
Extinction is an old fact but a new idea. In the early 19th century its certainty was barely established. How many people, then, had the anatomical knowledge and geological expertise to identify extinct species – that is, creatures whose final form was largely unknown – and pull their fossils out of the rock whole? In... Continue Reading →
For the first English translation of his most influential work, The Description of Africa, he is John Leo. His baptismal name was Joannes Leone de Medici, although he preferred its Arabic form, Yuhannah al-Asad. His birth name was al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan. But he is best known as Leo Africanus. His date of... Continue Reading →
The spire of the church of St Lambert in Münster has three unusual adornments: cages. They were first hung on 22 January 1536 to hold the mutilated bodies of Jan Bockelson, Bernard Krechting and Bernhard Knipperdolling, surviving leaders of the Anabaptist sect which had controlled the city for sixteen months. Anabaptism had emerged in the... Continue Reading →
Silent Night is one of the best-known songs in the world. It has been translated into over 200 languages and one version alone, Bing Crosby’s 1937 recording, sold over 30 million copies. But who knows anything of its authors? The lyrics to Silent Night were written by a somewhat loose-living Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr... Continue Reading →
Few, if any, historians have been so high born as Anna Komnene, first daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I, who came into the world in the porphyry-lined room of the Palace of Boukoleon, overlooking the harbour of Constantinople and the Sea of Marmara, on December 1 1083. Alexios had seized the imperial throne from... Continue Reading →
The year before Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, another writer, Olympe de Gouges, published a comparable call for equality during the turmoil of revolutionary France. De Gouges’ Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, published in September 1791, was a direct response to the Déclaration des droits... Continue Reading →
Guys and Dolls, the musical loosely based on the Broadway stories of Damon Runyon, premiered on Broadway on November 24th 1950. It ran for 1,200 performances and has been frequently revived ever since. The film version, starring Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, appeared in 1955. Even on the page,... Continue Reading →
On November 9, 1928 Bow Street Magistrates Court was crowded. DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been successfully prosecuted for obscenity in the same courtroom 13 years earlier. Now it was the turn of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. The perceived obscenity in Hall’s book was its subject matter: it presents lesbianism – inversion... Continue Reading →
It is like a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki anime: a French WWI pilot, gliding down at twilight over enemy lines, finds himself surrounded by a flock of swifts seemingly motionless in the air. They are asleep on the wing, so close by he might reach out and touch them. The phenomenon was largely unknown... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – The Kiso Road – up on Ink, Sweat and Tears. It was inspired by reading William Scott Wilson's wonderful Walking the Kiso Road: A Modern-Day Exploration of Old Japan.
"Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality," TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, the fruit of his own long struggle with spiritual torment. Eliot ultimately found solace in the late-medieval Christian mysticism of Julian of Norwich, but his point still stands: what reality is and how we learn to bear it has been... Continue Reading →