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 →
Amelia Earhart, aged 40, disappeared with her plane and her navigator on 2 July 1937 on the longest leg on what was intended to be the first circumnavigation of the world by a woman in an airplane. How does that fact change how we read her life? She was, her high-school yearbook said, “the girl... Continue Reading →
In the late afternoon of 26 July 1533, Atahualpa, last true emperor of the Incas, was led out into the public square of Cajamarca a city in the Andean highlands, now in northern Peru. His conquistador captors, led by Francisco Pizarro, had just decided he must die. During the nine months or so of his... Continue Reading →
I'm delighted to have been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. As someone outside the academy, it means a lot. Huge thanks are due to the society's president, Emma Griffin, for her support and encouragement. It would never have occurred to me that I might be eligible.
Gone with the Wind, the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel – which, to say the least, valorises the antebellum South – was always controversial. When producer David O Selznick announced the production, his decision was widely condemned by civil-rights organisations such as the NAACP. African-American actors who took roles in the film were... Continue Reading →
The northern diaspora we call the age of the Vikings is testament to the mobility of early medieval Europe. So too is the fact that the most contemporary account we have of the viking raid on Lindisfarne of 8 June 793 comes from the court of Charlemagne in faraway Aachen. Alcuin, a Northumbrian monk and... Continue Reading →
The problem with theosophy, WB Yeats said, was that its followers wanted to turn a good philosophy into a bad religion. Its founder, Madame Blavatsky, seems to have agreed. “There are about half a dozen real theosophists in the world,” she told the poet. “And one of those is stupid.” Whatever Blavatsky herself could be... Continue Reading →
The Nuremberg trials that followed the close of World War II were, like the atrocities they prosecuted, unprecedented in international law. And yet the idea that political and military leaders might be held accountable for their actions was not entirely new. Cases cited in the trials themselves included the actions of the Imperial Diet at... Continue Reading →
Cloud islands, they are called. The peaks of the Usumbara Mountains in Tanzania rise so high that fogs form on their slopes where the cool mountain air meets warmer currents rising off the sea. The climate has created a unique ecosystem, as real islands do, and much of the wildlife is unique to the area.... Continue Reading →
Thanks to lockdown, sales of jigsaw puzzles grew nearly 40% in 2020, reaching £100 million for the first time. It’s a far cry from the puzzle’s humble origin in a printmakers shop just off Drury Lane. The concept of children’s publishing was slowly emerging in the 18th century, with much of its focus on education... 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 →