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Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts

Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts


London, United Kingdom




Discover world history, culture and ideas with today’s leading experts




Abraham Maslow’s psychology of human needs

Many students of psychology, business, nursing and other disciplines are taught about "Maslow's pyramid of human needs", a diagram that shows a progression from our basic needs, such as food and shelter, to higher, social needs and, eventually, to striving for often intangible life goals and fulfilment. The pyramid is an iconic image, yet Abraham Maslow, a leading humanistic psychologist of the 20th century, didn't actually create it. Moreover, his writings are much more sophisticated and...


The Kalevala: the Finnish epic that inspired a nation

When the Kalevala was published in 1835, Finland had a distinct cultural and linguistic identity but it had always been part of either the Swedish or the Russian empire. Neither did Finland have much of a literary tradition, but as the 19th-century progressed the Kalevala took on a symbolic role as the representation of a Finnish identity that fed into the movement for Finnish independence. Rooted in the folk culture of the Karelia region, a travelling doctor shaped the song texts into a...


Sister Juana, a great mind of Mexico

Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz is celebrated today as one of the finest poets in the history of Mexico. She was not just a creative and intellectual force but also a campaigner for women’s education and someone not afraid to challenge male hypocrisy. The colonial 17th-century society in which she lived was very patriarchal so, not surprisingly, her views brought her into conflict with the men in power. Rajan Datar looks at key episodes in Sister Juana’s life and examines the passion and...


Mermaids: Tales from the deep

We delve into the watery depths of sea creature folklore, with a round-the-world tour of different variations on the concept of mermaids – from the Sirens of Greek mythology to the Selkies or Seal Folk of Scottish legend, and water spirits known as Mami Water, which are venerated in parts of Africa and the Americas. Not forgetting the famous fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, which has captivated the imagination ever since its publication in 1837 and was popularised by Disney in the 1980s....


Eleusinian Mysteries: Secret ceremonies promising happiness

In ancient Greece, thousands of people flocked each year to join the religious rites known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Based on the cult of the goddess of fertility Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the Mysteries were for many a profoundly moving and life-changing experience. People from all over the Greek world and beyond travelled to Eleusis for at least 800 years and the ceremonies remained a highlight of the Athenian calendar throughout that time. But what really went on in the great...


Toussaint L’Ouverture: Hero of the Haitian slave rebellion

Late 18th-Century Saint Domingue in the Caribbean – now known as Haiti – was one of the richest countries in the world. Known as ‘the pearl of the Antilles’, its wealth was built almost entirely on slavery. Around half a million enslaved Africans were transported to the French colony to work on the sugar plantations. Toussaint L’Ouverture was destined to see out his days within this brutal system, but his skills as a negotiator and communicator saw him rise to the forefront of the resistance...


Olympe de Gouges: France’s forgotten revolutionary heroine

She fought to give women the right to divorce and campaigned on behalf of children born out of wedlock. But in late 18th century France, her radical thinking proved too much for her contemporaries in the French revolution. She insisted women should be allowed to speak out, and she was executed at the guillotine for doing just that. For nearly two centuries her story was largely forgotten, until she was championed by modern-day French feminists, who called for her to be given pride of place...


Alexandre Yersin and the race to fight the plague

When Alexandre Yersin discovered one of the most lethal bacteria in human history, the tiny bacillus of the plague that over the centuries had killed tens of millions of people, he earned his place in the history books. Working in a straw hut in Hong Kong, armed with just a microscope, Yersin’s methodical mind worked out within just a few days where in human body to look for the plague bacteria. A much bigger and better-equipped Japanese team, competing with Yersin, came away empty-handed....


Famous hats in history

There have been so many, probably hundreds, different styles and types of hat in history that a question inevitably arises: why? Why did something that began as a simple protection against inclement weather take on such varied forms and social meanings? Bridget Kendall and guests explore not just how hats were made, and by whom, but also how their function has evolved over centuries and across cultures. By focusing on just five distinct hat types, they sketch out a brief social history of...


Mugham: the sound of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s strategic location along the old Silk Road and its wealth of natural resources has made it a prime target for warring empires over centuries. The conquests and the invasions by Turkic and Persian peoples find echoes in the traditional art music of Azerbaijan known as mugham. The influence of the Russian and then Soviet empire also brought change for mugham, the effects of which are still debated today. Mugham is characterised by a large degree of improvisation, but musicians...


The Kingdom of Aksum: Africa's trading empire

At its height, the Aksumite Empire extended across the northern Ethiopian and Eritrean highlands, and even included parts of Sudan, Somalia and modern-day Yemen. From the first century BC to the seventh or eighth centuries AD it was one of the most important trading hubs in north-east Africa. It was also one of the earliest states in the world to adopt Christianity. In fact the Persian prophet Mani named the Aksumite Empire as one of the “four great kingdoms on Earth” together with Persia,...


Umm Kulthum: Egypt’s singing superstar

Umm Kulthum’s powerful voice and talent for communicating poetry was spotted early, when she accompanied her family to perform at weddings and special occasions. It wasn’t long before she was performing in the elite salons of early 20th-century Cairo, although her father dressed her as a boy to protect her from any unwelcome interactions with strangers. In the Egyptian capital she quickly associated herself with the most talented musicians of the day, and from then on she never looked back....


Alexandre Dumas: The man behind the Musketeers

The word 'swashbuckling' is often used to describe the novels of Alexandre Dumas the Elder, the creator of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo and the Man in the Iron Mask. But Dumas himself led a life as colourful as many of his gallery of rogues, villains and heroes. Having grown up in poverty, he found employment in the household of a future king of France. He was prolific on the page and pretty active away from it. At first with a series of highly successful...


Unlocking the mysteries of cuneiform tablets

Cuneiform is an ancient writing system distinguished by wedge-shaped marks made into clay. It developed over 5,000 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia. At its height it was used to write languages across the ancient Middle East, from Iran to Syria to Anatolia in Turkey. But cuneiform writing fell out of use about 2,000 years ago in favour of alphabetic scripts. When scholars in the 19th century finally managed to redecipher it, they discovered fascinating insights into the culture and rituals...


First impressions: The printing press

When the fifteenth century German entrepreneur Johannes Gutenberg pioneered the printing press, he made an indelible mark on the history of communication. Here was a way to print pages in high quality and high quantities, using methods more efficient than had ever been seen before. Rajan Datar and guests explore the story of how the printing press was born, and how it changed our world - from the birth of the modern book to the rise of the information society, and the transformation of...


The woman whose cells changed medical history

The story of a young mother who unwittingly left behind a vast medical legacy. Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951 and though she never gave consent to her tissue being used for research, doctors at the time found that her unusually virulent tumour had extraordinary properties. As her cells multiplied in labs around the world, they helped make possible all sorts of medical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to cancer drugs and IVF treatment. But it took the Lacks family...


Comenius, a pioneer of lifelong learning

Teaching not by rote but through play? That's credited to the 17th-century Czech pastor and thinker called Jan Amos Comenius. Splitting schoolchildren up into year groups? That's Comenius. Universal education for all, rich and poor? That's down to him too. Nearly four centuries ago, Comenius came up with principles of modern education but they were only implemented hundreds of years after his death. That these ideas are now so widely accepted obscures the fact that they were ground-breaking...


Dido of Carthage: A love story gone wrong

A Phoenician princess, who fled into exile to escape the cruel king of Tyre, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, where she founded the great city of Carthage in the ninth century BC. Well, that is one story about Dido, or Elissa, as she is known in today's Lebanon and Tunisia. Another, from the Roman poet Virgil, puts her at the centre of a tragic love story: first entranced, then abandoned by the wandering Trojan hero Aeneas, Dido curses him and takes her own life. So who...


Paul Robeson: Singer, actor and civil rights activist

The multi-talented Paul Robeson could have turned his hand to pretty much anything he set his mind to: lawyer, athlete and linguist were just some of the career paths he could have taken. But he chose to become an actor and singer, and in doing so reached into the lives of huge numbers of people as one of the most popular American entertainers of his time. Outspoken on the issues of racism, colonialism and the rights of workers, he used his popularity to campaign against the injustice he saw...


Telling the time: From sundials to satnav

Many of us can find the time of day quickly and accurately but where did the idea of time keeping originate and how did our ancestors manage without the instant access we take for granted today? From ancient shadow and water clocks to the latest super accurate optical clocks, Bridget Kendal explores time keeping with the Curator of the Royal Observatory in London, Dr Louise Devoy; the Director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, Dr Silke Ackermann; and watch and clock expert...