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28 February 2014

Radio: In Our Time; The Essay

Two programmes in one day discussed the era of the Crusades.

By Antonia Quirke

In Our Time; The Essay
BBC Radio 4; BBC Radio 3


Two programmes in one day discussed the era of the Crusades. On BBC Radio 4, In Our Time (13 February, 9am) had the presenter, Melvyn Bragg, not merely sitting behind what sounded like a mountain of paper but sifting through it with a stapler, Wikipedia weighing heavily on his eyelids, reaching out occasionally with a skeletal hand to grasp a glass of water. Never had the rustling of cross-referencing been so blatant. The reading list for In Our Time often reaches ten books but this was a 14-tome week – unlike the breeze that was the recent show on the Phoenicians, which recommended a paltry six.

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The moment one of his guests referred to the Carolingians, Bragg poked his head around his stack and interrupted, “We’re talking about Emperor Charlemagne here, yes? Crowned on Christmas Day, AD 800?” His interlocutor confirmed, “Yes, that’s the one,” and continued more nervously, anticipating the next insistent clarification.

But the guest Miri Rubin, a mellifluously transatlantic-accented professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary University of London, instinctively knew how to deal with the slightly frazzled Bragg (who at one point apologised for “rambling”): praise and affirm. “Great question,” she said, now and again. And: “That’s very true … You’re absolutely right.” Bragg, who rarely fails to respond to this kind of thing, was soon flirting, research forgotten, begging her to translate epigrams. “Can you say it in Latin? Oh, go on!”

Turning from epigrams to hyperbole: on BBC Radio 3, the 18th episode of a 20-part series of The Essay on the “Islamic golden age” (10.45pm) considered the Crusader-slaying sultan Saladin (1138-1193). He was a “tireless holy warrior … easy-going and willing to take requests … a passionate polo player … happy to vigorously dispute matters of faith with Christians”. The historian Jonathan Phillips paused to concede, “All heroes have their flaws airbrushed out.” Yet the show was still rather panting for one about a leader invoked admiringly by Bin Laden for his dogged recovery of Jerusalem in 1187 and compared on account of his piety and sharing of his hardships with his men to Bin Laden by the CIA.