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In Our Time: The Written World podcast and listen online

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Tom Morris 13:57, Friday, 6 January 2012

Ed's note: The complete series of The Written World is available to download as a podcast until Monday morning, after that you will still be able to listen online but the downloads won't be available - PM.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel - the earliest intact European book

In a nondescript seminar room in the British Library, Melvyn Bragg and I sit waiting at a conference table. We are there to interview the library's Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, Claire Breay, who after greeting us has disappeared into the bowels of the building to retrieve a prop.

After a few minutes she reappears, carrying a small wooden box. It doesn't look much, but it contains an object so precious that it's kept in a strongroom, and only one person - Claire - is allowed to handle it.

She slides off the lid to reveal a small linen-wrapped package. There is an undeniable tension in the room as she removes this protective covering to reveal a small leather-bound volume.

This is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving European book, produced in Northumbria in the 7th century; it owes its immaculate condition to the fact that it spent the first four hundred years of its existence in the saint's coffin.

A great privilege, to see such treasure at close quarters. But over the course of a few weeks in November while recording In Our Time: The Written World, Melvyn and I had several of these memorable encounters.

In the atmospheric library of Durham Cathedral, Richard Gameson showed us a detail in a medieval Gospel and casually let slip that we were looking at the oldest illuminated manuscript in the Western world. In Cambridge, Simon Schaffer showed us one of Newton's most celebrated experiments, described (and drawn) in the scientist's own hand.

And then there was the never-to-be-repeated day in the British Library, when in the space of a few hours we were shown a dizzying array of priceless objects: the world's oldest printed book (not European but Chinese, produced in 868); the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf; and not one but two Gutenberg Bibles.

When Melvyn and I first came up with the idea for this series early last year, our intention was to investigate how the inherent qualities of writing have shaped intellectual history. We wanted the focus to be artefacts: tablets, manuscripts and books, all of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

Choosing the right ones was quite a challenge: five programmes, it turns out, is not much airtime to tell such a vast and complex story. So we asked some of the academics who regularly appear on In Our Time for advice. Their recommendations, and those of the institutions we visited, made up an almost bewildering list of goodies - ruthlessly and reluctantly pruned back to a more manageable fifteen or so.

Having a wishlist of precious objects is one thing; getting to see them quite another. But we were treated with great indulgence by all the institutions we approached: the British Library gave us wonderful access to some of the greatest things in their collection; Cambridge University Library filled a meeting room with Korans, history scrolls and - wonder of wonders - Newton's student notebooks; and in Durham we saw one of the earliest copies of Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

If I have one regret, it's that we left so much untouched.

We squeezed in all we could, but it would have been nice to have had time to discuss Jewish scriptures, Islamic science, the birth and spread of the novel, the impact of writing on politics... the list goes on.

Perhaps one day we'll have an opportunity to fill some of these gaps. And no doubt we missed all sorts of unmissable documents, turning points in the history of the written word that should have been included - if so, please feel free to let us know!

Tom Morris is producer of In Our Time


  • Comment number 1.

    You write "The Written World is only available to download as a podcast "

    Which prompts two questions, how does one download all five broadcasts at one time? It seems to me as if it would be more correct to say the programmes are available to download in five podcasts.

    And 'only till Monday' whereas a claim to fame of 'In our Time' is that all the programmes are all available to download at any time, so it seems these are perhaps not in the same criteria as the normal programmes?

  • Comment number 2.

    I have to agree with Melvyn Bragg that writing was the greatest human invention and that, as Tom Morris has stated, there are significant related topics omitted from the series.
    I would suggest that one subject for further discussion, either as a continuation of the series or as a topic in its own right, would be King Sejong the Great of Korea who, in the 15th century, designed a simple phonetic alphabet, Hangul, as a act of democratisation and to facilitate literacy. Virtually unknown in the west his contribution to education, literature, science and technology is considerable and deserves greater recognition in the west.

  • Comment number 3.

    The series was very instructive and enjoyable - thank you! I did miss any attention to the origin of the alphabet in ancient Canaan, surely the most important step after the original invention of writing. How it began and its growth deserved presentation. It was essential for the Greeks to initiate vowel signs because several Greek words consist only of vowels, notably the word for 'No!' The episode on writing and religion seemed to give no heed to the role on writing in Judaism, which, after all, is the oldest of the 'religions of the book'.

  • Comment number 4.

    It is wonderful that writing should be the subject of a such a series of programmes. Lord Bragg deserves the highest honours for his superb efforts to achieve what the French call 'haute vulgarisation' popularising without simplifying and so insulting the audience. However the information presented must be accurate, and there is no evidence that the Irish invented spaces between words, indeed many early Irish manuscripts are copied with far LESS space than manuscripts of the same date from Italy, Gaul or Spain. Nor does Durham, sadly, own the earliest illuminated Latin manuscript: the fifth century Virgil manuscripts in the Vatican have more full page illustrations than the Durham Gospels. Professor Gameson is detracting from the quality of this programme.

  • Comment number 5.

    Following on from Tolkny's comment about the availability of these episodes as a podcast:
    These programmes appeared to be the now traditional IOT New Year series, and the first episode downloaded through the iTunes subscription. Subsequent episodes did not, and it was only through a circuitous searching route that I discovered that they are actually being treated as a completely separate series, both on the R4 website and iTunes. It would have been helpful to those of us who only listen to IOT as a podcast to have mentioned this.
    It was deeply, deeply annoying to discover that the remaining episodes are only available to download as podcasts for a week after broadcast, as by the time I found out, the second episode was only available to listen to online. I accept it is not inaccessible, but it can now only be accessed in (what for me is) the least convenient format.

  • Comment number 6.

    I also feel aggrieved about the way the podcast has been handled. I searched both the BBC site and iTunes for the downloads and didn't find them. Then I got two episodes via iTunes because I've subscribed to IoT. Today (12 Jan) I read that the remaining episodes "can be downloaded until Monday" - Monday gone it seems, so they weren't even available for a week. What's that all about? There may have been some special way of getting them, but it wasn't at all obvious. I think this is very poor.

  • Comment number 7.

    Really impressed by this series some of which has already been covered
    in your IOT programme on The Alphabet.I feel this programme would have benefitted as a TV documentary,with all the material bases of the
    written word,easier to have seen.The web site as artefacts came up was somewhat inflexible to manipulate.I thought you could have pursued
    the underlying philosophy of why write and for what purpose to civilization and survival.What are we losing as time passes?

    Speech, which distinguishes men from animals, preceeded written language.In the written word writers and readers are equal.As Brodsky said a novel or poem is a conversation between writer and reader.This equality is the equality of consciousness,conditioning a person’s conduct,remaining in the form of memory.This conversation is a product of mutual loneliness and privacy.The book is similar in our development to the invention of the wheel. Man is a part of a language that is older than he and will live on after time has settled the account with language's servant. Time is greater than space, but language is greater than time. To write is essentially to try to "regain" or "hold back" time. Language is superior to society.Its forms uphold civilization.


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