Norman Centuries

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My undoubtedly fruitless quest to convince the world that podcasts are the future of entertainment, education and quite possibly all human interaction continues, with an all-history extra-full instalment.

History is the cream on the cake of my life.  Or something like that.  It’s a source of fascination, pleasure, thought-provocation, endless and limitless in its capacity to pass my time in a way that feels at least a little bit worthwhile.  I sincerely believe it’s an immensely fertile preoccupation for any writer, or wannabe writer, of speculative fiction in general and fantasy in particular.  There’s nothing like a few history podcasts to remind you that the real world has produced more strangeness, wonder, complexity and subtlety of event than any writer of the fantastic ever dreamed up.

So I thought I’d wheel out the creme de la creme, with some examples of recent history podcasts that tickled my fancy.

Annoyingly, I can’t find any easy way of linking to individual episodes for your downloading pleasure, so I’m going to be pointing the way to looong lists of episodes here, with some specific directions for where to find whatever I’m talking about in particular.  But that’s no bad thing, to be honest, because the podcasts in question offer rich, rich pickings for anyone inclined to some self-guided browsing.

First up: In Our Time, which I think I’ve mentioned here before, long ago.  It’s a BBC radio production, with every episode podcasted after broadcast.  It’s a fast-paced but serious exploration by academics of one topic per episode – anything from scientific theories to history to philosophy to literature.  That might sound a bit off-putting, but in the main it’s kept pretty accessible and informative.  Every so often, it delivers an eye-opening, entertaining introduction to something I’ve never heard of, never thought about, never cared about; you can’t ask for much more than that.

You can find the 43 most recent episodes right here, and there’s a ton of good listening there.  On the history side, a couple that particularly interested me, starting with Hadrian’s Wall, on July 12th.  Britain’s biggest and most dramatic ancient monument (makes Stonehenge look like a dinky little set of stone dominoes, really), and a lasting testament to the deep, deep roots of Anglo-Scottish … tension, should we call it?

And a bit more downward scrolling (passing along the way King Solomon, the Trojan War and Marco Polo, all of which are quite interesting in one way or another) will get you to Clausewitz’s On War, at May 17th, which I liked because I’d heard of the man and his book often enough, without ever knowing anything much about it.  This episode fixed that, although – as is sometimes the case – it left me wanting to know a good deal more.

But don’t let my picks guide your listening: there’s something there for almost anyone, I’d have thought.

Second up: Ideas, which is kind of, sort of, like a Canadian version of In Our Time, except that it’s done as more straightforward documentaries/interviews/think pieces.  Shares the characteristic of jumping around all over the map of human thought and interest, though, and therefore now and again throws up nice little historical items.

Again, list of recent podcasts is to be found here, and a modest little bit of scrolling will get you to three episodes called The Sword Brothers, Parts 1, 2 and 3, which deal with, in order, The Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights.

Just amazing: religiously inspired warriors founding and defending hospitals for pilgrims, crusading, terrorising – in the case of the Teutonic Knights – huge areas.  Full of fascinating details – especially part 3 for me, because I knew least about the Teutonic Knights before listening – and a great introduction to the crusading Orders in general.  A thing I never knew, and which I thought was cool: one of those three knightly orders survived all the way through to the present day, and still exists, more or less.  Crazy thing, history.

Third up: The Norman Centuries.  Another one I think I might have mentioned here before, but if so I can’t resist revisiting.  Everyone who takes an interest in history tends to acquire a particular affection for or interest in specific little bits of it, odd little corners of the human past that for one reason or another seem especially interesting.   For me, it’s the Byzantine Empire, and indirectly its competitors/opponents/allies.  Of all those competitors, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily is probably the most unusual, romantic and perhaps the least generally known.

While William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, was busy conquering England in the 11th century, other of his ambitious compatriots were doing the same to southern Italy.  The end result was a multi-cultural Kingdom that lasted far longer than it had any right to and during its lifetime challenged, sometimes humbled and often deeply alarmed the greatest powers of the age: the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

This is done as straightforward, relatively brief talks that build up into an extended narrative history of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily from its origins to (presumably, because they haven’t got there yet) its end.  Helpfully, they appear in chronological order at that link, so you can start at the top and work your way down.  It’s easy listening, and really is an amazing tale of what a few well-armed and determined men could achieve at that time in history, if they had the bloody-minded ambition to fight for what they wanted.

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