The subject matter is wildly diverse; in the last three weeks the broadcasts have taken up the life of pioneering British novelist Fanny Burney, the composition of the earth's core, and Rabindranath Tagore.
Along with my delight in the subject matter, I am drawn to Bragg's programs for another reason: on every one of them, no matter what the topic, at least one of his academic experts is a woman.
The one exception whose writing I admired and knew I'd never be able to equal was C.V. (Dame Cicely Veronica) Wedgwood. She wrote about continental Europe and England during what we call the "early modern" period, the 16th and 17 centuries.
Recently I ran across her monumental history of The Thirty Years War, first published in 1938. This narrative history is just as brilliant, and feels as sound, as I thought Wedgwood to be, all those decades ago.
What we call the Thirty Years War was a sprawling contest of dynasties and armies that fought out their feuds between 1618 and 1648 across the smaller feudal and commercial states in Central Europe, leaving famine, disease and destruction in their wake. Wedgwood convincingly maintains that, though the Protestant and Catholic affiliations of rulers and their subjects had something to do with this orgy of carnage, the ambitions of kings, kinglets, and generals had more.
In her introduction, she offers the best defense of writing history as the story of "great men" that I've ever seen articulated.
For most of "history," what we think of as "history" had about as much relevance to most people as periodic weather catastrophes. What distinguishes the "modern" era from most of the past is that more of us think we ought to matter.
So Wedgwood's book is a story of the men (and a few women) whose intrigues and unreflective stubbornness in ambition launched and perpetuated the fighting. She is not gentle in describing them. Here's a sample of her style, a description of a bit player, a Danish king whose intervention on behalf of his fellow Protestant rulers proved fruitless.
Interestingly, for this was one of the facets of writing history for which women were once considered unsuited, Wedgwood is very good at recounting the military maneuvers and battle tactics of the period. She does not shy from explaining how engagements were won by the application of such fire power as was available at the time. Apparently Gustavus of Sweden had a leg up as a tactician on all the other militaries. But, since the armies all lived off a countryside laid waste by successive passing troops, after 30 years the coherence of all these forces simply disintegrated.
Writing in the run up to another all-European war, Wedgwood described this early modern conflict in scathing terms:
Most of us are still working on having enough clout to thwart our rulers when they get it into their heads that war is the answer -- at least we sometimes have the space to work on that project.