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In Our Time: The Written World

BBC Radio 4: Mon 2 – Fri 6 Jan 2012, 9.00 - 9.30

repeated at 21.30 each evening 

In this series of five In Our Time radio programmes Melvyn Bragg tells the story of the written word from its origins in the Middle East 6,000 years ago to the present day. He discovers how the technology of writing has developed: from the earliest clay tablets to paper, the printing press and beyond. 

By examining and discussing some of the most important surviving texts, Melvyn and his guests explain how this most powerful of inventions has enabled the dissemination of thought worldwide. Many of the key texts discussed here are in the British Library, and the programme features extensive interviews with our expert curators.

1: The opening programme looks at the technology of writing and its evolution

Chinese oracle bones

The Couling-Chalfant collection of Shang period oracle bones (c. 1600-1050 BC) are the oldest items in the British Library.

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2: The second episode examines the invention of the codex: what we think of today as a ‘book’

St Cuthbert Gospel

Dating from the seventh century, this fragile pocket gospel is the earliest intact European book and has an intimate connection with St Cuthbert, one of Britain's foremost saints. Find out how you can help us acquire this Anglo-Saxon treasure for the nation.

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The Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg's 42-line Bible is the earliest book printed in Europe using movable type. It was made in Mainz, Germany by Johann Gutenberg and his associates in 1455. Fewer than 50 copies survive.

Read more   View entire book


3: Melvyn Bragg explores how sacred texts enabled the spread of religions

Diamond Sutra


Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, this Buddhist scroll is the world's earliest complete survival of a dated printed book. It was made in 868. 

Read more  View entire scroll


Codex Sinaiticus

Produced in the middle of the fourth century, the Codex Sinaiticus (meaning ‘Sinai book’) is one of the two earliest Christian Bibles, containing the complete New Testament. 

Read more  View selections from the book



4: How writing created the medium of literature, and what changed when oral culture gave way to the written word


Beowulf is the longest epic poem (3,000 lines) in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. 

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Mercurius Aulicus

Published during the English Civil War, the Royalist title Mercurius Aulicus is one of the most important early newspapers. 

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5: The surprising story of science, and why it owes its very existence to writing

Euclid’s Elements


Euclid's Elementa geometriae, translated into Latin by Adelard of Bath and printed in Venice in 1482 by Erhard Ratdolt




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