This year, we’ve created more than 250 episodes of the HistoryExtra podcast, ranging on topics from mysterious Cold War killings to the lives of Viking women. We also launched a new series of ‘Everything you wanted to know about…’ podcasts, which covered topics from the Norman conquest to the French Revolution. Browse the full series here. Plus, don’t miss these fascinating eight episodes devoted to the medieval murder mystery of the Princes in the Tower.
Here, our team offers their top picks from 2020…
Chosen by Rob Attar, editor of BBC History Magazine and the HistoryExtra podcast:
The Northumbrians: from Bede to Geordie Shore
As an inveterate southerner who’s spent very little time in England’s north east – much to my discredit – I didn’t arrive at this episode with any expectations. But as soon as I began listening, I was hooked. Dan Jackson is supremely eloquent when describing the colourful history of the region and its people, and the conversation is expertly guided by our own Rachel Dinning.
The Aztecs: everything you wanted to know
This year we introduced our new ‘Everything you wanted to know’ format, combining popular search queries with questions you submitted to provide essential guides to important historical topics. To my mind they’ve all been tremendously interesting, but if I had to pick one it’d be Caroline Dodds Pennock’s masterful summary of the world of the Aztecs. It’s an excellent introduction to this fascinating civilisation.
The mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld: a Cold War killing?
Operation Morthor by Ravi Somaiya is one of the best history books I’ve read this year – and certainly the most gripping. Investigating the unsolved death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld during the Congo Crisis in 1961, it’s a tale of Cold War intrigue and a continent trying to escape the shackles of colonialism. My conversation with Ravi explored some possible explanations for Hammarskjöld’s untimely demise – although if you want to know his ultimate conclusion, you’ll need to read the book.
Chosen by Rhiannon Davies, BBC History Magazine sub editor:
Adventure and opportunity: female transatlantic travellers
This interview with Siân Evans was the perfect tonic for those who’ve been suffering from wanderlust this year. Discussing the travels of women who sailed on grand ocean liners across the Atlantic Ocean during the interwar period, it’s peppered with colourful examples – most notably an “unsinkable” stewardess who survived three maritime disasters, including the sinking of the Titanic.
Chosen by Elinor Evans, acting digital editor, HistoryExtra:
Enslaved women & resistance
A favourite podcast of 2020 was this interview with writer and education activist Stella Dadzie, about her book A Kick in the Belly. It reveals the vital role women played in slave rebellions and liberation movements across the Caribbean, and I was fascinated to hear about the many ways in which enslaved women resisted their oppressors, from seemingly small subversive acts to playing central roles in uprisings. A highlight is Dadzie’s take on going beyond ‘official’ histories and “trying to read the music behind the words”, as she details the detective work that goes into reconstructing the stories of enslaved women who, in many cases, didn’t have opportunity to record their own.
Should I stay or should I go? The problem with historical monuments in 2020
“Monuments aren’t just lumps of bronze or stone, they are powerful symbols of something important to us, and those to the Second World War are some of the most dramatic that we have,” says Keith Lowe in this insightful talk, first broadcast as part of our virtual lecture series in July. Statues repeatedly made the headlines this year, particularly after a statue of 17th-century slaver Edward Colston was toppled from its Bristol plinth in June 2020. I found this in-depth look at post-WW2 statues a timely reminder of how difficult it is to escape the echoes of the past, and confirmation that the ongoing debate about the history we choose to publicly commemorate is far from straightforward.
The Regency era: everything you wanted to know
Launched during the first UK lockdown, our ‘Everything you wanted to know’ podcast series has given HistoryExtra a chance to go ‘back to basics’ on many topics of history, and I loved this ‘high-low’ introduction to the Regency era with great insights from Emily Brand. We talked about how the Regency came about and the royals themselves, plus fashions and trendsetters like Beau Brummel. But we also covered the period’s darker side, with a look at life inside Georgian brothels, the constraints on female agency, and how women might have dealt with menstruation.
Plus, I’d like to give a special mention to another interview with Emily from earlier in 2020, when we discussed the fascinating and scandalous history of the Byron family. It’s a family tree packed full of figures that are just as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ as the infamous poet himself, with plenty of tales that are stranger than fiction.
Chosen by Susanne Frank, art editor:
An ordinary Nazi
Daniel Lee’s detective story about some old documents found in the stuffing of an armchair becomes a hunt for answers about guilt, blame and responsibility. Why did Robert Griesinger join the National Socialist party and became an active participant in Nazi crimes? It was compelling to hear how someone who walked the same Stuttgart streets as my grandparents became a small cog in the deadly machinery of terror.
Chosen by David Musgrove, content director of BBC History Magazine and HistoryExtra:
I remember recording this interview very clearly because it was my last interview before the pandemic closed down our offices back in March, which now feels like another world. I also remember it for the topic, women in the Viking world, which is magnificently tackled by Dr Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir in her book Valkyrie. She’s really shaken up the way we view Viking age society, and the place of women within it, with this book, and hopefully that comes across in the interview.
Medieval eels and Englishness
Dr John Wyatt Greenlee is the self-confessed ‘Surprised Eel historian’ on Twitter. He posts such fascinating snippets about the place of eels in medieval economy and society that I made it my mission to get him on the podcast, and onto the pages of BBC History Magazine. If you want to understand why eels were big news in the Middle Ages (and why wouldn’t you?), this is the podcast for you.
William and Cnut: a tale of two conquerors
This podcast had so much good stuff in it that we made an extended version for the website. Dr Emily Ward is excellent at explaining how the story of the 11th century is so much more than just 1066, and how we all ought to be far more aware of happened 50 years earlier with the Danish Conquest in 1016. If it’s a subject that interests you, make sure to also check out the accompanying feature on the women of 1016 and 1066.
Chosen by Ellie Cawthorne, section editor of BBC History Magazine and host of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Isabel Wilkerson on caste in America
One of this year’s most thought-provoking (and immensely readable) books was Caste, by Pulitzer prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson. In it, she makes a bold and compelling argument: that we should view the United States as a caste system, much like that of India or Nazi Germany. In this conversation about the book, Wilkerson explains how this new perspective can help explain the most brutal aspects of American history, and shares some personal stories that really hammer home the inescapable ways that modern society is shaped by a history of division.
A 1930s ghost hunt
I’ve long been a fan of Kate Summerscale’s involving historical non-fiction books, and to coincide with the publication of her latest, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, she joined me to discuss the 1930s obsession with all things that go bump in the night. The story is a surprising mashup of the banal and the bizarre, which leads to some entertaining anecdotes including psychic shoplifting and a poltergeist mongoose named Gef. But throughout Kate is careful to keep an eye on the darker subcurrents that make this story much more than just a cheap thrill ride.
The history of medicine: everything you wanted to know
Although I hate to admit it, I’ve always had an appetite for the grisly and macabre. And this podcast certainly scratches that itch. Answering listener questions on the subject, Mary Fissell offers an accessible introduction to the subject, covering some of the key developments in healthcare history that have shaped all of our lives. Highlights include historical contraceptives, medical ethics and how ordinary people experienced previous pandemics.
Browse our full podcast archive, which includes more than 700 episodes on our website.
The HistoryExtra podcast is produced by Ben Youatt and Jack Bateman.