David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Abulafia is emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge.

Was the Black Death racist?

Even the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, we are now being told, practised racial discrimination as it raged through Europe wiping out maybe half of the existing population. The new idea is that black people were more likely to die from the plague than white ones. The ‘evidence’ presented by an American researcher and

Tracey Emin and the problem with museum trustees

The Royal Academy has nominated Tracey Emin to be a trustee of the British Museum. There is quite a fanfare about the appointment – she is the first female artist to join the Board. Emin’s ability to shock and to push at the boundaries of what might be considered art, often invoking her own sex life,

Remembering Dido – and the fate of Carthage

It is a curious fact that between the foundation of Tunis by the Arabs in the 7th century and the foundation of Tel Aviv in the early 20th century no major cities were created on the shores of the Mediterranean. Even those cities were not quite new: Tunis, as Katherine Pangonis points out, was partly

Our future life on Earth depends on the state of the ocean

When we observe the ocean we rarely peek beneath its surface. As Helen Czerski shows in her lively and engrossing account of the physics of ocean spaces, we would not see much anyway. Sounds travel well in water, and blue whales talk to one another across thousands of miles; but light soon disappears, apart from

Why is Netflix pretending that Cleopatra was black?

‘I remember my grandmother saying to me: I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’ So asserts a trailer for a new Netflix ‘docuseries’ looking at the lives of powerful women in history. Alas for the speaker, an American of African descent, her grandmother’s idea of historical truth was highly subjective.

Was Leonardo da Vinci’s mother a slave?

There is great excitement in Italy, which has spilled over into the British press: Carlo Vecce, a professor from Naples, has discovered documents in the archives of Florence that appear to indicate that Caterina, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, was a baptised slave who had been brought all the way to Tuscany from the

Were old children’s history books racist?

If Brighton and Hove Council has its way, children as young as seven are to be taught about the ‘white privilege’ supposedly derived from 500 years of colonialism. But is it true that the history we have been learning from childhood has been infused with the great isms of our day – colonialism, imperialism and

Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel is no place for solar panels

If Cambridge colleges were entitled to register protected characteristics, there is no doubt what they would be in the case of King’s College. Announcing the election of Dr Gillian Tett (currently at the FT) as the next Provost, the current Provost of King’s, Mike Proctor, has described the college as ‘this vibrant and forward-looking institution’.

Harry isn’t the first rebellious ‘spare’

A historian should feel a strong sense of déjà vu on reading about Prince Harry’s rebellion against his family. Rebellious ‘spares’ are a constant feature of English history since at least 1066. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s characteristically vivid new book The World: A Family History offers plenty of gory examples from ancient Egypt, medieval China and

The truth about getting into Oxbridge

Liz Truss suggests that all students who score straight A*s at A-level should be interviewed by Oxford or Cambridge. They, and their parents, might well wonder why they would not be summoned for an interview if they can achieve such impressive results. But it’s not that simple. Post-A-level candidates are much fewer in number than

Courage on the high seas

The Shetland Islands and the Faroes may seem to be somewhere out there in distant waters, marginal and in the greater scheme of things not very important in the history of the world. But from a maritime perspective it is precisely the fact that they are suspended in mid-ocean, surrounded by water that teems with

Can Keir escape?

43 min listen

This week Lara Prendergast and William Moore talk to Katy Balls and the journalist Paul Mason about the future of Labour (00:40). Followed by historian David Abulafia and the Sunday Times education editor Sian Griffiths on the announcement of Cambridge University’s plans to limit the number of their private school students (15:20). Finally, a debate

The culture wars have crept into Oxbridge admissions

The characters in Sarah Vaughan’s thriller Anatomy of a Scandal include rich Oxford undergraduates from Eton whose main preoccupations are drinking and trashing rooms. They are what it is fashionable to call ‘privileged white males’; while the typical female Oxbridge student is ‘slim, tall, well dressed. Entitled… they knew they belonged there’. The truth, however,

Bitter harvest – how Ukraine’s wheat has always been coveted

Publishers love books with ambitious subtitles such as ‘How Bubblegum Made the Modern World’, and this one’s, about American wheat remaking the world, was no doubt devised to appeal to readers in the United States. It is not really appropriate: for ‘American’, read ‘Ukrainian’. The focal point of Oceans of Grain lies very far from