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Academic Insights for the Thinking World


10 things you need to know about Magna Carta

This year marks the 800th anniversary of one of the most famous documents in history, the Magna Carta. Nicholas Vincent, author of Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction , tells us 10 things everyone should know about the Magna Carta.

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Compassionate law: Are gay rights ever really a ‘non-issue’?

On his recent visit to Kenya, President Obama addressed the subject of sexual liberty. At a press conference with the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, he spoke affectingly about the cause of gay rights, likening the plight of homosexuals to the anti-slavery and anti-segregation struggles in the United States.

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Austerity and the prison

Greece is not alone in suffering from budget cuts arising from the era of austerity. In the UK, local councils, libraries, museums – all public services have been cut. Criminal Justice has not escaped this cost-cutting. The consequence has been fewer police officers on the streets, less money for legal aid lawyers, and closures of Magistrates courts.

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How much do you know about the American Revolution? [quiz]

Do you know your George Washingtons from your Thomas Jeffersons? Do you know your British tyrants from your American Patriots? Test your knowledge of the American Revolution with this quiz, based on Robert J. Allison’s The American Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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Introducing psychoanalysis

Daniel Pick, author of Psychoanalysis: A Very Short Introduction, introduces psychoanalysis, discusses its role within history and culture and tells us how psychoanalysis is used today. How has psychoanalysis developed from the late nineteenth century?

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How much do you know about the history of myth? [quiz]

Myths have been applied to the arts and sciences for thousands of years and been used in seminal works by prominent figures such as Sigmund Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes. How much do you know about the history of myth? Test your knowledge in the following quiz, based on Robert Segal’s Myth: A Very Short Introduction.

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Pluto and Charon at last!

NASA’s New Horizons probe swept past Pluto and its moons at 17 km per second on 14 July. Even from the few close up images yet beamed back we can say that Pluto’s landscape is amazing. Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is quite a sight too, and I’m glad that I delayed publication of my forthcoming Very Short Introduction to Moons so that I could include it.

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A royal foxhunt: The abdication of Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Stewart became Queen of Scots aged only 6 days old after her father James V died in 1542. Her family, whose name was anglicised to Stuart in the seventeenth century, had ruled Scotland since 1371 and were to do so until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Raised in France from 1548, she married the heir to the French throne (1558) and did not come to Scotland until after he died in 1561.

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How much do you know about Roman Britain? [quiz]

For four centuries Britain was an integral part of the Roman Empire, a political system stretching from Turkey to Portugal and from the Red Sea to the Tyne and beyond. Britain’s involvement with Rome started long before its Conquest, and it continued to be a part of the Roman world for some time after the final break with Roman rule. But how much do you know about this important period of British history?

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Carefully constructed: The language of Franz Kafka

A few months ago I took part in a discussion of Kafka on Melvyn Bragg’s radio programme In Our Time. One of the other participants asserted that Kafka’s style describes horrific events in the emotionally deadpan tone of a bureaucrat report. This struck me immediately as wrong in lots of ways. I didn’t disagree, because time was short, and because I wouldn’t want to seem to be scoring points of a colleague. But it occurred to me that the speaker, a professor of English Literature, had probably only read Kafka in English, and only the old translations by W. and E. Muir.

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9780199328338 - American Women's History: A Very Short Introduction (VSI)

The history of American women [quiz]

Over the past several decades, few fields of American history have grown as dramatically as women’s history. Today, courses in women’s history are standard in most colleges and universities, and historians regularly produce scholarship on women and gender. In 1981, historian Gerda Lerner provocatively challenged, “always ask what did the women do while the men were doing what the textbook tells us was important.”

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Look away now: The prophecies of Nostradamus

If you like your prophecies pin sharp then look away now. The 16th century celebrity seer Nostradamus excelled at the exact opposite, couching his predictions in terms so vague as to be largely meaningless. This has not, however, prevented his soothsayings attracting enormous and unending interest, and his book – Les Propheties – has rarely been out of print since it was first published 460 years ago. Uniquely, for a renaissance augur, the writings of Nostradamus are perhaps as popular today as they were four and a half centuries ago.

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The Jurassic world of … dinosaurs?

The latest incarnation (I chose that word advisedly!) of the Jurassic Park franchise has been breaking box-office records and garnering mixed reviews from the critics. On the positive side the film is regarded as scary, entertaining, and a bit comedic at times (isn’t that what most movies are supposed to be?). On the negative side the plot is described as rather ‘thin’, the human characters two-dimensional, and the scientific content (prehistoric animals) unreliable, inaccurate, or lacking entirely in credibility.

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The greatest charter?

On 15th June 2015, Magna Carta celebrates its 800th anniversary. More has been written about this document than about virtually any other piece of parchment in world history. A great deal has been wrongly attributed to it: democracy, Habeas Corpus, Parliament, and trial by jury are all supposed somehow to trace their origins to Runnymede and 1215. In reality, if any of these ideas are even touched upon within Magna Carta, they are found there only in embryonic form.

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The real world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Some reviewers of the first episodes of the current BBC1 adaptation have dismissed it is over-blown fantasy, even childish, yet Clarke’s characters are only once removed from the very real magical world of early nineteenth-century England. What few readers or viewers realise is that there were magicians similar to Strange and Norrell at the time: there really were ‘Friends of English Magic’, to whom the novel’s Mr Segundus appealed in a letter to The Times.

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Exploring the final frontier

On this day in 1953, the New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the following excerpt from his book, Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2015), Stewart A. Weaver discusses why we, as humans, want to explore and discover. For all the different forms it takes in different historical periods, for all the worthy and unworthy motives that lie behind it, exploration, travel for the sake of discovery and adventure, seems to be a human compulsion.

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