Were the two centuries from c. 1300 to c. 1500—an age that has come to be known as the Late Middle Ages—an era of calamity or an era of rebirth? Should we look on this time as still clearly medieval or as one in which humanity took its first decisive steps into modernity? Was it a period as distant from us as it appears, or was it closer than we suspect? Students of history are still trying, even after so many centuries, to reach anything approaching a consensus on the answers to these questions.
Ponder the many contradictions on your own and you may be frustrated by inconclusive answers. Instead, let Professor Philip Daileader be your guide and set you on the path to answers with The Late Middle Ages, the final course in his excellent trilogy that began with The Early Middle Ages and The High Middle Ages.
This provocative 24-lecture course introduces you to the age's major events, personalities, and developments and arms you with the essentials you need to form your own ideas about this age of extremes—an age that, according to Professor Daileader, "experiences disasters and tragedies of such magnitude that those who survive them cannot remember the like, and doubt that subsequent generations will be capable of believing their descriptions."
An Era of Disease, War, and Religious Turmoil ...
There was the Black Death, which killed perhaps half the population of Europe in four years and remained a constant and terrifying presence for centuries to come. ...
There was the carnage of frequent wars, particularly the Hundred Years War, and a steady progression in the deadly effectiveness of the weapons with which those wars might be waged. ...
There was religious turmoil, with the papacy humiliated, the popes departing Rome, and a Great Papal Schism that ultimately produced three competing popes, leaving the Catholic Church with no clear leader for a period of nearly 40 years. ...
And there was the threat of rebellion in both city and country as disasters and social change took their inevitable toll.
... or Were the Seeds of Modernity Planted?
On the other hand, even as Europe was reeling under these onslaughts, a powerful new way of thinking was coming to fruition. This was the beginning of the intellectual and cultural movement known as Humanism.
By Humanism's precepts, which harkened back to the moral inspiration inherent in Classical artistic values, humans have an enormous capacity for goodness, for creativity, even for the achievement of happiness. Moreover, that happiness was something that could be experienced not in the next life, but in this one.
But these were hardly the only forces that tug modern-day historians in multiple directions. The Middle Ages was also a period when the persisting legacy of knights, serfs, and castles coexisted with the cannons and muskets newly made possible by gunpowder.
It was a period when Scholastic theologians continued to question the nature of God and the salvation of humanity, while this new breed of Humanists urged a focus on humanity itself. And it was a time enlightened enough to welcome and appreciate the rise of the printing press, yet it still permitted and tolerated the torments of the Spanish Inquisition.
With a world of such contradictions and juxtapositions, is it any wonder that historians, including those who have been the most influential and evocative in studying this period, have differed on how history is to judge this era?debating even when it ended and modernity began?
As you might imagine, Professor Daileader is no stranger to this discussion. His opinion is that modernity in Europe came much later than is generally thought, occurring between 1750 and 1850.
More importantly, Professor Daileader's wealth of teaching skills has drawn consistent recognition and honors, beginning with his four Certificates of Distinction while still a graduate student at Harvard and ranging to his current occupancy of one of William and Mary's University Chairs in Teaching Excellence.
Encounter Extraordinary People and Events
The teaching skills that helped earn those honors include a delightful narrative style and a wry and pointed sense of humor, both of which are on regular display throughout these lectures. The result is a compelling course that introduces you to an extraordinary array of people and events.
- Meet women like Christine de Pizan, possibly the first woman to support herself and her family entirely through her literary efforts. Left to her own devices after the deaths of her husband and father, the Italian-born resident of France put her superb education to work, writing and selling poems, royal biographies, a defense of Joan of Arc, and even a book on military theory. But her greatest contributions were as an early feminist; with major works defending the intellectual and moral equality of women, she launched a discussion that would last for centuries.
- Encounter rulers who helped turn the tide of history, like Ferdinand and Isabella, who sponsored Columbus's voyages to the Americas but also expelled both the Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula and established the Spanish Inquisition. Or Philip IV of France, whose drive to assert supremacy over the papacy included the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the popes in Avignon and the arrest and trial of the Knights Templar, the military order supposedly answerable only to the pope.
- And discover radical thinkers and theologians such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and William Ockham, whose ideas dared to approach—and cross—the forbidden lines of heresy, sparking controversy, rebellion, and the sometimes fatal opposition of the church.
But as fascinating as the people of the Late Middle Ages were, its signpost events and developments were no less gripping, and Professor Daileader creates vibrant pictures in showing how each contributed to this complex and important era, including:
- The Black Death, which claimed what some historians now believe to be fully half of Europe's population in its first four-year visit (there were others) and left in its wake not only death and grief but widespread social and economic complications.
- The influence of the Inquisition's courts and the idea of the "witch"—especially the female witch—as well as the occurrence of the first witch trials and the widespread ordeals women fell prey to in the 16th and 17th centuries.
- The coming of paper to Europe, after its invention in China 1,000 years earlier, and the replacement of parchment by paper. This development was critical to the feasibility and spread of the printing press, perhaps even more so than the demands presented by the rise of literacy.
- The far-reaching effects of the historical transaction that has come to be known as the Columbian Exchange. The massive trade of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old and New Worlds rapidly changed both areas forever. As Europe gained enormous demographic and economic benefits, it was often at the cost of profound devastation to the Americas.
The impact of the exchange that began with Columbus's voyage is still felt today, as is the impact of the entire era whose end it roughly marks and whose story is presented so brilliantly in The Late Middle Ages.