Great Minds of the Medieval World

Course No. 4631
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
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Course No. 4631
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Course Overview

The medieval era was a watershed in Western history. This was a time of extraordinary advances in numerous fields of knowledge ranging from philosophy and theology to science, medicine, literature, and economics—as well as of revolutionary developments in education and the birth of the university. In its effects, this fascinating epoch was not only a time of great innovation, it was the era in which the seeds of the modern West were sown.

The unique legacy of the Middle Ages appears most clearly in the lives of its intellectual giants. Between the 4th and 15th centuries, the European and Mediterranean worlds produced an astonishing spectrum of visionary thinkers who shaped the culture of their times and profoundly influenced subsequent eras, leaving their mark on history in ways that reverberate to the present day.

In this seminal period, towering figures such as Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, and Thomas Aquinas worked to integrate the Greek philosophical tradition and the Christian theological tradition, forming a platform of thought and knowledge from which the modern Western world would take shape.

Medieval innovation also developed through a great cross-fertilization of thinking, involving the work of remarkable minds such as

  • Anicius Boethius, the Roman politician and philosopher whose work established a template of academic education that endures in the modern world;
  • Alhacen, the Islamic scholar who pioneered core theories of optics and is considered the father of scientific methodology;
  • Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher and jurist whose writings remain a core element of Jewish law and culture; and
  • Alfred the Great of England, a monarch who sought to better his world by spearheading an ambitious educational program of preserving and translating important texts.

The voices of brilliant women were also heard in these times, among them

  • Héloïse, the illustrious French scholar of classical languages and literatures, religious luminary, and one of history’s preeminent intellects; and
  • Christine de Pisan, who, defying tragic circumstances, became Europe’s first professional female writer, penning provocative and impactful works across a remarkably broad range.

In the Middle Ages’ foremost minds, we see the roots of numerous elements of today’s world—from the religious thought of Gregory the Great and Rashi to the enlightened government of Charlemagne and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the logical formulations of William of Ockham, and the literary creations of Dante Alighieri and Thomas Malory.

In the 24 lectures of Great Minds of the Medieval World, Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University guides you on a compelling journey into the lives of the vanguard thinkers of the Middle Ages. Employing a broad definition of greatness, this course discusses the era’s most outstanding innovators and visionaries whose great contributions included facilitating the achievements of others. In this remarkable gallery of great minds, you’ll encounter the leading lights of a world-shaping era, exploring their unique contributions to knowledge and the growth of our civilization.

The Master Spirits of an Age

Beginning with the monumental Augustine of Hippo, whose life and writings laid a foundation for philosophical and religious thinking for centuries to come, you’ll study the contribution of intellects such as these:

  • The Venerable Bede: Come to grips with this extraordinarily prodigious thinker—the revered English monk, theologian, multifaceted writer, and teacher under whose influence England became one of the great centers of learning of the early Middle Ages.
  • Avicenna: Learn about this peerless Persian scholar, a mathematical genius and author of the foundational texts of medieval medicine, whose penetrating philosophical works deeply influenced the great intellects of the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions.
  • Hildegard of Bingen: Take the measure of the divine visions and mystical writings of Hildegard, one of the Middle Ages’ great polymaths and one of the few figures to be officially sanctioned and authorized by the church; and explore her impact as a preacher and her remarkable contributions to medicine, music, and literature.
  • Peter Abelard: Learn about the hugely impactful works and theories of arguably the medieval era’s greatest intellect, a philosophical firebrand who was tried twice for heresy; and examine his controversial career and his tragic love affair with the brilliant Héloïse.
  • Thomas Aquinas: Encounter this weightiest of minds and religious scholar of vast influence, and investigate his core thought on Aristotle and his Summa Theologiae, containing perhaps the most famous arguments for God’s existence ever written.
  • Lorenzo de’ Medici: Witness how this extraordinary Italian statesman, as the de facto political leader of Florence, balanced ingenious diplomatic exploits with a visionary dedication to continuing education and passionate patronage of literature and art.

A Rich Diversity of Groundbreaking Thought

Across the span of the lectures, you’ll investigate medieval thinkers who grappled with a wide range of human concerns. In the realm of education, you’ll assess the pivotal achievements of figures such as Isidore of Seville and Peter Lombard, whose writings were cornerstones of academic training and scholarship during the Middle Ages.

The lectures also reveal a range of farsighted medieval statesmen. In addition to exploring the thought of Alfred the Great and Lorenzo de’ Medici, you’ll learn how the Frankish emperor Charlemagne used his intellect to build a state that supported theology and philosophy, sending scouts throughout the known world to gather, preserve, and translate texts, and bringing to his court the greatest living minds of the late 8th and early 9th centuries.

In the domain of art, you’ll grasp how the Italian poet Petrarch pioneered psychological realism in poetry, influencing Shakespeare. And you’ll observe how Dante and Chaucer developed literary strategies that allowed them to ruminate on the full spectrum of medieval society.

A Story of Astounding Human Dimension

As a highly memorable asset of this course, Professor Armstrong goes to great lengths to bring these historical figures to life in three-dimensional terms. A medievalist of profound knowledge and insight, she details not only their great works and intellectual contributions, but also conveys a vivid sense of their personal realities, ambitions, triumphs, and failings in an enthralling engagement with some of history’s most remarkable human beings.

Among many unforgettable moments, you’ll encounter the beloved Bede on his deathbed—still editing, translating, and teaching his students until his final breath. You learn of Thomas Aquinas’s incredible powers of mind and ability to dictate his unfolding thought to three or four secretaries simultaneously. You’ll learn how the symbiotic relationship between Abelard and Héloïse shaped their destinies and greatest achievements. And you’ll come face to face with Saladin, a great military leader and studious intellect who worked for peace, and whose extraordinary acts of chivalry to his enemies are perhaps unique in all of history.

In Great Minds of the Medieval World, you’ll enjoy a richly illuminating portrait of the human industry, vision, and phenomenal brilliance that is the gift and legacy of the Middle Ages. These thought-provoking lectures take you deeply to the heart of one of civilization’s most dynamic and formative eras.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Augustine of Hippo
    Begin the inquiry with Augustine, whose writings were a towering influence on the great medieval minds that followed. Trace Augustine’s life, from his early experiences and restless spiritual inquiry to his conversion to Christianity and ministry. Study his core teachings on the nature of language, good and evil, and free will. x
  • 2
    Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory the Great
    These three extraordinary figures, together with Augustine, are considered the fathers of the Christian church. Learn about Ambrose’s contributions to aligning the ideals of the classical world with those of Christianity, Jerome’s writings and his seminal Latin version of the Bible, and Gregory’s influential “fourfold” model of reading scripture. x
  • 3
    Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy
    The remarkable Anicius Boethius combined a top-level political career with noteworthy contributions to education and philosophy. Assess his huge influence in defining the parameters of medieval education; his work to heal schisms in the early church; and his masterwork, the Consolation of Philosophy, written as he awaited execution on false charges. x
  • 4
    Isidore of Seville and the Etymologies
    Isidore of Seville left another extraordinary legacy to education. Trace the arc of his career, from his early immersion in the Greek and Roman classics to his advocacy of cathedral schools and his creation of the Etymologies, a massive encyclopedia of human knowledge and one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages. x
  • 5
    The Venerable Bede
    The English monk Bede rose to become a revered and beloved teacher and a huge influence on future generations of scholars and educators. Following his seemingly miraculous survival of the plague, learn about his self-education and astonishing body of works, and study excerpts from his monumental Ecclesiastical History of the English People. x
  • 6
    Alcuin, Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great
    Now, investigate the remarkable partnership between the British scholar Alcuin of York and the Frankish emperor Charlemagne in creating a palace school and center of learning at Aachen. Grasp how both Charlemagne and Alfred the Great of England demonstrated a visionary commitment to learning by working to gather, preserve, and translate important texts. x
  • 7
    Avicenna and the Golden Age of Islam
    The Islamic scholar Avicenna was one of history’s great polymaths. Learn about his remarkable youthful accomplishments, his impact on medieval medicine through two core texts, and the astounding range of his writings. Explore three key elements of his thought: his views on “essence” and “existence,” the problem of evil, and the mind/body dualism. x
  • 8
    Alhacen and the Scientific Method
    This lecture discusses another of the great minds of Islam’s Golden Age. Investigate Alhacen’s seminal theories of optics and vision, which laid the foundation for later optical science. Grasp his contribution to resolving classic scientific conundrums, and his role in developing scientific methodology, based in rigorous empirical testing of his own theories. x
  • 9
    Averroes and Aristotelian Philosophy
    Averroes’s extraordinary mind was shaped by the sophisticated society of medieval Muslim Spain. Follow his long scholarly service to the caliph of Marrakesh, which produced his hugely influential commentaries on Aristotle, reconciling Aristotle’s philosophy with Islamic thought. Learn also about his illustrious legal career and contributions to medicine. x
  • 10
    Maimonides and Jewish Law
    The writings of Maimonides, the Jewish scholar, philosopher, and jurist, remain a key component of Jewish culture and have influenced legal philosophy down to the modern day. Here, explore his cornerstone work on Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, his Guide for the Perplexed, which works to integrate Greek philosophy with Jewish theology, and his thought on the Via Negativa, or Negative Theology. x
  • 11
    Rashi and Biblical Interpretation
    Discover the remarkable commentaries on the Torah and Talmud by the French Jewish rabbi Rashi—works considered definitive within the faith—in which he sought to thoroughly explicate the texts to readers. Using textual excerpts, learn how later scholar-writers known as “tosafists” worked to further elaborate and extend Rashi’s commentaries. x
  • 12
    Saladin and the Defeat of the Crusaders
    Here, encounter one of history’s most unusual political leaders: a brilliant military commander who worked for peace, and also demonstrated a deep interest in learning and faith. Track his ingenious strategy against the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin, and follow the aftermath of the conflict, events that reveal Saladin’s visionary acts of humanity and broadmindedness. x
  • 13
    Hildegard of Bingen
    Hildegard, the medieval mystic and polymath, was recently recognized as both a saint and a Doctor of the Church. Follow her unique accomplishments as the only woman of her time to write officially sanctioned theological books and to preach openly. Investigate her remarkable visions and her achievements in music, medicine, and literature. x
  • 14
    Bernard of Clairvaux
    Like Pope Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux made a historic contribution through promoting and explicating important religious teachings. Learn about his seminal work in monastic reform, his great skill as an orator, his public role in resolving religious controversies of his time, and his influential writings on church doctrine. x
  • 15
    Abelard and Héloïse
    This lecture highlights two of history’s legendary intellects. Trace the career of Peter Abelard as a teacher and philosophical writer of vast impact, and the intellectual and religious life of his student, Héloïse, whose brilliance may have exceeded his own. Grasp how their tragic relationship ultimately served as a catalyst for their greatest intellectual achievements. x
  • 16
    Peter Lombard and the Sentences
    In the Sentences, Peter Lombard wrote the most important and commented-upon theological textbook of the Middle Ages. Study the book’s key influences and Lombard’s original thought on matters such as the Holy Spirit and the nature of Christ, and learn how the book offers a systematic framework for exploring important theological questions. x
  • 17
    Thomas Aquinas
    Thomas Aquinas’s towering influence as a religious scholar extends from the Middle Ages to the present day. Investigate his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae, focusing on his thought on Aristotelian philosophy and his famous arguments for God’s existence. Learn also about his remarkable character and astounding powers of mind. x
  • 18
    William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus
    The work of two remarkable British scholars influenced both philosophical and political thought. Learn about Duns Scotus’s provocative theories on the “univocity” of being and the notion of haecceity, or “thisness.” Grasp how Ockham’s thought anticipates modern ideas about knowledge, language, and the separation of church and state. x
  • 19
    Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Alighieri
    This lecture explores interesting parallels in the work and thought of two literary geniuses. Contemplate the range of Dante and Chaucer’s writings, highlighting Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and observe how the two authors employed a literary strategy that allowed them to speak about every level and aspect of society. x
  • 20
    Francesco Petrarch
    The Italian poet Petrarch stood at the crossroads of the medieval and early modern worlds. Learn about his life and key works, and his role in a growing cultural shift that placed new emphasis on the individual, a valuing of art and history, and an intersection of the secular and religious worlds. x
  • 21
    Lorenzo de’ Medici
    Known as Il Magnifico, Lorenzo de’ Medici was a statesman and civic leader of extraordinary farsightedness. Trace his remarkable diplomatic accomplishments as de facto political leader of Florence, as well as his activity as a patron of literature and art, founder of a school for sculpture, and promoter of continuing education. x
  • 22
    Christine de Pisan
    The intellectually brilliant Christine de Pisan became Europe’s first professional female writer. Learn about the extraordinary diversity of her work, her masterful love poetry, and her writings in response to the distorted representation of women in medieval literature, highlighting her allegorical text, The Book of the City of Ladies. x
  • 23
    Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte Darthur
    Malory’s massive retelling of Arthurian legend reflects deeply on the social order of his times. Grasp how this remarkable text elaborates an ideal code of knightly conduct, and then “tests” it throughout the narrative, comprising a stark commentary on medieval political realities while offering an inspiring vision of what might yet be. x
  • 24
    William Caxton and the Birth of Printing
    Conclude by assessing the remarkable contribution of England’s first printer. Learn about the advent of movable type printing and Caxton’s ingenious entrepreneurship in publishing, highlighting his role in shaping the tastes of the reading public, standardizing English, and making the works of the Middle Ages’ great minds accessible. x

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Your professor

Dorsey Armstrong

About Your Professor

Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
Dr. Dorsey Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she has taught since 2002. The holder of an A.B. in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from Duke University, she also taught at Centenary College of Louisiana and at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include medieval women writers,...
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Great Minds of the Medieval World is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 41.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Zard review of Great Minds of the Medieval World This is the third course I have watched of Professor Armstrong's and like the other two she has delivered an excellent course. Although I have read a lot of books and watched several courses on the Medieval World that offered a lot of new material for me and I like that. Although some of the names were familiar to me, many were not and I had not really studied any of them. Although I enjoyed each lecture I was particularly taken by her last lecture which was on William Caxton. Never heard of him and her reasons for picking him over Gutenberg were fascinating as was Caxton's life. Lots of new learning for me, lots of new characters and lots to think about and just when I thought I knew it all. Boy, that was really dumb. Great course and she is a great instructor. Thoroughly enjoyed her lecture series on the Black Death.
Date published: 2018-07-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Comprehensive and Entertaining I found and watched this through Great Courses Plus. I chose it because I had so enjoyed Dorsey Armstrong’s Course on King Arthur. I was not disappointed; she was just as thorough and enthuastic in this course. And while I knew many of the Great Minds, I was introduced to several I had never heard of before.
Date published: 2018-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Speaker Dr. Dorsey Armstrong is one of the academic people who really know how to speak well. Often I find that no matter how well-educated and qualified a teacher is, if he/she cannot deliver a message that attract the students' attention and allow them to understand, it is nothing but a futile effort. In terms of contents, I find her presentations very logical. Every sentence meaningfully follows from the previous one. As for accuracy and fairness, I think I can at least start to check them out when I have understood her points. Great job, Dr. Armstrong.
Date published: 2017-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professional Presentation This is an era of history many people know little about. She is a good lecturer. I like her voice, grammar, and diction.
Date published: 2017-06-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An intriguing look into the Medieval Mind This course is a brief cursory treatment of the great thinkers and scientists of the Medieval worlds of Europe and the Middle East. Starting with the decline of the Roman Empire and ending with the Early Modern Period, Professor Armstrong runs through the gamut of the entire intellectual development of Medieval thought. She has done her research very well and her presentation of her topic is well rehearsed and lively. This course tries to back a lot into very little space. Trying to distill the major ideas of Augustine, Aquinas, and Maimonides is a challenge all by itself. However, Professor Armstrong does her best to try and over the most important aspects of their philosophies. Here I think that the course could have used more infographics and notes to better illustrate the philosophical ideas better. Great Minds could also have used more maps when describing particular locations in Europe and the Middle East. Professor Armstrong makes mention of many cities and kingdoms that existed at this time and maps would have better enhanced the viewer’s learning. Overall, this is a fine addition to the Great Courses series on great minds. Anyone interested in knowing more about the theologians, scientists, and philosophers who helped to make the modern world would be well served by this course.
Date published: 2017-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting I have a degree in Medieval History so I was interested to see what would be said about these giants of medieval thought. The professor does a very good job of presenting each person clearly and within the context of the age. If you have taken college Philosophy or religion courses, you will be familiar with many of these names, as they overlap into western philosophical and religious studies. I think there could be a Great Minds of the Medieval World II course that would illuminate some of the more obscure yet no less important figures of the medieval age. I would like to see this professor teach such a course. I would also like to see her teach a course on Early Modern Europe. One thing that was particularly good about this course was the context in which these thinkers lived and were received. The professor describes in some detail the local and social turmoil of the times. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in the history of western thought.
Date published: 2017-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Review Course Prof. Armstrong's course on the Great Minds of the Medieval World was well constructed going into sufficient detail without becoming overly scholarly. I found my understanding of this often overlooked period of European history and literature greatly increased. Prof. Armstrong's presentation style was engaging and never flagged. I give her course a strong recommendation for those interested in history and literature.
Date published: 2017-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stimulating Course Like many other reviewers, I think Dorsey Armstrong is an excellent teacher. Her engaging style and presence complement her extensive knowledge and she has the ability to visually place her subjects in the period and circumstances in which they lived. While I appreciate the criticisms raised by other reviewers about some of her choices (e.g., Saladin) for this series, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in medieval history and the development of Western thought. After this viewing this series, I've found myself re-reading several books (Augustine's Confessions, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Chaucer) with a greater appreciation for their subjects and style of presentation.
Date published: 2017-01-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Whole Lotta Thinkin’ Goin’ On One of my favorite TGC profs, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, has created a series which is a good companion to her earlier talks on the medieval world. Rather than focusing on historical events, this course introduces the thinkers and “imagineers” of the period. She has done her best in the “department of diversity” by including Muslim, Jewish, Christian, secular, and female thinkers. There were several which I only knew by name before this course; now I am more familiar with why they are considered so important. There were a couple of choices which I thought were a little “iffy”: 1) SALADIN. Although Prof. Armstrong tells us he was a great poet, thinker, etc., we are given no evidence. Most of the episode is given over to a discussion of his military and diplomatic tactics, which are probably the things most people already know about him. I don’t think he is in the same category as Aquinas or Avicenna. 2) SIR THOMAS MALORY. Sure, he wrote an influential book on a topic most people enjoy (King Arthur and his knights), but was he really a “great mind” or just a good writer with a lot of time on his hands (in prison)? I think Prof. Armstrong let her background as an Arthurian scholar cloud her judgement. Overall, this is an informative course that fits in well with earlier TGC offerings. I felt there could have been more video enhancement of the talks; I don’t think students would lose much by getting the audio version. Also, the Prof has limited her quotes in early languages, and didn’t get carried away with her discussion of “persecution culture,” which marred earlier courses. She has a good sense of humor and a friendly classroom demeanor, which make her courses a pleasure to follow.
Date published: 2016-10-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Augie said it best...the course is uti-frui Audio download Augustine of Hippo introduced the phrase 'uti-frui' in his early writings...a phrase roughly meaning his distinction between things that were useful and those that were to be enjoyed (also, enjoying the good (God) and avoiding the bad). I enjoyed more the presentation than the content. (This discussion could get pretty heavy if you want to go down this road...Dorsey didn't do, so neither will I.) I could go as high as 3.5 since Prof Armstrong is such an entertaining and knowledgeable lecturer...and I could recommend the series with a few caveats. For starters, the course should really be titled "Some Great Philosophic Minds of the Medieval World...with Emphasis on Western Europe". Undoubtedly, characters like Augustine, Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Alighieri. Petrarch, (the) de’ Medicis, Thomas Aquinas, Bede, and all the others discussed in these lectures were clever folks who contributed to developing a unique western philosophical thought pattern that we all know and love today. But weren't there others who may have shaped the ways that that philosophy actually propagated through time, shaking and shaping their world in their time in ways that created environments that ultimately shape our world today. Probably the most glaring omission is Mohammad...was he not a Great Mind from Medieval Times? Equally important may be Attila, Justinian (or at least Procopius), or Osman. I'm sure that these guys had a few clever brain cells, and used them quite well is dispersing ideas and peoples throughout the regions of eastern and western Europe. It seems that the good professor leans heavily upon the Christian church for her philosophers, whose lifeworks seem to be as apologists for the faith...mostly by using Aristotelian methods. In addition, most of the earlier 'thinkers' wrote mostly for one another, with the general public restricted from access to the manuscripts (either due to doctrine or, more likely, literacy. Good on Dorsey for including Caxton, but why not Gutenberg, too?) For instance, I came away empty on the lectures about Abelard and Heloise, and Hildegard...sure they were pious and devoted, but in what ways did they shape our ways of thinking rationally? These were good, interesting lectures, but they could have been better. I recommend them to those who are committed to spending time with Harl and Dialeader (as well as other courses from Dorsey). Wait for a really good sale and coupon.
Date published: 2016-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great professor I have sought out all of this professor's courses. I have taught history courses in high school and middle she has added to my knowledge. Hope she adds more courses.
Date published: 2016-07-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Waste of Great Minds I do not mean to bash Professor Dorsey. She has a nice demeanor and is easy to listen to. The problem is the subject matter and to some extent the depth of her analysis. My overall reaction to the course was how little of lasting universal value any of these "great minds" achieved. I am sorry, expending enormous mental efforts to fabricate, debate, squabble and reconcile over the precise wording and details to describe the combination of divinity and humanity in Jesus, or exactly how the trinity is to be understood, does not exactly advance human thought in any useful way. Many of the "great minds" were jerry-rigging unconvincing ways to reconcile irreconcilable inconsistencies within Biblical text, church doctrine, or even between the church doctrine and Greek philosophers. In some cases the "great" thinker simply chose a middle path between two prior opposing positions - not a very astonishing mental achievement. It is particularly sad to think about all this effort when one realizes that not a single bit of this doctrine was ever taught or suggested by Jesus himself. It was all made up long after he died. And this religious sophistry, however ingenious, created incomprehensible church doctrine that was later crammed down the throats of the faithful under threat of a barbarian tortured death. The Protestant reformation was all about throwing out this sterile edifice of nonsense and let the faithful interpret the New Testament in accord with their own conscience. Is there anyone who really cares about these issues today? In some cases the "great" thinker simply catalogued a lot of material in a way useful to others. Particularly disappointing was the attempt to answer the "problem of evil". How could an all powerful and loving God permits babies to die horrible deaths, and evil-doers to triumph? The most laughable contribution by one of the "great minds" was to say (I am paraphrasing here) that evil does not exist, it is only the absence of good. So I was disappointed. It was interesting to me that the only great minds of the era who accomplished lasting contributions were Muslim scholars who preserved Greek literature, science and mathematics, and developed algebra, and Arabic numerals, among other mental achievements. Next to these accomplishments there rest of the "great minds" seem to have wasted their talents. Unfortunately I have to concur with others who found the presentation to be somewhat shallow on the substance of the alleged brilliant analysis. Rather than repeatedly saying someone was brilliant, it would have been far more convincing to delve into the analysis in some detail to demonstrate the brilliance. But in the end, she is defeated by the subject matter. If the result of a thinker's analysis is just a refinement of church doctrine, then no matter how fiendishly convoluted it is, it would be hard to trot that out to wow the listeners with the brilliance of the effort.
Date published: 2016-06-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Little substance, superficial. A great idea for a course that was unsatisfactory for these reasons: 1) The professor devotes as much or more time to unhelpful anecdotes about the thinkers than to the thinkers' ideas, intellectual and historical contexts, and influence. Perhaps the merit of this approach is to put a human face on an otherwise colorless figure of intellectual history, but I tend to think that the history of ideas should be about ideas, not biographical details. It is much more important to know what Thomas Aquinas (e.g.) was reacting to intellectually and why we are still talking about him today than to hear (as it happens in the course) a rumor about an outburst he made at a dinner with colleagues or general references to how much he studied (something that everyone should assume.) And if biographical information is included, its presentation could take much less time than is the case here. 2) I think the professor underestimates (or perhaps just misjudges) her Teaching Company audience. She seems to want to keep the audience laughing and keep the atmosphere light (as if she's teaching in middle or high school) but the effect of her jokes and levity is usually an unsatisfactory lecture of little substance, rather than effective pedagogy. TC professors have my undivided attention and they keep it with substance and interesting critical thought, not humor. 3) Linking with the last point, another underestimation or misjudgment: I find it a waste of time that the professor says of nearly every figure that he was "one of the greatest minds of his age," or something to the same effect. And she spends too much time insisting on this claim by just adding more adjectives (e.g., amazing, brilliant, intelligent.) This was unnecessary. Any reasonable person will assume that those discussed in this course were very smart. This is just another example of how these lectures are not as substantive as they could be.
Date published: 2016-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Medieval Minds: Develop-Mental Illuminations Enter the cerebral side of the “MEDIEVAL WORLD” by Professor Dorsey Armstrong. In the “GREAT MINDS of the Medieval World,” histories and societies stretching from Iberian Spain to Baghdad and from England to Mediterranean North Africa are explored with a dominant emphasis on the intellectual contributions and deconstructions that accompany such institutional changes during the 4th – 15th centuries. This period is populated with CHARACTERS, IDEAS, CONTROVERSIES, etc, that planted seeds which are still bearing fruit today. Converse with theologians, philosophers, educators, statesman, Judaeo-Christian-Islamic scholars, literary writers, patrons of the arts, and witness the birth of the university system and print culture. In short -- Great Minds – all contributors to the early modern period and today’s worldviews. During the early middle ages 4th - 10th period: the CHURCH FATHERS struggle with the fall of Rome, the value of pagan thought and literature, theology and biblical exegesis (Augustine / Gregory the Great); PHILOSOPHERS and monks will raise questions concerning the problem of universals and individuals that will dominate later periods (Boethius / Bede); STATESMAN and EDUCATORS begin to desire knowledge for its own sake that will develop into the UNIVERSITY system (Charlemagne / Alfred the Great). Moving to the higher middle ages 10th – 13th period: ISLAMIC contributions to philosophy science, methodology, medicine and optics are presented (Avicenna / Averroes); JUDAIC scholars on philosophy, law, and biblical exegesis are explored (Maimonides); survey the Crusades (Saladin); birth of scholasticism where CHRISTIAN authority itself is debated: theology-faith vs. philosophy-reason, church-altar vs. state-crown, Latin-Christianity vs. Greek-Orthodoxy, papal vs. patriarchal sees (Lombard / Aquinas / Ockham); Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will all wrestle with intense intellectual debates as ARISTOTELIAN logic and philosophy enters the arena and competes with classical PLATONIC ideas concerning creation, evil, contradiction, universals, monasticism, the good, the state etc. which are still debated today. Entering the later middle ages 13th – 15th period: witness the middle ages wane and the three estates model of feudal chivalric society transformed with the rise of an educated middle class of merchants and artisans; a RENAISSANCE HUMANISM: the usage of the European VERNACULAR languages replacing Latin as the dominant scholarly tongue, the growth in national LITERARY traditions, intellectual and artistic connections with the classical past, and the ARTS in general being valued for itself (Chaucer / Dante); a re-evaluation of its background Arthurian mythology (Malory), and its forward cultural trajectory into PRINT culture (Caxton). In conclusion, sociological portraits are painted in the mind’s eye and cultural dialogues speak to the ear that is both classical in its origin and modern in its outlook that bears the name medieval while destroying the stereotypical imagery of the term dark ages. The professor embodies the Renaissance-Humanism of the well rounded man / woman whose mind is nourished with history, philosophy, theology, science, literature, and print culture. As I commented in my review on the Medieval World: “ At times, I felt on a pilgrimage to a sacred initiation, or at a round table discussing justice, chivalry, beauty, and adventure, or on a spiritual quest in a divine theology of history!” This lecture series is grossly underrated and undervalued – a remarkable achievement and integration of various disciplines! Thanks to the professor and the Teaching Company for the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual journey… *** VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ***
Date published: 2015-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Minds of the Medieval World I have listened to this course four times, and I learn something new every time. Dr. Armstrong has been criticized for not being a historian. I disagree with this. Knowledge of the literature of a time period provides invaluable insight into the history of that era. Whatever other source of history of any era do we have? Most of all, Dr, Armstrong is one of the best story tellers I have ever heard. She is able to weave the fabric of the past into a tapestry that can be appreciated b all, ad I appreciate her. Buy it!!!
Date published: 2015-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Light Introduction to Medieval Minds Apart from one rather brief complaint about Dorsey Armstrong's treatment of Rashi by another reviewer, almost all criticism with respect to this course has been a comment on a lack of depth. I am often the first person to stand in line to bash home a point that a course is superficial, that it wastes opportunities, or that it fails to adequately explore other areas. Well, I am actually going to come to the defense of Professor Armstrong in this course. This course never even pretended to be an in depth analysis of the great thinkers of the medieval world. From the start, she makes it plain that this course is simply to dispel popular myth and introduce newcomers to the vibrant intellectuals that defined the medieval world. Professor Armstrong wants to introduce you to the men (and some women) who defined an age, an age loosely defined as nearly 1000 years. More than that, Professor Armstrong is very keen only to introduce you to individuals who had lasting impacts that helped lay the foundation for future eras. She shies away from men and women who represented dead-ends, or mentions in passing those who seemed opposed to a change in the times. If I have a single complaint about this course, it is not that we are given what is obviously designed to be an introduction to thinkers for the first time, it is that the overall picture is rather incomplete. While Professor Armstrong provides an almost beautifully drawn web of connections that brought the thought and institutions of the dying Roman World all the way to the emergence of what some scholars refer to as the Renaissance, she seems to let that particular mission overtake everything else in the medieval era. This course should have been 36 lectures long. Not to make the course more in depth about the thinkers, one lecture suits the purposes of this course well for most thinkers. Those other 12 lectures have to be for one or two champions of regressive development in the medieval era. At least two have to do with the Mongols, one in the MIddle East, the other as Mongols reached into Hungary. There were other poets and thinkers, other philosophers and scientists, and perhaps this course could be concluded Martin Luther. A mention to a Byzantine Emperor and an Ottoman Emperor would be a nice nod as well. The Medieval World was so much bigger than what we have seen, and a course like this should have given at least some mention of it, even if it was never really explored. It is critical to remember that the Medieval World did not just lead to the rise of Western Europe, but it also gave rise to Eastern Europe and the Spanish Empire in the New World. Next time, please, give us just a taste of this wider world. Especially after this course did this so well in the beginning. That complaint aside, this course succeeds in what it tries to do, and it does so remarkably well. Dorsey Armstrong is an exceedingly capable teacher, and I have enjoyed learning from her these past few months as I went through Arthur and the Medieval World. If you ever read this review, thank you for your effort. It was appreciated.
Date published: 2015-09-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Shallow!! This is the third course I have taken given by Professor Armstrong, the other two being "Medieval World", and "Turning points in Medieval History". Professor Armstrong's courses are about taking one broad, central aspect of medieval history and looking at it as it is exemplified in different cases. She did this in medieval world, where different themes of everyday life are examined, and in "Turning Points" where various pivotal events of medieval history are analyzed. In this course, central medieval thinkers are analyzed. There are three main groups of thinkers that are discussed. The first are theological thinkers of all three monotheistic religions. The early church fathers are discussed, including Ambrose, Jerome and of course Augustine among others. Later key theologians from the High and Late middle ages receive focus such as Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and Hildegard of Bingen. Two central Jewish Theologians also receive one lecture each – Maimonides and Rashi and finally, Averroes – the important Muslim Andalusian Aristotelian philosopher is discussed. My criticism with these lectures are that thirty minutes is definitely not enough time to even get a hint of the thinking of these men. I found the discussions of their teachings to be extremely superficial, and in fact I just couldn’t bring myself to finish all of them. The historical circumstances that were discussed as the backdrop for these figures were quite interesting though. Naturally since we are discussing the Medieval World, this group major part of the course taking fourteen lectures. The second group of people discussed are great statesmen: Charlemagne, Alfred the great, Saladin and finally Lorenzo De Medici. The Last group covered are poets and their contributions.. I think that Professor Armstrong did a much better job with this group as compared to the theologians – and I found the lectures to be quite interesting. Overall, this is the TGC course I enjoyed least so far. The discussions in some of the lectures were just unbelievably shallow – not at all on the level I expected from TGC courses. Even so, I did finish the course with a feeling that I learned something. The historical backdrop and story of the Jewish and Muslim Theologians was new to me and not touched upon in any of the other courses I have heard.
Date published: 2015-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent for Those Interested in the Middle Ages This is the third of The Great Courses I have by Dorsey Armstrong on the Middle Ages. Like the others, this one is excellent, although it tries to cover a lot of material in just twenty-four lectures, so in some instances she had to leave out some details. She is an excellent lecturer and obviously knows her material well. Her other courses often deal with events and characteristics of medieval society in general, and this one deals with individuals. Due to constraints she had to make a selection of individuals, and there are others I might have preferred to learn about, but the selection she did make was reasonable and fair.
Date published: 2015-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and insightful I really enjoyed Prof Armstrong's two other TC courses on the Medieval period. Her "Great Minds" is another excellent course. She covers about 30 interesting and important personalities and thinkers in the period from about 400 AD to 1460 AD, artfully describing the people and their contributions to Western thought. Many of the people covered are well known -- such as St. Augustine, Charlemagne, Saladin, Chaucer, and Lorenzo de Medici. Most are less well known but of considerable importance. Prof Armstrong is an excellent lecturer, speaking clearly and with passion about her subject. I look forward to her next Great Course.
Date published: 2015-02-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A wonderful idea that needs more depth As others have stated, the necessity of this course cannot be questioned but depth is lacking. She constantly as in other courses by her overlaps with the previous and next lecture when that valuable time could be used to go in depth about the current topic/person being discussed. Valuable information is not added or discussed just glossed over. I wanted to learn more but she did't go into more depth. I am currently listening to Turning points in Medieval History. As stated above she glosses over but does not tell us more or tends to repeat what she already said multiple times. I really wanted to know more about Alfred the Great or Heloise or even the Venerable Bead but she doesn't give it to us. Is the content just sparse or is there really more to these great minds? I would think so. She could read from their works more or even have more pictures to show and discuss their life more in detail. I don't want to dissuade anyone from buying this course, I still enjoyed it. It is a very basic introduction however to a broad swath of Medieval History.
Date published: 2015-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Fine Survey That Lacks Depth This course is a fine survey of the intellectual movers and shakers of the world, from roughly 400 to 1450 A.D. Starting with St. Augustine and stopping with William Caxton and the invention of the printing press, the lectures give a 30 minute overview of the great thinkers of the Pre-Renaissance Judeo-Christian-Islamic world. Dr. Dorsey Armstrong is a fine, enthusiastic lecturer who clearly knows the material. Many of the names covered in the course are familiar to customers of The Great Courses. But in the lecturer's attempt to cover so many topics over 1,000 years in just 24 lessons, the course suffers from a failing common to most survey courses: it covers time and topic at the expense of depth. There is really no way to cover the lives and work of the likes of Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas, and Geoffrey Chaucer in 30 minutes. It left me wanting for more. Below I recommend other courses I have taken that cover the time period in greater depth; The Middle Ages Set by Philip Daileader and The Vikings / Crusades set by Kenneth Harl.
Date published: 2014-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating content and superb delivery One of the very best, if not THE best, of the roughly twenty Great Courses that I have purchased thus far. If you need more proof that the Dark Ages weren't that dark after all, this is the course for you. This course covers a very diverse group of fascinating personalities spanning from late antiquity to the 15th century. The lectures have obviously been written with great care, with an emphasis on clarity, and the always engaging Dr. Armstrong deftly explains philosophical and theological material which could, in less capable hands, be quite challenging to grasp. Another feature of the course that I appreciated was the bibliography at the end of the Course Guidebook, which includes brief, helpful commentary on the works included.
Date published: 2014-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting! I like the professor, she is very dynamic. She Wake mW up about all of this grest thinkers of the middle age.
Date published: 2014-10-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Clearly presented, but thin on content The Teaching Company advertises "college level courses." I have seen, or listened to, dozens of The Great Courses, and in the large majority of cases they deliver. In a few cases, including this one, the lecture design and content are very superficial. Professor Armstrong spends an inordinate amount of time telling us how "great" a given individual was and making broad generalizations about some background issue, while devoting comparatively little to describing and analyzing the subject's actual accomplishments. For example, a listener who was unfamiliar with Chaucer, Petrarch, or Dante would come away from this course with no idea of what actually makes these persons "great." Yes, we get a few examples of characters in The Canterbury Tales and a hint about what's going on in The Divine Comedy, but surely in 30 minutes one can present an appreciation of such works that is intellectually stimulating, rather than thin and condescending. Contrast this course with Professor Williams series on REASON AND FAITH: PHILOSOPHY IN THE MIDDLE AGES. I realize the latter is more narrowly focused, and its audience more limited, but my point is that Professor Williams lectures are rigorous and full of content.
Date published: 2014-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and charming presentation The syllabus for this course is fantastic: each lecture covers an important major thinker of the medieval world. The presentation is always clear and well spoken with a somewhat casual style. But the prospective listener should be aware that the material is covered at a simple level, without any expectation of any significant general knowledge of history or philosophy. I would think of this course as a popular "distribution requirement" for non-majors, and not as part of the core sequence for history or philosophy majors. For the light weight entertainment that it is, the course is fascinating and the presentation charming.
Date published: 2014-09-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not so much Have watched a few episodes of this course from Dr. Armstrong and it is very disappointing so far. I loved The Medieval World (watched it twice!) but this one is, well incoherent. There are of course, many compelling figures from this period, but this course lacks the depth and breath required to bring them to life. Each class sketches a life, but the details are rather scattershot and lack focus. While Dr. Armstrong obviously has a wide and deep knowledge of The Middle Ages, here she seems to be struggling to fill up the 30 minutes of each segment. It is with great reluctance that I recommend to others that this course does not merit viewing.
Date published: 2014-08-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Incomplete knowledge The Great Courses present wonderful educational experiences, but this course was an exception. In two of the lectures, where I do have professional knowledge, Prof. Armstrong was a failure. she does not know or understand the approaches of Maimonides and Rashi. what is more, the other lectures (I listened to only half of the course) contained inaccuracies. While her delivery is pleasant, the content of her lectures is lacking. I am sad to give this review, but would be sadder if I I did not share my experience with others.
Date published: 2014-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent professor, Excellent course The course content is accessible, clear, and interesting. It doesn't require prior knowledge and covers a wide range of thinkers from different times and regions. The professor is excellent, appearing to show us the thinkers' own point of view, and not constantly criticizing them from the point of view of the "modern scholar", something quiet rare nowadays. Her presentation is clear and you can feel she is passionate about the subject of the course, which helps the audience. I really hope to see more classes by this professor! Especially on topics such as Anglo-saxon literature or the church fathers.
Date published: 2014-07-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Whirlwind Overview of Some Profound Thinkers Several years ago I gave Professor Armstrong rave reviews for her course “Medieval World,” which I still highly recommend. Unfortunately the present course, for me, does not merit the same enthusiasm. The idea of the course is promising, and if you wish for no more than a once over lightly presentation of some remarkable people during a remarkable time you may enjoy it immensely. The individuals covered – while obviously only a small sample of the many great thinkers and actors of the middle ages – are all fascinating and important figures. (I do strongly suggest that you have some background in general medieval history before taking this course on isolated individuals and events.) Professor Armstrong does a fine job of selecting exemplars from widely differing times, professions, religions, and cultures. Most of them would merit a course on their own And therein lies the rub, at least for me. Most crucially, the course sets up impossible expectations. It is a hopeless task to attempt to portray any of these extraordinary individuals – including their historical context, their biography, their thought and writings, and their legacy – in thirty minutes. Several lectures even tackle more than one great mind. Incredibly, for example, Chaucer and Dante each get their fifteen minutes of fame in the same half hour! The individual lectures, moreover, could have been far better organized. There was little clear pattern to the many bits of information presented. I wished for a more discernable story arc within each talk, instead of continually jumping from a snippet of biography to a few key thoughts to some remarks on contemporary events, and then back and forth again. Also, for a course entitled “Great Minds,” remarkably little of the actual thinking of those minds is exhibited. Significantly more information could have been presented if our professor had spoken more rapidly, with greater focus, and with less repetition. The Course Guidebook is quite good, and I found reviewing it after a lecture helped me to better appreciate what I had heard. So - I do realize that these thoughts may be more reflective of my particular views and expectations than of the course itself. If the individuals discussed interest you, and you do not mind the necessarily rapid and superficial overview that is provided in such a whirlwind treatment, you may find it quite worthwhile. It is for this reason that I checked I “would recommend it to a friend.” If you do take it, please share your impressions in a review.
Date published: 2014-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Illuminating the Medieval Mind Very few people on the planet are capable of bringing to life the ideas of the Middle Ages for a mainstream audience. Dorsey Armstrong is one of the elect. For Lifelong Learners, it becomes apparent immediately that Professor Armstrong is one of those gifted scholar-lecturers who seemingly can make any topic interesting. This eclectic lecture series is a perfect recipe for a general interest course in our intellectual and cultural heritage. For the enjoyment of those with even a passing interest in the Middle Ages, Professor Armstrong expands the definition of “great minds” to include agents of intellectual change across many disciplines. The course traces the contributions of kings, monks, popes, educators, historians, philosophers, mathematicians, and warriors. In the twenty-four lectures, we come to see how these individuals transformed the medieval world and established the foundations of the early modern era. In an extremely thoughtful structure for the course, Professor Armstrong has conceived four groups of six lectures in “clusters of influence.” The first cluster focuses on the early medieval world where influences of both the classical pagan tradition and Christianity came together in the great wellspring of thought of St. Augustine. The second group introduces minds from the Islamic and Jewish traditions from the 9th through the 12th centuries, including Avicenna, Alhacen, Averroes, Maimonides, and Rashi. The third cluster examines the synthesis of new ideas from the end of the 11th through the 13th centuries in the High Middle Ages; the thematic focus here is on theology and education with the ideas of such luminaries as Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas. The closing section addresses the achievements that occurred in the late Middle Ages in literature, economics, technology, politics, and the arts, ushering in the Renaissance. The creative organization of the course is apparent in the elegant transcript book for this course, which reads like a published manuscript. The pleasure of these lectures derives in part from the professor’s willingness and ability to draw upon popular culture for essential reference points. Thomas Cahill, a non-academic author of two lively books on the Middle Ages, is mentioned in the context of the preservation of classical manuscripts at the court of Charlemagne. The lecturer also offers an astute critique of Ridley Scott’s big-budget film “The Kingdom of Heaven,” which recreates the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin at a key moment between the Second and Third Crusades. She also alludes to several modern adaptations of the Arthurian legends, including John Boorman’s film “Excalibur” and two novels, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” and T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” Although it was not mentioned in the course, the popular historian William Manchester wrote a short, quirky book, “A World Lit Only By Fire—The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance,” which posited the traditional view of the Middle Ages that is persuasively challenged in this course. A major theme that emerges is how the assimilation of ideas from different cultures occurred in the medieval West. Far from being the “closed” society in which the Middle Ages is often depicted, medieval Europe was able to draw upon novel beliefs and new ways of thinking, especially from the Near East and the Iberian peninsula. In the early Middle Ages, St. Jerome was once troubled by a dream that warned him that he was leaning so heavily toward the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome that he was in danger of becoming a “Ciceronian.” But by the time of St. Aquinas, the different strands of thought from diverse cultures made the Middle Ages a rich and enlightened crossroads in intellectual history. Beyond the lucid explication of the ideas of the medieval world, this lecture series succeeds in introducing some of the most colorful lives of the period. A study of these singular men and women reveals their main character traits of courage, endurance, and charisma. By the end of this course, it is clear that their intellectual contributions were incalculable in our cultural tradition. As apparent in these carefully prepared lectures, the era of the Middle Ages was much more than “a world lit only by fire.” COURSE GRADE: A
Date published: 2014-07-03
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