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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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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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 Great Teacher Professor Dorsey Armstrong is probably my favorite teacher among the many Great Courses I have. She brings history to life and truly helps me understand the times and people being talked about. The historical figures featured in this series are very interesting. I didn’t know some of the great minds introduced to me here but I’m glad I do now. I also know more about the ones I was familiar with. Thank you Dorsey and thank you Great Courses.
Date published: 2020-07-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I purchased this course as an introduction to the subject. I had little prior experience with medieval history. I agree with other reviewers that the course was a little superficial but served as a good introduction for further studies for me. Professor Armstrong presented the information clearly, was pleasant and obviously knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I would recommend the course only as an introduction to important medieval thinkers.
Date published: 2020-05-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Minds of the Medieval World I plan to buy more courses on Medieval history. But what I really want is a full course on Pragmatism. The most important American philosophy. Borne in the USA.
Date published: 2020-03-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Great Minds of Medieval World Review I've been a TGC customer for many years and this was by far the poorest course I've purchased. Dr. Armstrong sounds like she's just blandly reading from a script rather than giving the customer a "lecture feel". Her style doesn't hold the student's attention. This is unfortunate since the subject is of great interest to me. I would not recommend this course nor would I purchase another course Dr. Armstrong teaches.
Date published: 2019-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great description! I thoroughly enjoyed these lectures. They were fascinating providing a great deal of information about these great minds and improving my understanding of them and their milieu.
Date published: 2019-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Armstrong is among the best lecturers in the Great Courses group.
Date published: 2019-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Organized The course is well developed and organized. The course provides you with a starting point for further explorations into the thoughts and writings of the historical thinker. An excellent starting point.
Date published: 2018-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learning lots! I am enjoying this for all the new information I gaining. Jennifer Paxton breaks the stereotypical teaching with her passionate and engaging style.
Date published: 2018-07-09
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