Medieval World

Course No. 8280
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
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Course No. 8280
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Course Overview

Most of us know that, far from being a time of darkness, the Middle Ages was an essential period in the grand narrative of Western history—one whose political, cultural, economic, scientific, and spiritual developments are an invaluable part of our own modern era. But what was it like to actually live in those extraordinary times?

  • To be a pilgrim embarking with others on a fulfilling spiritual pilgrimage to a saint's holy shrine?
  • To be a serf laboring on a farm—both for your family and the lord to whom you were bound?
  • To be a knight entertaining crowds in a wildly popular jousting tournament or fighting in the heat of battle?

How did these and other average men and women from medieval Europe eat, work, love, rule, laugh, pray, and mourn? Above all, how different—or how similar—were their lives from the way you live today?

Now you can find out.

The Medieval World offers you a different perspective on the society and culture of the Middle Ages: one that goes beyond a simple historical survey and entrenches you in the daily human experience of living during this underappreciated era. Your guide on this extraordinary historical journey is medievalist and Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University. Drawing on history, literature, the arts, technology, and science, her 36 lectures are a highly nuanced tour that will deepen the way you understand not only the Middle Ages but everything that came afterward: from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to your own world.

A Unique Understanding on How We Live Now

It is only by studying the lives of everyday men and women in medieval Europe that you can grasp the beginnings of—and connections to—our own 21st-century Western lives. Just like you, these men and women plied their respective trades, raised families, entertained themselves in their spare time, and followed the laws of their society. And their world was one that played an important role in shaping our own modern world.

"For all the differences of the world in which they lived," notes Professor Armstrong, "medieval people were more like us than they were different. It is their world that gave rise to ours, and in our most sacred institutions of government, houses of worship, and social ideals, the shadow of the medieval looms large."

Illuminating the details within these shadows, The Medieval World is a course that is ultimately about people (whether remembered by history or not), the world around them, and how they made their way through their extraordinary surroundings. It's also about the ways in which understanding the medieval experience can shed new light on our own contemporary experience.

Correcting the common modern portrayal of medieval life in profoundly negative terms, Professor Armstrong opens a window onto a world where people didn't just suffer through plague, indentured servitude, and illiteracy. Instead, she reveals a world where people were kind and generous, willing to stand up for what they believed in, intelligent and cunning, ambitious and perseverant.

See the Middle Ages through the Eyes of Its People

Filled with amazing insights, The Medieval World brings you closer than ever before to life as it was lived and felt. In these fascinating lectures, you'll

  • meet the likes of William Caxton, England's first printer who not only printed and distributed a variety of works but also often had to translate them himself;
  • encounter, in an extraordinary lecture about the intricacies of medieval manuscripts and the monks who labored over them, the legendary demon Titivillus, whose sole purpose was to track monks' errors and thus their worthiness for entry into heaven;
  • learn about Hugh of Payns and the role of his Knights Templar—organized for the protection of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem—in the creation of the first modern bank;
  • see how communities dealt with marriage and its challenges in a time when the church had not yet drawn this institution into its own orbit;
  • and much more.

Whether dealing with the lives of those building a great cathedral, the advances in naval engineering that would make a future "age of exploration" possible, the fears of a village facing the arrival of a longship filled with Viking invaders, or the terrible reality of the Black Death, Professor Armstrong's lectures will bring the Middle Ages to life like no course you've ever taken.

An Expert Medievalist, A Wide Range of Resources

The Medieval World's perspective on the Middle Ages is a unique one. As a medievalist who approaches the era in large part through its written works, Professor Armstrong frequently uses revealing examples of medieval literature from the English, French, Norse, Icelandic, and Italian worlds. An added bonus is her considerable fluency in those no-longer-spoken versions of our own language—such as the Middle English used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Professor Armstrong also draws on a wide range of resources to bring this period back to life, including

  • detailed maps,
  • floor plans of buildings,
  • models of a medieval manor,
  • full-color renderings of clothing worn by the (surprisingly fashion-conscious) populace,
  • period correspondence, and
  • musical re-creations recorded on period instruments.

Most of the eye-catching visuals featured in these lectures were commissioned exclusively for this course and can't be found anywhere else.

Presenting her subject in a clear, engaging, and frequently witty style, Professor Armstrong takes care to always root her topics in their necessary historical, social, and cultural contexts—such as the values of the late Roman Empire or the development of Christianity. The result is a thorough course that doesn't require an advanced wealth of knowledge about the Middle Ages but can instead be taken as a stand-alone course.

Rich with information and period detail, The Medieval World is designed to dramatically increase your understanding of how lives in the Middle Ages were really lived. These lives, you'll discover, were not as distant from your own as we once thought. And if they did seem tantalizingly familiar to you before, you'll now know why.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Medieval World
    Enjoy a preview of the developments and innovations that made the medieval period far more exciting than was once thought, including the rise of the university system, manuscript production, and the construction of majestic cathedrals, as well as evidence suggesting that medieval and modern people are more alike than different. x
  • 2
    The Legacy of the Roman World
    Learn how the heritage and ideals of the Roman Empire shaped the early Middle Ages, how Christianity evolved to its position of power within the Roman Empire, and how Germanic peoples from outside the empire "Germanized" both Rome and religion. x
  • 3
    The Christianization of Europe
    Travel back to the 4th-century moment when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire to explore how the religion changed after Roman rule ended, focusing in particular on the conversion of various communities beyond the borders of the empire, in the region the Romans called "Germania." x
  • 4
    After the Roman Empire—Hybrid Cultures
    The societies that developed out of the Roman Empire were really "hybrids" of Roman, Christian, and Germanic elements. See how examples from the literature, art, and architecture of Anglo-Saxon England reveal this blending and how the values and ideals of these cultures were combined. x
  • 5
    Early Monasticism
    In examining this popular expression of medieval piety, you journey inside the walls of a monastery to observe the daily life of a monk following the "Rule of St. Benedict" and compare this Roman or Benedictine form of monasticism to the very different Celtic model practiced in Ireland. x
  • 6
    From Merovingian Gaul to Carolingian France
    This lecture introduces what was arguably the most important society of the early medieval world of western Europe. The empire of the Franks was ruled first by the Merovingians and then by the Carolingian dynasty, whose most famous ruler, Charlemagne, changed the face of medieval Europe.Although it is Italy that has long laid popular claim to the word "Renaissance," it's hard not to marvel at the changes introduced by Charlemagne. Learn how he successfully brought about an unprecedented flowering of art, architecture, literature, music, and education. x
  • 7
    Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance
    Although it is Italy that has long laid popular claim to the word "Renaissance," it's hard not to marvel at the changes introduced by Charlemagne. Learn how he successfully brought about an unprecedented flowering of art, architecture, literature, music, and education. x
  • 8
    Byzantium, Islam, and the West
    Widen your earlier focus to situate the Western medieval world in context with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, learning how Byzantium differed from the western Roman Empire and how the new religion of Islam placed pressure on both the Byzantine and western European medieval worlds. x
  • 9
    The Viking Invasions
    The expansion of the people known as the Vikings—beginning in the late 8th century—was swift, violent, and far-reaching. Grasp the impact of their raids on various European societies, particularly that of the Franks, as well as the unique aspects of their culture. x
  • 10
    Alfred the Great
    Only one English monarch has ever been termed "the Great." Learn why, in considering the man whose rule in many respects mirrored that of Charlemagne as he resolved the Viking threat, consolidated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and implemented a program under which learning, education, and the arts flourished. x
  • 11
    The Rearrangement of the Medieval World
    Experience the tumultuous reshaping of western Europe in a lecture that features the emergence of powerful new leaders, invasions, a population explosion, changes in Europe's economy, technological advances, the development of devout Christian piety, the Crusading impulse, and the final break between the Byzantine and Roman churches. x
  • 12
    The Norman Conquest and the Bayeux Tapestry
    Claim a ringside seat at the long struggle for control of the English throne that culminated in the victory of William the Conqueror—a conflict captured for all time in the stunning threads of a 230-foot length of embroidery. x
  • 13
    King Arthur—The Power of the Legend
    Perhaps no other legend has been as enduringly popular as the story of King Arthur. Explore how and why his legend evolved and learn how the reality was markedly different from that depicted in medieval romances. x
  • 14
    The Three Orders of Medieval Society
    Medieval society soon formed into the hierarchy now known as the Three Estates: those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked. Discover why few routes to understanding this structure are as pleasurable as that offered by the literary genre of Estates Satire, exemplified here in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. x
  • 15
    Pilgrimage and Sainthood
    In this fascinating glimpse of popular religious expression in the Middle Ages, you explore typical pilgrim motivations, the journeys they took, and the different processes by which the saints so often at the emotional heart of those journeys were enshrined. x
  • 16
    Knighthood and Heraldry
    Follow the development of knighthood, from its beginnings as the lowest rank of nobility to its evolution as a hereditary title replete with a complex system of rituals, identity practices, public displays, and idealized imagery. x
  • 17
    The Gothic Cathedral
    Grasp what it took to build a Gothic cathedral, a massive undertaking requiring not only several decades, hundreds of laborers, teams of master craftsmen, and the best architectural minds, but also an acceptance by those who began a project that they would never live to see it completed. x
  • 18
    Piety, Politics, and Persecution
    In this first of two lectures on the Crusades, learn what brought so many to a venture that was part holy war and part pilgrimage. Gain, through eyewitness accounts, a fascinating and occasionally horrifying glimpse into the realities of life on crusade. x
  • 19
    The Persistence of an Ideal
    Participants in the successful First Crusade set up four "Crusader states" in the Middle East, where they soon learned that accommodation was more effective than dominance. Although the Crusading presence in the Holy Land lasted less than two centuries, its impact on the European world still endures. x
  • 20
    Late Medieval Religious Institutions
    Watch as the church and its official representatives experienced dramatic and sometimes unexpected change throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, including monastic reforms, the establishment of new orders, a great schism in the papacy itself, and the growing problem of heresy. x
  • 21
    The Magna Carta
    In this revealing lecture, discover that the Magna Carta, revered today as perhaps the cornerstone of human rights, was considered anything but that at its creation, with its most historic provisions of little concern to the rebellious barons who forced King John to accept it. x
  • 22
    Daily Life in a Noble Household
    Observe the finely tuned orchestration of servants working together to cater to the needs of the noble family, who, in turn, sheltered and protected them. And learn that the medieval castle was built for protection, providing little of the privacy or luxury you might expect x
  • 23
    Daily Life in a Medieval Village
    Although little textual evidence describing medieval village life survives, archaeological excavations at villages such as Wharram Percy, along with pictorial evidence from manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter, offer you a vivid picture of the medieval village as a place brimming with life and characters. x
  • 24
    Medieval City Life
    During the High Middle Ages, technological advancements and a population explosion made cities a vital element of the medieval world. More important, they nourished the creation of a new class of individual who did not fit into the traditional confines of the Three Estates. x
  • 25
    Food and Drink
    Here's your chance to set aside the long-held belief that medieval cuisine was bland at best and, at worst, likely to make you ill. Learn how medieval cooks displayed a resourcefulness and skill that allowed them to produce dishes that were both innovative and delicious. x
  • 26
    Music and Entertainment
    Hear for yourself, through re-creations played on medieval instruments, the kinds of music that helped people of the Middle Ages enjoy their leisure time—that is, when they weren't playing board or dice games. x
  • 27
    Dress and Fashion
    Even though little clothing of the period has survived, medieval illustrations and household account entries give us some idea of what medieval clothing was like. They reveal a surprising consciousness of fashion, even within the constraints of so-called "sumptuary laws" designed to preserve the distinction between the noble and the newly wealthy. x
  • 28
    Medieval Medicine
    Learn how medieval medicine—much of it based on the theory of bodily "humors"—began to improve in the 11th century with the foundation of educational institutions devoted to the study of medicine, particularly in Italy. x
  • 29
    The Black Death and its Effects
    It was the worst natural disaster in human history, claiming the lives of perhaps half the people of the medieval world. This riveting lecture covers the plague's impact and the responses to it and offers, through eyewitness accounts, a dramatic view of life during the plague years. x
  • 30
    Childhood in the Middle Ages
    Scholars once believed the Middle Ages had no real conception of childhood, or even that parents—because of high child mortality—could not have formed powerful attachments to their offspring. Learn why these assumptions are untrue, even if medieval concepts of childhood were somewhat different from ours. x
  • 31
    Marriage and the Family
    In this eye-opening lecture, you learn that marriage, for most of the Middle Ages, was a secular institution, governed by customs, traditions, and laws—but not the church. Find out how the medieval world handled issues like divorce, remarriage, spousal abuse, and nonconsummation. x
  • 32
    Art and Artisans
    Although once derided as a "dark age," the medieval world has in fact given us many beautiful, skillfully executed artistic works. Sample some of the best works of this legacy, found in the architecture, sculpture, and stained glass of cathedrals; wall murals; illuminated manuscripts; and even everyday objects. x
  • 33
    Science and Technology
    The Middle Ages saw significant developments in the fields of science and technology. Not surprisingly, most were of a practical nature. Grasp how the demands of agriculture, architecture, education, and even warfare led to important advances. x
  • 34
    Weapons and Warfare
    War was one of the dominant aspects of medieval life, and its significance in terms of scientific and technological innovation isn't surprising. But its impact went even further, and you learn how the need for protection left its mark on both physical and social structures. x
  • 35
    Revolts, Uprisings, and Wars
    Gain insights into how a series of uprisings, revolts, and wars tested and altered the structure of medieval society as Europe entered the Late Middle Ages, hastening the end of the Three Estates system that had already begun to crumble with the rise of the merchant class. x
  • 36
    Toward the Early Modern Period
    In this concluding lecture, you see how a once-sharp historical division has been worn away. Where scholars once spoke of the differences between the Middle Ages and the Modern period, we now tend to see much greater continuity of ideals and values as the medieval world slowly transformed into something new. x

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  • 144-page printed course guidebook
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  • Suggested readings
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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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Medieval World is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 146.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Interesting subject but too much focus on England The subject is really interesting but it focused way too much on usual England and France. Medieval Europe was also Italy, Spain and Germany. For example, in the single lesson on Renaissance she talked about Italy for just one third of the lesson. The rest was again England. I mean.... what did England ever had to do with Renaissance i still have to understand!!! Spain, just a couple of lessons? If not just one. Germany... just a brush. And Italy, the city-states, all the commerce, all the art.... just barely one lesson. So, one more example of super anglophone biased view of history.
Date published: 2020-10-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Fine Overview of an Almost Boundless Subject Professor Armstrong has provided an engaging and informative overview of at least part of the Medieval World. She is articulate, personable, and well-organized. The course is an excellent springboard for those who wish to study particular areas in more depth. Professor Armstrong is not a medieval historian. Her specialty is Medieval Literature, not general Medieval History, but this in no way detracts from the course value as an overview. Her interest in King Arthur vastly exceeds my own, as the mists of antiquity have reduced Arthur (whoever he was or wasn't) to a mere curiosity. The transcript, which I purchased, could benefit from some proofreading, although all the errors are minor. E.g., Erik the Red did NOT discover Greenland; "dhimmi" refers to a class of people, not to a tax; Alfred the Great was of the 9th century, NOT of the 10th century; the Timeline places the sack of Lindesfarne Abbey in 789, not in the correct year of 793; etc. Misspellings abound. Not a big problem.
Date published: 2020-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I loved this course! I learned so much. Very, very interesting.
Date published: 2020-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another very well done series by Professor Armstrong. I really enjoyed it and learned new things about the medieval era that I had not seen before or thought about.
Date published: 2019-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating information, well presented I've been through a number of Teaching Co. courses and this may be my favorite. Professor Armstrong is able to hold my attention through even the parts I would normally want to skim over, like the minutiae of political maneuverings and battles. Aspects of daily life for nobles and peasants, the food and medicine of the era--these for me are some of the high points. I love the fact that she emphasizes the humanity of people from so long ago: they told jokes, they timed their pilgrimages for favorable weather. In some ways they were so like us, while in others (an almost total disregard for privacy) so different. I have the audio version of this course, so don't know whether she is in front of a group or not. It sounds like she is reading, and normally I hate it when fellow academics read their work. But I have to say that if this is reading, it is very skillfully done. Whatever the opposite of "droning on" is, that's what she does. Her passion for and pleasure in her subject is obvious; I particularly enjoy hearing her recite from old texts in the original language, which she clearly enjoys too. It's fun to see how much I can understand, then get the rest when she translates it for us. It's like peering into the past through language, and just another way of connecting to people from another age. In sum, I'm delighted with this course, and am now looking for more from her. As the saying goes, if she has one where she reads her grocery list, I'll be buying it.
Date published: 2019-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful and Down to Earth I'll preface by saying that I received an old audio CD copy of this course, so my experience may differ from the visual formats that are currently available. This is one of the first Great Courses I've taken, and Professor Armstrong leaves a great impression. While I would have liked a more global scope to her analysis, she leans on her greatest strengths: An insightful knowledge of European medieval culture married with passionate, clear delivery. These qualities are what breathe life into the day to day activities of people in Medieval Europe, particularly in England and France. Better understanding the lives of various kinds of medieval people is something I didn't even know I wanted, but I've found it key to understanding the decisions they made, for good or ill.
Date published: 2019-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Comprehensive This is my second class with Dr. Armstrong. She makes the Era come alive.
Date published: 2019-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great (so far) Not finished but great so far. Yes, synthetic crowd speaking is...synthetic...but the material is great and the Prof,\. is appealing in all ways, so all is well.
Date published: 2019-03-01
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