The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us

Course No. 3767
Professor Douglas O. Linder, J.D.
University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
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Course No. 3767
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover what the "Apology" of Socrates teaches us about the responsibility of seeking out truth.
  • Examine how three strange trials illustrate the strong links between faith and justice in the medieval world.
  • Learn how the Trials of Oscar Wilde influenced public ideas about art, sex, and morality.
  • Explore the impact of the Alger Hiss Trial on the political careers of future presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
  • Investigate what the Salem Witch Trials and the McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial reveal about the miscarriage of justice.

Course Overview

There are trials that don’t simply end with their verdict. There are trials that have a power that reverberates throughout history. Many have shaped and transformed the very social, political, and legal traditions we take for granted today. It’s trials like these that are deserving of the description “great.”

What makes a trial one of the great ones in world history? According to award-winning law professor Dr. Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, there are two main benchmarks.

First, the trial must have grabbed the attention of society in its own time and place, whether in the courts of ancient Greece or 20th-century Los Angeles.

Second, the trial must matter. Perhaps it matters because of how it shaped history; perhaps because it allows us in the 21st century to draw lessons that bring us closer to our highest ideals of justice; or perhaps because the trial provides an especially clear way of understanding a particular place or time.

No understanding of the past is complete without an understanding of the legal battles and struggles that have done so much to shape it. Inside a survey of world history’s greatest trials are the key insights to critical issues we still talk about today, including:

  • freedom of speech,
  • the death penalty,
  • religious freedom, and
  • the meaning of equality.

And even when trials illustrate grave miscarriages of justice, they still have much to teach us about how law is an ever-evolving aspect of human civilization.

Join Professor Linder for The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, a 24-lecture investigation of important legal cases from around the world and across the centuries. From the trials of Socrates in ancient Athens and Thomas More in Henry VIII’s England to the Nuremburg Trials in the wake of World War II and the media frenzy of the O. J. Simpson murder case, you’ll discover what each of these fascinating and profound trials has to teach us about ourselves and our society. The horror of the Salem Witch Trials, the drama of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, the trial for Nelson Mandela’s life—inside these and other cases are enduring lessons that can help us avoid repeating the errors of the past and that will strengthen your appreciation for the goal of justice.

New Perspectives on Familiar Cases…

Varied in its scope, The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us brings together a fascinating range of cases. Some of them advanced great causes. Some of them raised profound questions. Some of them turned defendants into martyrs. Some of them not only decided the fate of defendants, but also changed the hearts or minds of the public. And some of them went horribly wrong.

Professor Linder, with his broad knowledge of legal history and his knack for telling great stories, takes you back in time to revisit some of history’s most famous trials from fresh perspectives that ground them in the evolution of human ideas of law and justice.

  • The Trial of Socrates: One of the many interesting things about the philosopher’s trial is the procedural rules of ancient Athenian courts. Any citizen could initiate criminal proceedings. To discourage frivolous suits, Athenian law imposed fines on citizen accusers who were unable to win the votes of one-fifth of jurors.
  • The Salem Witch Trials: These trials are rightly considered one of history’s greatest travesties of justice. Evidence that we would exclude from modern courtrooms—such as hearsay and unsupported assertions—was admitted. Accused witches also had no legal counsel or formal avenues of appeal.
  • The Nuremburg Trials: This monumental event, which brought the Nazi’s crimes against humanity to the world stage, was actually composed of 12 trials. By far the most attention has focused on the first Nuremberg trial of 22 defendants—the major war criminals—and which set precedents for judges in subsequent trials to follow.
  • The Trial of the Chicago Eight: No legal case is more emblematic of American cultural divisions during the late 1960s. The chasm between the world views of the defendants and Judge Julius Hoffman reflected the deep divisions of the time: establishment versus the counter-culture, police versus protesters, and political decorum versus political violence.

…and Insights into Unfamiliar Ones

While The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us contains trials you may already be well familiar with, the survey also includes those that may be less familiar—but which are nevertheless equally important to a complete understanding of the history-making role trials have played throughout the vast story of civilization.

  • Trial by Ordeal: In one of three medieval trials you explore, you’ll learn how (according to the Annals of Winchester) King Edward the Confessor’s mother, Emma of Normandy, supposedly proved her innocence against charges of adultery by walking barefoot over red-hot ploughshares. Trials like these were designed to attract God’s attention. If the defendant was without guilt, God would step in and perform a miracle.
  • The Trial of Giordano Bruno: The execution of this original Italian thinker represented a failure of the Roman Inquisition to perform its mission, which was to “admonish and persuade” (not to terrify or punish). The man responsible for Bruno’s death at the stake, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, learned from Bruno’s case and proceeded differently 15 years later when he dealt with another alleged heretic named Galileo.
  • The Dakota Conflict Trials: These trials—392 in all—raise a number of intriguing questions. Were trials the appropriate end to a bloody conflict between a native population and a wave of settlers? When trials take place on the frontier, where no courts are operating, who should serve as judge and jury? Can we trust military officers to be impartial when they’ve just fought the men whose cases they will hear?
  • The Trial of Louis Riel: The trial and execution of Riel, who took up arms against the Canadian government and led the 1885 North-West Rebellion, became a turning point in the country’s politics. Opposition to Riel’s execution helped break the Conservative hold on French Canada. It also illustrates cultural tensions that continue in Canada today.

Throughout these lectures, you’ll also meet famous historical figures who played lead roles in some of world history’s greatest trials, including:

  • Cicero, who attacked the corruption of Rome’s tottering oligarchy during the Trial of Gaius Verres;
  • John Adams, the future president of the United States who paid a price for deciding to represent British soldiers during the Boston Massacre Trials; and
  • Clarence Darrow, perhaps America’s most famous defense lawyer, who championed the cause of defendants in both the Leopold and Loeb Trial and the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

Explore the Crossroads of History and Law

“Apart from being terrific theater, great trials can shape history,” Professor Linder notes. “They can change attitudes and reinforce ideals. And they can provide a remarkably clear window for observing societies, both past and present.”

For years, Professor Linder has been fascinated by the stories behind the world’s great trials. He’s studied transcripts, examined facts, even collected exhibits from many trials—all in an effort to study the intriguing intersection between history and jurisprudence. Now he’s crafted The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us to share that fascination with you.

But these lectures are about so much more than just facts and narrative. They’re a chance for you to get to the beating heart of deeply human stories involving innocence and guilt, truth and deception, life and death. As momentous and (sometimes) bizarre as these trials can be, Professor Linder never lets you forget that human life—and human history—is always at stake.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Trial of Socrates
    After learning what makes a trial historically important, begin your survey of some of history's greatest trials with a visit to ancient Athens. It's here, in 399 B.C., that Socrates undergoes his trial for corrupting Athenians and disrespecting their gods. In the process, he lectures his jurors on the duty of seeking the truth. x
  • 2
    The Trial of Gaius Verres
    Cicero's greatest desire was to save the Roman Republic. For this reason, he charged Gaius Verres, a provincial governor, with crimes against the people. Central to this insightful lecture are Cicero's five orations, the Actio Secunda, which aimed to educate the Roman public about the corruption and rot in its political system. x
  • 3
    Three Medieval Trials
    Explore medieval beliefs about justice through the lens of three strange trials from the Middle Ages. The first involves a dead pope put on trial. The second involves an accused adulterer's walk over red-hot ploughshares. The third involves a jousting battle whose victor will be vindicated as a matter of law. x
  • 4
    The Trial of Sir Thomas More
    Travel back to Westminster Hall on July 1, 1535, when Sir Thomas More stood on trial for his refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. Discover the story of how one of England's most revered men ended up on the chopping block and why it is both important and instructive. x
  • 5
    The Trial of Giordano Bruno
    What made Giordano Bruno's ideas on natural philosophy so dangerous to 16th-century thought? Why does his execution represent a failure of the Roman Inquisition to perform its mission to admonish, not punish? What impact did this trial have on another heresy case fifteen years later: that of Galileo? x
  • 6
    The Salem Witchcraft Trials
    According to Professor Linder, the Salem witchcraft trials illustrate the danger of drawing conclusions ahead of evidence—and of dispensing with procedural rules that can save us from rushing to judgment. Gain a greater understanding of the legal basis for a travesty that accused hundreds of people of practicing witchcraft. x
  • 7
    The Boston Massacre Trials
    A harbinger of the American Revolution, the Boston Massacre trials (and the reaction to the verdict) reflected the heated partisanship of the times. Central to this story is the young attorney John Adams, who paid a price for his decision to represent the accused British soldiers and their captain. x
  • 8
    The Aaron Burr Conspiracy Trial
    In great trials, can politics and justice ever be kept entirely separate? Explore this question by considering the conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr. This case, presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, set the precedent that no one in the United States—even the president—is above the law. x
  • 9
    The Amistad Trials
    Learn about the legal importance of the Amistad trials by exploring three questions they presented. First: Are the African mutineers criminals? Second: Are they property? Third: If neither, what should happen to them? The ensuing controversy, you'll learn, helped build momentum for turning public opinion in the North against slavery. x
  • 10
    The Dakota Conflict Trials
    The 392 Dakota Conflict trials led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. It also marked the end of a legal process unlike any used before or since in the nation. Consider whether or not these cases were an appropriate end to the conflict between settlers and Native Americans. x
  • 11
    The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy Trial
    The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was only part of a larger conspiracy involving many men and women—eight of whom would be tried for conspiracy to murder the president and other officials. Join Professor Linder for a look at the verdicts, sentences, and procedures of the 1865 Military Commission. x
  • 12
    The Trial of Louis Riel
    Few of us know about the 1885 trial of Canada's Louis Riel. Yet it's important for what it reveals about tensions in Canada that exist to this day: between native and non-native, French-speaking and English-speaking peoples. It's a trial, as you'll learn, that became a turning point in Canadian politics. x
  • 13
    The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
    Old Bailey, the main courthouse in London, was the scene for a set of trials that captivated England and the literary world. Celebrity, sex, wit, political intrigue, important issues of art and morality and sexuality—learn about the role they all played in the charges against Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency.” x
  • 14
    The Trial of Sheriff Joseph Shipp
    Go back to March 1909, when the Supreme Court assembled to do something it had never done before and would never do again: listen to closing arguments in a criminal case. Learn how Sheriff Joseph Shipp's trial impacted the act of lynching and its relationship to the rule of law. x
  • 15
    The Leopold and Loeb Trial
    In the first of two lectures involving the nation’s most famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, focus on a trial involving a “thrill killing” by two rich and intelligent teenagers. Central to this lecture are Darrow’s impassioned efforts to save the confessed murderers from the gallows by challenging the morality of capital punishment. x
  • 16
    The Scopes Monkey Trial
    Defense lawyer Clarence Darrow also made history defending high-school teacher John Scopes at 1925’s famous “Monkey” Trial. Discover how the case that put the theory of evolution on trial brought to Tennessee a three-time presidential candidate, a flock of international reporters, and the battle for 1920s social mores. x
  • 17
    The Trials of the "Scottsboro Boys"
    Examine how the legal nightmare of the “Scottsboro Boys” trials extended for decades. It launched and ended careers. It educated the public about the plight of African-Americans. It divided—then united—America’s political left. And it illustrates what was wrong with America’s justice system in the 1930s. x
  • 18
    The Nuremberg Trials
    No trial, according to Professor Linder, provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than the war crime trials in Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949. In this lecture, your focus is on the first of 12 trials, regarded by scholars as “The Trial of the Major War Criminals.” x
  • 19
    The Alger Hiss Trial
    Probe the far-reaching political effects of the trial of former State Department official Alger Hiss for perjury. They include: catapulting Richard Nixon to national fame; setting the stage for Joseph McCarthy's Communist-hunting; and marking the start of a conservative political movement that would put Ronald Reagan in the White House. x
  • 20
    The Rivonia (Nelson Mandela) Trial
    Why is the Rivonia Trial considered “the trial that changed South Africa”? Why did Nelson Mandela and his nine co-defendants seek to wage guerilla war against the South African government? How did the trial shape the future of South Africa, including Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president? x
  • 21
    The Mississippi Burning Trial
    Discover how the Mississippi Burning case took the nation deep into the darkness of the Ku Klux Klan and its hatred. By the end of this lecture, you'll learn how the trial would go on to change the Klan, change Mississippi, and change the course of civil rights in America. x
  • 22
    The Trial of the Chicago Eight
    It's been described as a travesty of justice. A circus. An important battle for the American people. A monumental non-event. Whatever conclusion you come to by the end of this lecture, few events better exemplify the conflict of values in the late 1960s than the trial of these eight radicals. x
  • 23
    The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial
    Professor Linder takes you inside the longest, most expensive criminal trial in American history (with a taxpayer cost of over $15 million dollars). It was also a trial that produced not a single conviction—but highlighted the dangerous problems that happen when police and prosecutors leap to conclusions. x
  • 24
    The O. J. Simpson Trial
    How did the trial of O. J. Simpson come to command such media attention? What about the case caused it to be viewed differently by people of different races? How did it change the way celebrity trials are handled? Explore questions about one of the 20th century's last great trials. x

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Your professor

Douglas O. Linder

About Your Professor

Douglas O. Linder, J.D.
University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Douglas O. Linder is the Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. He graduated summa cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College and from Stanford Law School. Professor Linder has taught as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa and Indiana University School of Law. Professor Linder has published extensively in legal journals and books on such topics as great...
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Reviews

The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but Misleading Title Very good course, however the title is misleading. It should read: "Important Trials in US courts (14 out of the 24 lectures) and Just A Few Great Trials of the Rest of the World History" Although very interesting for the court system in the US, it is really hard to think of the O.J. Simpson trial as one of "The Great Trials of World History"!!!
Date published: 2018-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Important History via a different perspective.. These lectures were so interesting, I finished them quickly. The lectures themselves are well done...and the history is very interesting...new perspectives on some trials I knew of ....several important trials I didn't know of.
Date published: 2018-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History told well First download we have bought, and works well from iPone to the Bose radio. Professor tells the stories in great detail and provides an interesting lesson in the great trials of historical figures. interesting to anyone who enjoys history.
Date published: 2018-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My favorite course so far! Prof Linder is very engaging and I was fascinated by the material. I feel like it filled in some gaps in my general knowledge where I had previously only a vague understanding. I'm always interested in other reviews -- before and after I purchase and watch a course. I find the criticism that it wasn't exhaustive about every possible significant historical trial to be just silly and somewhat smacking of a bit of pomposity. I've seen that criticism before on other courses. Perhaps the course title writers ought to start using the words "a selection of" in order to calm those folks down. Also that courses with the word "world" in the title tend to lean more to the western world -- well okay, but honestly, the courses are listened to by folks in the western world so their interest is more in that line. Sorry. Really, do people honestly expect to listen/watch these courses and then be an expert on it? I consider them more as an opening of a door and it is up to you if you want to learn more in depth. And one more point regarding titles -- the word "lessons" wasn't really true. I saw a couple of complaints that the watcher/listener was unsure what the lesson was. Well, probably because there wasn't one really....more a significant, historical moment -- a turning point in many instances that demonstrated a change in social mores than providing any lesson. Long review but bottom line is that the some of the course titles are less than accurate but this course was well worth the time and money.
Date published: 2018-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best courses I have take to date I have listened to over 50 courses and this one is clearly among my Top 5. The professor was very professional, knowledgeable, and interesting - each lecture flew by! The material prompted me to dig dipper for several of the trials.
Date published: 2018-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative and Entertaining! This course is highly enjoyable, easy to understand, and very interesting. As a long-time customer of The Great Courses, having bought and studied nearly all their courses over the years, I can easily rank it among the most delightful courses I've purchased. I was even a bit sad when I reached the end, since I could have kept listening to more and more trials. Yes, the course is very entertaining, as well as informative and thorough in its coverage. It was particularly enlightening to learn about the lives and trials of Giordano Bruno, Nelson Mandela, Aaron Burr, and several others whom I'd heard about, but never learned about in such detail. I also found Cicero's case against Gaius Verres utterly fascinating. My Latin teacher (from way back when) never brought Cicero to life like Professor Linder did. But all of the trials were definitely interesting, well narrated, and rich in historical context. I listened to it on CD and don't feel I missed out on anything important. In short, I can recommend this course to anyone interested in the subject matter. It is a very easy course to digest and learn from, the trials themselves are often quite riveting, and the historical context and legal issues are always explained clearly, so a layman like myself with no background in law can fully appreciate each lecture.
Date published: 2018-09-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Informative Prior to getting into the nuts and bolts of each trial, Professor Linder gives lots of context, going way back in history if needed. Thus each trial is also a mini-history lesson. Often he will contrast courtroom procedures back then versus the procedures we are familiar with today (I think ours are better). For example, after all the arguments were given during Socrates' trial, the judge did not instruct the jury about which law was applicable and how to apply it, nor did the jury convene to discuss the testimony. They just voted immediately, each man for himself, using his best recollection of what was presented. Ouch! Warning: Several trials are painful to hear about when the result was an obvious miscarriage of justice, such as the "Scottsboro Boys." On the other hand, hooray for John Adams and his defense of British soldiers in the "Boston Massacre" trials.
Date published: 2018-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More Than Great Trials - Also Great History This was my first foray into the Great Courses' legal realm and I was not at all disappointed. The professor is engaging and his presentations were very well done. Each trial was presented in context to surrounding events and the social norms at a time and place in history. Lectures often devoted more to the back story then to the actual trial. This for me was a positive. The additional detail and perspective made these trials more than legal cases - they became an educational slice of history itself. I hated to see the lectures end. My suggestion would be for more Great Courses following a similar theme with this professor. Such courses could be entitled "Great Trials" or maybe also "Landmark Trials" in _________ (fill in the blank with a subject - e.g. business, science, technology, human rights, etc.)
Date published: 2018-08-23
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