Turning Points in Medieval History

Course No. 8276
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
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Course No. 8276
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Course Overview

711: Tariq ibn Zayid leads an army of 7,000 Muslims from Gibraltar to the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, accidentally conquering Spain and creating the unusually tolerant society of Al-Andalus.

1152: Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to the largest duchy in France, divorces King Louis VII and marries Henry Plantagenet, changing the shape of nations and producing power struggles from the Hundred Years’ War to the War of the Roses and beyond.

1202: Fibonacci writes the Liber Abaci and introduces the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to Italian merchants, transforming the medieval world of business, banking, and commerce.

These are just three of the many turning points in the history of medieval Europe that prove the Middle Ages were far from “dark.” On the contrary, the era was full of fascinating figures and world-altering events. Learning and innovation flourished, with the printing press, Arabic numerals, the stirrup, and the heavy plow all being introduced into Western society during this time.

Despite these landmark developments exerting far-reaching influence over the course of history, few people have a firm grasp of the medieval narrative or how its ripples gave way to everything that followed.

For an accurate picture of how the political, social, and religious structure of present-day Europe came to be—and even why we’re speaking English today—studying the key events between the years 500 to 1500 is of critical import.

Turning Points in Medieval History delivers an unparalleled look at these moments that profoundly changed the arc of history. Presented in 24 gripping lectures by medievalist and popular Great Courses Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University, this course weaves the era’s vast array of disparate events into an interconnected tapestry that illuminates why nothing exists in a vacuum.

Explore the Forces that Shaped Modern Europe

Beginning with the fall of Rome—the event that created the medieval world and sent shockwaves reverberating through it—you’ll discover how each episode played a role in sowing the seeds of the modern world. Some lectures provide an in-depth analysis of events that are likely to be familiar, while others may surprise even those well-versed in this period.

As you delve into the many medieval conflicts, hardships, and inventions, you’ll encounter five recurring themes that help you get a handle on the material:

  • The power of the past, primarily a desire to re-create the glory of the Roman Empire
  • Necessity and Crisis, which led to the rapid adoption of Arabic numerals and the various responses to the Black Death—perhaps the era’s most important turning point
  • Serendipity, as in the bountiful warming period known as the Little Optimum
  • Individual personalities from Charlemagne to William of Normandy
  • The confluence of broad historical and social movements that precipitated events like Pope Urban II’s call for the First Crusade

You’ll investigate events, such as the Norman conquest of England in 1066, where the impact was immediate and tangible. In others, like the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches, the importance was not recognized for years. Some developments had effects so gradual that their significance can only be recognized from the vantage point of history.

You’ll also touch on a few false turning points, moments that medieval people pointed to as marking a significant shift, but that didn’t really have much impact at all.

As you might expect for a course titled Turning Points in Medieval History, war figures prominently. Here, you’ll come to understand the ways in which a single battle, leader’s decision, or stroke of luck changed the fates of nations.
Among other notable conflicts, you’ll delve into

  • the Battle of Mount Badon, which inspired the legend of King Arthur;
  • King Alfred’s counterattack against Viking raiders in the Battle of Ethandun, which created the idea of England as we know it; and
  • the Battle of Lechfeld, which sparked “the Great Stirrup Controversy,” an ongoing debate among scholars hinging on whether a piece of metal was responsible for producing high and late medieval society.

An Eye-Opening Account of History

Even if you’re a history buff, Professor Armstrong’s dynamic lectures may have you rethinking what you thought you knew. Lecture 16 dispels the notion that the Magna Carta was the most pivotal event of 1215 for its contributions to the development of human rights and justice. Instead, you’ll learn it’s the meeting of the Fourth Lateran Council that is the single most important event to have occurred in that year—and probably the entire 13th century.

Unlike King John’s reluctant acceptance of the Magna Carta, this gathering had an immediate impact on everyone in the medieval world both inside and outside the Christian community, from peasants to popes, because it

  • codified doctrinal issues, the most significant of which was transubstantiation;
  • addressed concerns at the upper levels of ecclesiastical society while dictating behaviors of those at the bottom of the social order;
  • dealt with issues including the Great Schism and local matters of inheritance; and
  • was deeply involved in the “rise of persecuting society,” which had serious consequences for marginalized social groups—most notably, Jews.

Throughout the course, you’ll probe the many ways religion was a powerful force across the millennium, inspiring both acts of great virtue and extreme brutality.

Enter the Classroom of a Noted Authority

As an award-winning educator and expert in Middle English and Arthurian literature, Professor Armstrong offers a depth of knowledge and nuanced perspective. In addition to delivering accurate historical accounts and deep analysis, she peppers her lectures with a wealth of detail that provides a full portrait of the medieval experience. For example, did you know

  • our modern postal service can be traced back to the noble house of Thurn and Taxis, which created a postal system in Florence to transport documents used in 15th-century trade;
  • the world’s oldest continually operating bank, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena in Italy, was founded by the powerful Medici family in the 15th century;
  • until the Fourth Lateran Council, marriage wasn’t considered a sacrament and priests were not required to be celibate; and
  • the terms “upper case” and “lower case” can be traced to early printing presses, where capital letters were stored on higher shelves?

Methodical and meticulous in its approach to a labyrinthine age, Turning Points in Medieval History will help you understand why the West’s transition from the classical to the early modern was a fluid, ongoing process rather than the result of a single pivotal moment. In taking this course, you’ll be able to connect the dots from the sack of Rome through the Renaissance and beyond.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Fall of Rome
    Start your exploration of the Middle Ages with the fall of Rome and the devastating impact that losing the empire’s bureaucratic, economic, political, and military infrastructure had on Britain. Define the idea of a turning point as it’s used by the professor and learn the five major themes that will recur throughout the course. x
  • 2
    King Arthur Defeats the Anglo-Saxons
    The Battle of Mount Badon is arguably more significant today than it was in the Middle Ages. Learn how the figure considered the historical basis for the legendary King Arthur changed the shape of history by rallying the Britons to fight off the Anglo-Saxon invasion and creating a period of peace not known since the fall of Rome. x
  • 3
    Spain Becomes Al-Andalus
    Explore how various broad social movements intersected in surprising ways to facilitate the “accidental” Islamic conquest of Spain in 711, producing the most multicultural and tolerant society in Europe. Understand why this occurred, how it affected medieval Europe’s conception of itself as a Christian land, and ways it ultimately contributed to other turning points, such as the calling of the First Crusade. x
  • 4
    Charlemagne Founds the Palace School at Aachen
    The arts, the church, and an exchange of ideas flourished during the Carolingian Renaissance begat by “Charles the Great,” king of the Franks. Investigate how Charlemagne attempted to re-create Rome in founding his revolutionary Palace School, the lengths he went to in preserving knowledge of the past, and reasons the later Renaissance could not have happened without the scholastic foundation laid at Aachen. x
  • 5
    The Scandinavians Go “A-Viking”
    Starting with one of the most abrupt and startling turning points in the medieval world, the Sack of Lindisfarne by Scandinavian invaders, this lecture considers how climate change, population pressures, social and cultural values, and skill in shipbuilding all combined at exactly the right moment to make Viking raiders a force that changed the medieval world. x
  • 6
    King Alfred Burns Some Cakes
    If not for Alfred the Great, England and English as we know them would look very different. Turn to the effects of Viking raids for the King of Wessex, whose decision to flee into the marshes—and ultimate victory in the Battle of Ethandun—marked one of the most important turning points in not only English history, but the entire medieval world. x
  • 7
    The Battle of Lechfeld
    Examine how a technological shift—effected in part by the stirrup, the horseshoe, and the high-back saddle—combined with a culture of violence produced profound changes in armed conflict after the Battle of Lechfeld in the year 955, when Hungarian and German armies settled a century of mutually destructive violence in a single day. x
  • 8
    The Great Schism
    The moment of schism between the eastern and western halves of the former Roman Empire in 1054 codified what had been true in practice for centuries. See how a dispute between the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope’s representative Humbert of Silva Candida—a dispute that began over a letter about bread—would firmly split the medieval world along religious lines. x
  • 9
    William of Normandy Conquers England
    Perhaps the most clearly defined turning point in the medieval world, William of Normandy’s conquest of England in the 1066 Battle of Hastings inextricably joined England to continental Europe, altered language, dismantled Anglo-Saxon social structures, and put Britain back into a relationship with Rome. Learn about this remarkable conqueror who created an empire through his sheer force of will. x
  • 10
    Peter Abelard Is Castrated
    Meet the brilliant scholar Peter Abelard and his secret wife, Heloise, whose relationship and letters provide deep insight into education, romantic love, and what the medieval world was like for women. Trace how an act of horrific violence perpetrated upon him as he slept provoked Abelard into effecting social and religious change. x
  • 11
    Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade
    Pope Urban II’s call upon Christians to take up arms and reclaim the Holy Land in 1095 resonated with huge segments of the population. Investigate what social, religious, and economic concerns produced a scenario in which it seemed logical for a farmer or merchant to travel for months to a foreign country to battle an enemy unprovoked. x
  • 12
    The Battle of Hattin
    The Battle of Hattin in 1187 proved a disastrous turning point for European Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East and brought European heads of state into the Levant for decades to come. Examine how the great Muslim leader Saladin’s restraint, chivalry, and measured responses created new interest in the Islamic world just as the persecuting mentality gained steam in Europe. x
  • 13
    Eleanor of Aquitaine Gets a Divorce
    Wife to two kings and mother to three more, Eleanor of Aquitaine impacted matters from literature and fashion to politics and religion. Explore how Eleanor’s divorce and remarriage dramatically shifted the borders and power structures of France and Britain, planting seeds of conflict that would have repercussions into the modern period. x
  • 14
    No More Roman Numerals—The Liber Abaci
    The Hindu-Arabic number system we use today—numerals 0 through 9—was introduced into Europe by the man known as Fibonacci in the book Liber Abaci and rapidly stimulated the economy of the Middle Ages. To understand the impact of this turning point, learn how money exchange and other mathematical functions were performed previously using finger counting and tally sticks. x
  • 15
    King John Accepts the Magna Carta
    The Magna Carta has long been hailed as a milestone in the development of ideas of equality, human rights, law, and justice. But in 1215, it affected King John of England and his angry barons almost exclusively. Understand why the document was a non-event for the majority of English society and only gained greater significance in the centuries that followed. x
  • 16
    The Fourth Lateran Council
    Also occurring in 1215, The Fourth Lateran Council had immediate significance for everyone in the medieval world, yet it goes unrecognized because the canons passed so utterly transformed Western Christianity that it’s difficult to imagine a Catholic Church without them. Delve into how the gathering codified matters of theology and doctrine and gave rise to “a persecuting society.” x
  • 17
    The Persecution of the Jews
    Turn now to the first of three lectures on turning points that were “stretched” over time. Investigate why we see what scholars call the rise in a persecuting society between the 11th and 13th centuries, and how Jews were systematically ostracized from mainstream society and even massacred by Crusading forces. x
  • 18
    Does It Seem Warm to You? The Little Optimum
    Overlapping the persecution of the Jews was the natural phenomenon known as the “Medieval Warm Period” or “the Little Optimum,” which radically reshaped European society from about 1000 to 1300. Trace the cascade effect spurred when average temperatures increased by a few degrees, resulting in everything from better nutrition allowing children to grow into adulthood to Genghis Khan driving his Golden Horde westward. x
  • 19
    Agricultural Advances
    Continue your investigation of the Little Optimum with an analysis of the effects of agricultural innovations that came into existence during this population boom, including the heavy plow, the horse-collar, and the three-field rotation system. Survey related developments such as the revival of urban life, the ascent of cathedral building, and the rise of the university system. x
  • 20
    The Medieval World’s First Poet Laureate
    Focus on some of the more pleasant results of the Little Optimum by investigating how the arts began to flourish, especially at the beginning of the 14th century. Consider why the declaration of Petrarch as poet laureate—the first the Western world had seen since the glory days of Rome—illuminates how much the medieval world had changed. x
  • 21
    The Black Death
    After the appearance of the plague, which killed up to one-half of Europe’s population in a few years, the world would never be the same in terms of demographics, religion, economics, or politics. Trace how church and government infrastructures were affected by disease and why social mobility became possible for the first time. x
  • 22
    Science, Medicine, and the University
    What was medieval medicine like? Learn how illness was treated, as you examine the rise of the university system in 11th-century Salerno, Italy, where medical knowledge from the Greeks and Arabs was being preserved, disseminated, and practiced by men and women from a variety of cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions. x
  • 23
    Gutenberg’s Printing Press
    When Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press and movable type in 1450, knowledge suddenly became accessible to all strata of society. Analyze how the rise of print culture affected the shape of the political, social, and religious spheres of the medieval world, from the decline of the handwritten book trade to the standardization of English. x
  • 24
    Toward the Early Modern
    As the professor reviews the course’s major themes, consider the validity of Stephen Greenblatt’s argument in the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which states that the discovery of a lost Roman text titled On the Nature of Things created a ripple effect that made the European world cease to be “medieval” and start to become “modern.” 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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Turning Points in Medieval History is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 56.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Explanation of A Complex Subject Thank You Dorsey! Great lecture that kept me engaged. Many insights to the time period and interesting theories about the true cause of the plague(s).
Date published: 2020-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating dive into Medieval Europe I really enjoyed this course, I found the lectures to be very engaging and interesting.
Date published: 2019-04-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good—But Not Exactly History This is a difficult course to evaluate, especially if one is expecting a straight history course. This is my second course given by Dr. Dorsey Armstrong and I enjoyed the other one (King Arthur: History and Legend)) so much that I gave it five stars. Naturally I looked forward to this course with high expectations. Many reviewers have commented on turning points that have not been included (e.g. The Fourth Crusade) at the expense of those that were included (e.g. The Castration of Abelard). If this were a straight history course on the Middle Ages this would be a valid critique. But Dr. Armstrong has structured this course around about 22 events or points where the course of medieval changed and likely dramatically. But not necessarily always, as events are included that (according to Professor Armstrong) seemed at the time to be “turning points”, but in retrospect were much less important than it seemed. And of course she includes some that did not seem so important at the time, but turned out to significant. I liked this approach to the medieval era, but don’t really consider it history. During the course, Professor Armstrong seems to be on firm ground when discussing matters pertaining to Britain (and immediately across the channel) and less so regarding other places. At one point she even says that is should be obvioius that his her area of expertise. Then again she is not an historian but rather a professor literature, something likely explains her inclusion of Abelard and the focus of the last lecture (Dr. Greenblatt’s book on the rediscovered Roman manuscript, “On the Nature of Things). I would not recommend this as a history course but I can easily recommend this for those who would like a view with a differing take. For medieval history, Professor Daileader’s three course set on the Middle Ages is hard to beat. Plus there are plenty of course available on specific subjects such as the Crusades or times and places such as Spain around 1492. Don’t make the mistake on comparing this slightly oddball course to one of those. As always Dr. Armstrong's delivery is precise, measured and well-structured. I'll take other courses from her.
Date published: 2019-03-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Worthwhile Listen Considering I've taken a number of courses on European history and the medieval period, I'll admit I went in only interested in a handful of lectures (particularly those that aren't found often in other courses). I came out more impressed with this course than I would've surmised. Overall the professor is easy to listen to: she is clear, articulate, polished, speaks at a good rate, and avoids highfalutin language which I feel is not what The Great Courses stands for although it can be found in other courses by other professors. Professor Dorsey Armstrong is one of the better presenters I've encountered. My only critical observation is she doesn’t display much personality or passion in her delivery and most of the time seems to always have the same cadence and intonation. Not sure if it is a personality thing or if she was focusing more on ensuring her delivery was clear or reading off a teleprompter so I don't want to hold it personally against her but I felt like she was really close to making these lectures entertaining...something that should be a part of the Great Courses experience in addition to learning. Another big plus: there's content in this lecture series that is not found in other courses. Lecture 7’s Battle of Lechfeld and the “Medieval Warm Period” of Lecture 18 are the first that come to mind. I don't remember any other history course from TGC mentioning battles between Germans and Hungarians in the early Middle Ages! There is also insight I hadn’t heard before. For example Lecture 18's assertion that a change in weather may have caused Genghis Khan and the Mongols to head back to the Eurasian steppes vs. continuing their conquests westward which may have spared Europe from becoming Muslim which could have lessened the need for sea travel in the age of exploration blew my mind. I had never heard an inkling of such a theory and had to stop listening to contemplate the point. There were some minuses though. The professor spends too much time at the end of lectures explaining what’s in store in the next one and too much time during the opening of a lecture recounting what was discussed in the last one; A quick point or two would be acceptable but when you’re running one to two minutes in then it begins to feel like that time could’ve been better used to discuss the topic at hand considering the lectures are short enough! I also felt that Professor Armstrong didn't spend enough time explaining why certain events were chosen as turning points (lectures 10 and 20 come to mind). Even in other cases in which I agreed on the importance of a turning point I think she was a little weak explaining why. She would provide one or two statements as to its impact but in terms that were too general. Would’ve preferred if she teased out the ramifications or “What Ifs” a bit more and maybe provided a specific example or two instead of stating (for example) “this event had great impact on how future medieval people thought of religion and education”. Okay…how? Her overuse of the word “serendipity” got to me by the second lecture...not good when it would be used over and over again in subsequent ones. I would wonder: is there no other way to say what she is trying to say? Finally, she takes great pains to speak of the Islamic world as an almost paradise while Christian Europe was a backwater. I get that Islamic culture was more advanced in some measures from the Christian world as it relates to science, technology, and medicine but you would've thought we were dealing with the equivalent of comparing Beverly Hills of the 21st century and third world countries of Africa. But these minuses hardly affect my overall appreciation of this course. I would recommend it to anyone interested in medieval history because I think it is definitely a worthwhile listen whether you are new to the period or well-versed in it.
Date published: 2019-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite courses so far I love this lecturer. She not only gives a great lecture about turning points in history but also brings many interesting side facts in that just add to the enjoyment of the course.
Date published: 2018-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well worth listening to again I found course very stimulating and well put together. The selected turning points were well selected and the professor was quite knowledgeable and defended why they were selected. While one can quibble whether these were the most important events it would take a much longer course to capture all candidates. I found lecturer interesting and with an agreeable manner
Date published: 2018-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative I bought this course in a sale at a bargain price as a set of CDs to listen to in the car. It was a detour from my normal interests but it has certainly whetted my appetite for more history courses. I feel I have learned a great deal about medieval Europe and the UK in particular. Dorsey Armstrong’s easy listening style, analysis and insights brought this fascinating material to life. My only slightly negative comment is that the introduction and summarising of some of the lectures is a bit verbose but it does serve to drive home some of the key points. King Arthur, Alfred’s cakes, the Norman Conquest, the Magna Carta and many other key people and events have all taken on a new perspective for me – very enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One Of My Favorites These “turning point” courses put out by The Great Courses are some of my favorites, and I own every one that’s been released so far. I think maybe it’s because each lecture feels like self-contained story, and for me, stories are the best way for me to learn something new. Dr. Armstrong is my favorite Great Course professor; I’ve worked my way through half of her courses so far and am looking forward to completing the rest. She is passionate about her subjects, very comfortable in front of the camera, and an engaging storyteller. Given these things, I was clearly predisposed towards liking this course, and I was not disappointed. She is repetitive with emphasizing her definitions of what she considers to be a turning point in every lecture, but I actually enjoyed how she kept weaving that thread through the course, giving us listeners something to hold onto as we made our way through the material.
Date published: 2018-02-09
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