Years That Changed History: 1215

Course No. 3323
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
Purdue University
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Course No. 3323
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Delve into the major events of 1215, from the signing of the Magna Carta to Genghis Khan's decisive victory at the Battle of Beijing.
  • numbers Travel the world-from Inca settlements to empires in Ethiopia-to gain a more complete sense of the world in 1215.
  • numbers Meet some of history's most fascinating figures, including King John, Saladin, and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
  • numbers Examine the ramifications of this single year across history-and in our world today.

Course Overview

What is so important about the year 1215? There are some history buffs who may be able to tell you that 1215 is the year the Magna Carta was signed, but there are even fewer who know that King John of England’s acceptance of this charter was only one of four major, world-changing events of this significant year. In fact, the social, cultural, political, geographical, and religious shifts that occurred in this year alone had such a huge impact on the entire world, it warrants an entire course of study for anyone truly interested in the pivotal points of history that brought us to where we are now.

As it turns out, the year 1215 was a major turning point in world history. Although the drafting of the Magna Carta is perhaps the best-known event of 1215, anyone in Europe at the time would have told you the meeting of the Church’s Fourth Lateran Council was much more significant. Meanwhile, in Asia, a Mongol ruffian named Genghis Khan was embarking on a mission for world domination, highlighted by his success at the Battle of Beijing, while Islam was experiencing a Golden Age centered around Baghdad’s House of Wisdom. Other cultures and societies around the globe were also experiencing pivotal moments in their development—from the Americas to Africa and Asia and beyond.

These seismic events were only possible thanks to a confluence of global conditions, starting with the climate. Although we might not be familiar with the specifics, the ripple effect from these events can still be felt all over the world today. Years That Changed History: 1215 is a unique course, offering you the chance to delve into one of the most interesting periods in world history. Over 24 fast-paced lectures, Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University gives you the Big History of this surprisingly impactful year, introducing you to the people, events, and wide-ranging influences of the year 1215.

Among other fascinating discoveries, you will:

  • Investigate how climate changes affected the population of Europe.
  • Explore the circumstances for the Magna Carta, which originally had nothing to do with rights or liberty for everyday people.
  • Find out what a Lateran council is, why the fourth one mattered so much, and what happened at the earlier councils.
  • Tour the world beyond Europe to gain a true sense of global history.

This last point about “global history” is an important one. Most history courses have to select a theme, which by its nature limits the scope of the curriculum. In choosing a year as her theme, Professor Armstrong is able to take you around the world, from the ancient Maya to the House of Baghdad to Shogun Japan.Years That Changed History: 1215 takes the world as its theme—and what a truly captivating world it is!

Explore the Big History of a Little Year

Eight centuries ago, in the span of just 12 short months, the world witnessed a series of historic milestones—from the signing of the Magna Carta to the conquest of China by the Mongols—but history is only as interesting as the context that shapes it. What led to these events? How did they change the world? And why do they matter to us now? The historical approach known as Big History is one that gives context by widening the lens on singular events—and that’s exactly what Professor Armstrong does throughout this course.

To take one example, we think of the Magna Carta today as a powerful document. After all, it’s the Magna Carta—the “Great Charter”—and provides the foundation for English law and the subsequent drive for human rights and democracy. Doesn’t it?

Well, maybe. As you’ll learn early in the course, the Magna Carta was actually a document designed to appease a handful of aristocrats who had taken umbrage at King John. The king and 25 nobles gathered in a field at Runnymede, agreed on the terms laid out in this charter, and—supposedly—settled their differences. Three months later, King John had the pope annul the document, nearly reducing it to what could have been a mere footnote in history.

Of course, that’s not the only story—nor the end of the document. To give you a truly thorough look at the Magna Carta and its impact, Professor Armstrong takes you back to the Battle of Hastings and lays out the post-Conquest development of medieval English society. She then follows the story out of the Middle Ages, through the Early Modern period, and into the Enlightenment to show how the Magna Carta was resurrected, edited, and rewritten to suit the needs of future people over a long period of evolution.

Throughout this course, you’ll encounter event after event that seemed small on the surface—for instance, when Genghis Khan invaded modern-day Beijing, the locals quickly threw in the towel—but that had consequences that echoed through time. You’ll also take time to consider how it was that an uneducated, lower-caste man from the Mongolian steppes was able to become one of the best military strategists the world has ever seen—arguably a singular event in world history.

History Is a Story about People

Great events matter because of the impact they have on the human story, and this course takes you inside some of the most consequential events in world history. If you stepped back in time to 1215 and asked anyone in Europe what the most important event of the year was, everyone would likely answer the Fourth Lateran Council—the convening of Church leaders to hash out the finer points of theological debate.

Professor Armstrong takes you inside this massive gathering, analyzes the debates, and outlines the worldwide repercussions of the Council. Although seldom discussed today, one of the most monumental results of the Council was the elevation of marriage to the level of a sacrament. Other major consequences include attempts at curbing unlicensed religious figures (an attempt that mostly failed, as the appearance of the character of the Pardoner in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales over a century later would attest), the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the celibacy of the priesthood.

Despite the seemingly clear-cut, linear way we often learn history, as you’ll discover, history is the result of messy human affairs and processes. To bring this material to life, Professor Armstrong introduces you to the people behind the headlines. For instance:

  • See why St. Francis of Assisi formed his own religious order.
  • Find out what insights Hildegard of Bingen, Héloïse, and Eleanor of Aquitaine give us about women in the medieval world.
  • Meet Avicenna, Averroës, Saladin, and other figures critical to intellectual life in the Islamic Golden Age.
  • Delve into the players and tensions surrounding the Great Schism of 1054, and the relationship between Rome and Constantinople in 1215.

As you travel around the world during this year, you’ll also explore the culture of the Samurai in Japan, unpack the Catholic Church’s rationale for the Crusades, dive into the weird world of the Icelandic Saga, and so much more.

One of the most fascinating stories you will encounter is that of the Mongols. Because so many of us have experienced history taught from the Western perspective, you were likely led to think of the Mongols as bloodthirsty barbarians who sacked great cities and wreaked havoc on the world. The truth, however, is much more complicated—and more interesting. Professor Armstrong takes you into the Mongolian Empire and shows you how Mongol leaders actually strove to take care of their conquered territories.

Travel the World in 1215

People are indeed at the heart of this powerful history, and Professor Armstrong brings her trademark depth and passion to this truly historic moment across the globe. Leave Europe to explore life in the Pueblo, Inca, and Maya communities in the Americas. Then head to Africa to survey empires in modern-day Ethiopia, Mali, and Zimbabwe—and even travel to the real city of Timbuktu.

The world of 1215 was not connected like it is today, but in surveying so many corners of the globe, you will see common themes that connect us all. Years That Changed History: 1215 is, ultimately, not about a year—but about people.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    The World before 1215
    Begin your survey of this amazing year with some context. Europe in the 13th century was experiencing a period of climate warming, which led to a population boom as well as the expansion of urban centers and the growth of cities. Meanwhile, in Asia, the Mongols were finding their ages-old way of life threatened by these same changes. x
  • 2
    The Magna Carta: Patching Up a Squabble
    History buffs likely know that the Magna Carta was drafted in 1215, and that it helped establish English law as we know it. But what was actually in this document? And why was it created in the first place? Here, you'll discover the surprisingly narrowly-focused origins of a short-lived document-what seemed at the time like a minor footnote in history. x
  • 3
    What's Really in the Magna Carta?
    Continue your study of the Magna Carta by investigating some of its most interesting clauses. As you learned in the previous lecture, the document was meant to appease a group of nobles, and the negotiated settlement is a delightful mix of grand pronouncements and specific requests-including that widows shall not be compelled to remarry. x
  • 4
    The Magna Carta's Legacy
    Although the Magna Carta is revered today as a founding document of British law and a democratic sensibility, it's stunning to reflect on how easily it could have been forgotten. Shortly after it was officially accepted by both king and nobles, the pope annulled the document; yet that isn't the end of the story. Here, trace the Magna Carta's story across the ages. x
  • 5
    What Inspired the Fourth Lateran Council?
    If you went back in time and asked anyone in 1215 what the most important event of the year was, most people in Europe would cite the Fourth Lateran Council. In this lecture, Professor Armstrong surveys the history of Christianity and the events leading up to this pivotal ecclesiastical event. x
  • 6
    Canons for Christian Practice and Belief
    Delve into the canons that were decreed at the Fourth Lateran Council. Find out what Church leaders were trying to accomplish, or what crises they were attempting to address. From heresies to marriage to the nature of the priesthood, the Fourth Lateran Council took on issues that affected nearly everyone in Europe. x
  • 7
    The Canons of Persecution
    Continue your study of the Fourth Lateran Council with this examination of the canons of persecution." Whereas the canons you studied in Lecture 6 primarily affected Christians, the canons in this lecture were directed specifically at non-Christians-particularly Muslims and Jews. After exploring these persecution canons, consider the background for the Crusades." x
  • 8
    Civilizations in the Americas in 1215
    Shift your attention from Europe to the Americas, where a number of civilizations were thriving in 1215. Although no single lecture could do justice to all of these civilizations, Professor Armstrong spotlights the Pueblo people, the Incas, and the Maya, providing a solid foundation for what was happening on the American continents at the time. x
  • 9
    Civilizations of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1215
    Africa in 1215 was home to a number of fascinating civilizations, including the Mali Empire, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, and the Ethiopian Empire. Travel to Sub-Saharan Africa to review the history leading up to these great civilizations, meet some of the major figures, and explore some of their great feats, from mining to dry-stone engineering. x
  • 10
    The Crusading Impulse
    A few lectures ago, you studied the persecution canons" of the Fourth Lateran Council and saw the tense relationship between the Church and non-Christians. Here, Professor Armstrong unpacks the background to the Crusades, beginning with Pope Urban II's 1095 call for Christians to take the Holy Land back from the Muslims." x
  • 11
    The Fourth Crusade and the Crusader States
    In the century after Pope Urban II, a crusading impulse" had taken over medieval western Europe. In this lecture, you will examine the Fourth Crusade, which began in 1198 and culminated with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Then turn to the Children's Crusade that followed." x
  • 12
    The Fourth Lateran Council and the Jews
    The Fourth Lateran Council marked a turning point for Jewish communities in medieval Europe. In this first of two lectures on the Jewish experience around 1215, Professor Armstrong provides an overview of anti-Semitism in medieval European society. Reflect on the uneasy relationship between Jews and Christians. x
  • 13
    The Jews in 1215 and Beyond
    Continue your study of the Jewish experience in medieval Europe. Examine the aftermath of 1215 and the Fourth Lateran Council's insistence on Christian dominance. In the 13th century, institutional persecution began trickling down to the masses, leading to blood libel accusations, among other abominations. x
  • 14
    Francis of Assisi and the Mendicant Orders
    As you may recall, the Fourth Lateran Council attempted to curb the formation of new monastic orders, yet the Church soon after granted an exception for the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Dive into the background of these orders, meet St. Francis of Assisi, and see how his life inspired the creation of a new religious order. x
  • 15
    The Crusade against the Cathars
    Catharism is a version of Christianity even more revolutionary than the mendicant orders you studied in the last lecture. In fact, Catharism was so radical that some people argued its belief system was not Christianity at all. See why, in the early 13th century, the pope turned his attention away from the Crusades abroad to root out Catharism at home. x
  • 16
    Mongol Culture before Genghis Khan
    Too often, western history books portray the Mongols as bloodthirsty murderers and destroyers hellbent on destroying civilization, but the true story of Mongol society is much different. As Marco Polo relayed after a visit to Kublai Khan, the Mongols did much to stabilize the societies they conquered. Explore the dual identity of the Mongols. x
  • 17
    The Mongols and the Rise of Genghis Khan
    The rise of Genghis Khan is an amazing, unbelievable story. How did a low-ranking man from the Mongolian steppes rise up to be one of the greatest military leaders the world has ever seen? In this lecture, Professor Armstrong surveys the dazzling rise of Genghis Khan, outlines his military strategy, and surveys his conquests across Asia. x
  • 18
    The Battle of Beijing
    By the early 13th century, Genghis Khan had defeated all of his immediate rivals and brought a number of regional tribes under his banner, including the Huns, Turks, and Tatars. His crowning achievement was his success at the Battle of Beijing, when he consolidated his control of China. As you'll discover, the battle was decidedly one-sided from the start. x
  • 19
    What Happened to the Mongols after 1215?
    When Genghis Khan died, his greatest legacies were his tradition of warfare as well as the way he unified so many disparate groups of people. In this final lecture on the Mongols, follow the story of his sons and grandsons, and witness the collapse of the largest, contiguous political entity ever to exist. x
  • 20
    The Status of Women in 1215
    To tackle the subject of what the world was like in general for women in 1215, Professor Armstrong returns to medieval Europe, which was home to many powerful and well-educated women. Explore the lives of three exemplary women of the time: Hildegard of Bingen, Heloise, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. x
  • 21
    Literary Trends in the Early 13th Century
    Religious writing was flourishing in 1215, and religious tracts and guides provide a crucial window into 13th-century spirituality and behavior. Beyond religion, however, the Norse and Icelandic sagas offer great insight into the myths, events, and stories of a pagan, pre-Christian past, while the Arthurian legend grew in popularity throughout the medieval world. Review this amazing-and sometimes amazingly weird-literature. x
  • 22
    The Islamic World in 1215
    In the 13th century, the Islamic world was experiencing a golden age of art, science, education, and more. From Baghdad's House of Wisdom to figures such as Avicenna, Averroes, Saladin, and more, take a tour of this grand world. Learn about the foundations of modern medicine and mathematics. x
  • 23
    Japan and Samurai Culture
    Mongol culture affected huge swaths of the world, including Japan. After reflecting on the feudal structure of Japan in the 13th century, Professor Armstrong traces the rise of the shoguns, which is rooted in the 1185 conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Examine the history of shoguns, the samurai, and more. x
  • 24
    The World after 1215
    Much of this course has been about looking back to a watershed year in world history. In this final lecture, Professor Armstrong looks forward to consider how the events from this course shaped the centuries that followed. With a shifting climate, the decline of population, and the catastrophic Black Death in the 14th century, we can look back and see that the year 1215 is truly an anomalous time. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 215-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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Years That Changed History: 1215 is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 60.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun and informative I liked the concept of studying one year (and the years around it), and I learned a lot about Catholic history, as well as the Mongol Empire, that I didn't know. The professor is engaging and knowledgable, although I think at times she plays down to the audience, adopting 21st century turns of phrase which imply that we need to be talked to "on our own level" -- I don't think that's necessary for most Great Courses subscribers. Prof. Armstrong also has an unfortunate habit of rubbing her nose at some point during every lecture; I wanted to hand her a tissue, and didn't understand why those moments couldn't be edited out.
Date published: 2020-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So much happened in just one year I thought that this was a curious name for a course. Just how much history could have happened in one year? Well considering what we have all gone through in 2020, quite a lot. It saw the Magna Carta, which while not important at the time became one of the establishing events for constitutional government. The Fourth Lateran Council met to define Christian doctrine more succinctly but created as Prof. Armstrong called it “a persecuting society”. But my favorite lectures were those on the Mongols. I guess we just imagine them as the terrifying horde of imagination. But Armstrong gave me a second look at them. Because, despite their fearsome appearance, they helped to create a meritocracy and established universal religious toleration. While I cannot forgive them for destroying Baghdad, they are just as key for world history. I have long enjoyed Professor Armstrong’s lectures and her cheeky style of delivery. And I hope that this is not the last we hear from her.
Date published: 2020-09-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Too much repetition but overall good While I understand this time period is Dr. Armstrong's forte, it could have been less focused on Europe. Her droning on about R.I. Monroe and his theory of persecution society and the Medieval Warm Period over the course of 5-6 lectures was a boring way to start each lecture. Once or twice is fine to reinforce but 6 times is too enough. The rest of the course was interesting and well researched with lots of anecdotes and proof it was a violent time period. I'm not convinced that it was any more or less violent, tho, than any other 300-400 year stretch of time. Man has not been kind to his friends and neighbors.
Date published: 2020-09-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from AKIN TO ZINN'S "HISTORY..." BUT FOR 1215 This teacher appears to have an anti-West/Christian worldview. At least three times she uses a derogatory remark of "White" people. Her definition of "Grace" shows a complete lack of Christian theology, and she mentions that Christians followed the crucified Christ with only a scant reference to his resurrection. She seems to swoon over Saladin and Islam, making their conquering of North Africa and Europe etc appear like an invitation to come over and enjoy the party. She doesn't mention the fact that Saladin didn't slaughter the Christians (one time) due to political expedience, and that he still slaughtered many others. Also, the "Golden Age" of Islam was mostly from non-muslims. As for Genghis Khan, she makes him sound like a philosopher/king as he killed and conquered the world, while casting judgment on the Crusades. As for the Mayans and Incas, they were incredibly enlightened, and only 1 minute is given to their child sacrificing. Oh, by the way. Did she get inspiration from Zinn's "A People's History..."?
Date published: 2020-08-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course and excellent professor I purchased the course on DVD and recently completed it and enjoyed it. I learned about about this period in time. I thought the professor was excellent and was very knowledgeable overall. The course focused a lot on what was going on in Europe (her area of expertise) but I thought it skimmed over a little too quickly on what was going on in other parts of the world around 1215.
Date published: 2020-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magna and Lateran I'm only ten lessons into it and it's a spellbinder. Dr. Armstrong is a magnificent story-teller.
Date published: 2020-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Want to raise my hand to ask a question I really enjoyed the series on the Black Death and now this one. Each series or episodes are just long enough. I've been binge watching and sometimes the repetition is a little much but it does reinforce what was heard so in the long run it's fine. Some times I simply want to raise my hand and say "wait, I need more clarification". However, I do find myself Googling a lot. I wish for every time she says "it's too complicated / complex to go into that now", that there could be another course about the item. I find her very interesting and enjoy the courses of hers I've seen. Are there any more Years That Changed History?
Date published: 2020-08-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting period history for medievalists I bought this course along with Dorsey Armstrong's course on the black death. The detail regarding the magna carta and associated church councils and ensuing history are very interesting . I find her lecture style pleasant to listen. I recommend this course to anyone interested in medieval history.
Date published: 2020-07-28
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