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The Medieval Legacy

Take a fascinating and eye-opening journey into the Middle Ages while you uncover the remarkable ways in which the medieval world still influences our thinking, our collective consciousness, and our ways of life.
The Medieval Legacy is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 27.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing information Professor Carol Symes is both scholarly and good-humored. Her breadth of knowledge is staggering, as is the information about the Medieval period. Each section is only about 25 minutes in length, so it's easy to listen to in smaller portions. This makes me want to know more. Well done.
Date published: 2022-11-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Middle Ages Illuminated This is one of the best teaching company courses I have ever encountered. Prof. Symes has a mastery of the subject. Her ability to bring her various lectures alive but still convey the complexity of this period of time is second to none. Her ability to weave the interconnectivity of the Middle Ages to our own time is outstanding. Since your long ago excellent course on the Middle Ages by the late Prof.Daileader, none of your other courses regarding the Middle Ages comes close to The Medieval Legacy.
Date published: 2022-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from interpreting Medieval legacies I have listened to lectures about the ‘Middle Ages’ and the ‘Renaissance/Reformation Era’ by several Great Courses lecturers, over the years, and appreciated each of their efforts to introduce me to the political, cultural, and intellectual histories of these eras. Dr. Carol Symes’s insights and arguments on The Medieval Legacy complement and extend my understanding of this time period. Dr. Symes is a clear, lively, and thoughtful speaker who weaves together a wide range of insights into thoughts and experiences of a diversity of persons of the ‘Middle Ages.’ As the name of her series suggests, she is also helping listeners understand how the ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ of this era, and subsequently developed misconceptions of this time period, have substantially shaped European and American culture, from the Nineteenth Century to today. ‘Medievalism’ is a concept I had heard of only in passing, before this course, and Dr. Symes has woven into her analysis a very helpful introduction to ways this range of mind-sets has been used to shape modern political and cultural discourses. A strength Dr. Symes explicitly brings to this effort is her experience teaching students who have been introduced to the ‘Middle Ages’ primarily through popular culture and popular political discussions. She therefore understands how present-day popular ideas of this time period are biased by intellectual and cultural viewpoints from ‘Renaissance’ through ‘Modern’ analysts, commentators, and popularizers. Analyzing the experiences and ideas of persons of the ‘Middle Ages’ through their own literature, arts, and actions is a very honest and respectful way of trying to understand ‘where these people were coming from.’ Analyzing as wide a diversity of evidence about experiences and behaviors as possible is also essential for efforts to uncover what persons were trying to do in their daily lives and religious and cultural debates. Unfortunately, we have more extensive data about what religious, secular political, and urban elites thought about how their world should work, than we have how urban and rural women and men thought and behaved. Dr. Symes recognizes this imbalance and encourages ongoing efforts to reconstruct the lives of this diverse range of individuals, as best as we can. I encourage people to listen to this lecture series. My only mild complaint is that a bibliography was not included in the guidebook. Dr. Symes bases her lectures on a very wide set of resources, so it might have felt arbitrary to define a limited reference list; but I longed to easily refer to resources I could follow up on for specific research she refers to. Still, she did mention many researchers and some of their publications by name, so I found that I could pause the lecture and write down the names and titles which caught my attention.
Date published: 2022-11-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I was disappointed with this course for multiple reasons, many of which have been articulated in previous reviews so I won't restate them here. I would add that I have come across several claims which I believe are in error. For example, Dr. Symes claims that at the council of Nicaea "ongoing arguments over the scriptural canon, the books to be included in the Christian Bible, were resolved" (Coursebook p. 29). I only know if one source (a document called Synodicon Vetus) to support this claim and it has been discounted by scholars. I've come across other such issues which, added together, have discouraged me from continuing.
Date published: 2022-11-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done. A smooth and informative presentation. Thank you, Professor Symes.
Date published: 2022-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Medieval Legacy An excellent course and well presented by Dr. Symes. It is organized into the many areas of interest today that have been influenced by actives, people, and events of the Medieval Ages. To me this course was both very enlightening and enjoyable
Date published: 2022-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A n Excellent Course Thank you Professor Symes for a first-class course marrying some of the elements of medieval ideas with present-day evolutionary thinking and furthermore, delivered with great fluidity and erudition. A special thank you because so many of your remarks coincide with my own conclusions, only mine have been garnered over a very long life-time. My motley upbringing encompassed so many forms of religious teaching that I was left wondering why so many good, well-intentioned people held onto ideas with somewhat monocular vision. I think I found the answers after many years of reading and research, however, there is no one answer that fits all. At times, it is difficult for us to shed our comfort blankets but Professor Symes has shown that it is well worth the effort. Many of the great intellectual ideas of the past were based on naivete and the limited knowledge of the time. This is not to say they were not good ideas and as such could not be challenged. However, change comes with a serious caveat - always be careful what you wish for - as history has shown just that.
Date published: 2022-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Captivating! I tried this course during a free trial, and I was enthralled. This professor is so skilled, and her knowledge is so deep that I loved every minute of this course. I am amazed at how Medieval lives were so rich and how we are products of that legacy. I can't wait for another course taught by her. Based on this class I have subscribed. I will be replaying this entire course, it's that great.
Date published: 2022-11-01
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The medieval era continues to influence our world and shape our collective consciousness. In the 36 lectures of The Medieval Legacy, you’ll learn to recognize the medieval impacts on the modern world. You’ll find the origins of our representative government and labor unions; study the enduring culture of chivalry; trace the work of the great medieval scientists; grasp how the notion of race arose in the 14th and 15th centuries; and much more.


Carol Symes

I regard understanding the medieval legacy—both its exemplary trends and their long shadows—as crucial to making sense of our own place in history.


University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Carol Symes is an Associate Professor of History, Theatre, Classics, and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her PhD in History from Harvard University. She is the founding executive editor of the journal The Medieval Globe. She edited A Cultural History of Media in the Middle Ages and wrote A Common Stage: Theatre and Public Life in Medieval Arras, which earned the American Historical Association’s Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, among other honors.

By This Professor

The Medieval Legacy
The Medieval Legacy


Discovering the Medieval Legacy

01: Discovering the Medieval Legacy

Begin the course with a look at what “medieval” means, and the challenges of defining when and where the Middle Ages took place. Consider common associations and ideas about the medieval era, both positive and negative, and the substantial inaccuracies of many of them. Finally, investigate what may be the most useful timeline in terms of when the medieval era began and ended.

27 min
The Medieval Birth of the Book

02: The Medieval Birth of the Book

Take account of the seminal medieval contribution to the format of the book and the accessibility of reading. Chart the centuries-long evolution of written texts, from ancient scrolls of papyrus to wax tablets, codices, and texts written on parchment and vellum. Grasp how medieval books, which were portable and durable, democratized reading, creating the framework for how we think about and practice it.

27 min
Medieval Innovations in Record Keeping

03: Medieval Innovations in Record Keeping

The medieval era gave us techniques for recording words, sounds, and knowledge that were not surpassed for centuries. Learn how medieval scholars revolutionized writing, making texts easier to read; created musical notation and methods for recording poetry and song; and how these technologies allowed more and more people to record their own experiences and insert themselves into the historical record.

27 min
The Beginnings of Orthodoxy and Heresy

04: The Beginnings of Orthodoxy and Heresy

As Christianity grew and developed, trace the process by which religious and political elites aligned to enforce conformity within the religion. Observe how early variations of belief and practice were systematized after Christianity became the state religion of Rome, leading to codified theological beliefs and canonized scriptures, with conflicting views labeled as heretical and punishable.

34 min
Anti-Semitism’s Medieval Roots

05: Anti-Semitism’s Medieval Roots

Over roughly four centuries, anti-Semitism became rooted in medieval society. Learn how Jews in the Latin West were rare, considered suspect, and depended on protection from local rulers. Trace the proliferation of anti-Jewish tropes, from lies connecting Jews with violence to Christian ideology condemning them for the death of Jesus and prohibiting usury, spurring pogroms and negative portrayals in popular culture.

32 min
Holy War and Its Long Legacy

06: Holy War and Its Long Legacy

Track the various factors that gave rise to the medieval concept of “holy war,” undergirding the call to arms of the Crusades. Begin with the phenomenon of divinely sanctioned wars in the ancient world. Then, grasp the Greco-Roman and Christian theories of “just” war, fought for a holy cause, offering the remission of sins for soldiers, and its analogies to the Muslim concept of jihad.

32 min
The Cult of the Virgin Mary

07: The Cult of the Virgin Mary

Uncover the links between the veneration of Mary and ancient traditions of divine leaders begotten through virgin births. Learn how the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity developed, and about its connections with both the Church’s insistence on male authority and notions of sexual sin. Note, ironically, that as the cult of the Virgin grew, opportunities for women within the church narrowed.

31 min
The Imaginative Power of Chivalry

08: The Imaginative Power of Chivalry

The medieval culture of chivalry embodies behavioral and moral ideals that still resonate today. Find the roots of chivalry’s ethos in the oldest surviving medieval epic, the Song of Roland. Observe how chivalric ideals were promulgated in romance literature, usually through the patronage of women. Grasp what motivated a new class of warrior knights to embrace chivalry’s codes of valor and courtly behavior.

35 min
The Legacy of Heraldry and Pedigree

09: The Legacy of Heraldry and Pedigree

Flowing from medieval chivalric codes, the arts of heraldry arose to provide symbolic “brands” for individuals and groups. Study the pictorial forms that proclaimed their bearers and “patented” their public identities on coats of arms and seals, using powerful iconography. Then, learn how heraldry was co-opted by non-noble aspirants and was intertwined with the creation of chivalric orders that still exist today.

29 min
“Town Air Makes You Free”

10: “Town Air Makes You Free”

Following on a major economic boom in the 11th century, witness the rise of medieval towns as a new phenomenon, often growing organically around monasteries or castles. See how newly empowered townspeople were able to demand liberties, charters, and the right to self-governance, creating unprecedented opportunities for social mobility, new civic institutions, and new forms of urban entertainment.

29 min
Guilds and the Rise of Organized Labor

11: Guilds and the Rise of Organized Labor

Take the measure of medieval trade guilds, as they offered a sense of group solidarity and protections and posed threats to authority. Study the case of the jongleurs’ (entertainers’) guild of Arras, and how it transformed its members’ social status. Grasp how guilds acted boldly in political movements, and played cultural roles, endowing buildings, charities, and making powerful symbolic use of theater.

29 min
The Medieval Rise of the Rule of Law

12: The Medieval Rise of the Rule of Law

Medieval societies recognized the need for shared legal processes and norms. Learn about the earliest medieval law codes, the precepts of English Common Law, and the use of trial juries derived from Anglo-Saxon and Roman customs. Note legal principles embodied in the Magna Carta, and the opposition within the West of two competing ideals: absolute power by monarchs versus a system of law which would hold rulers in check.

29 min
Medieval Government and Collective Rights

13: Medieval Government and Collective Rights

Trace the origins of representative government in the medieval era, in the phenomena of councils, general assemblies, and the Norse tradition of the “Thing” (public assembly). Learn that medieval rulers, despite their power, had to bow to the pressures of representative governance. Also, observe how the papacy, during this era, was able to enlarge its powers and, for the first time, function as an unchecked monarchy.

31 min
Medieval Sovereignty and the State

14: Medieval Sovereignty and the State

Complex notions of statehood permeated the medieval era. Examine criteria for how we might define sovereignty, and the ways in which medieval state sovereignty was complicated by the power of the Church. Observe how English and French monarchs worked to establish inviolable authority over defined territories, and how the debate over the nature of national sovereignty would continue for centuries, down to our own day.

32 min
The Medieval Roots of the King’s English

15: The Medieval Roots of the King’s English

Investigate how the modern English language came into being, beginning with the text of the oldest recorded English song in the 13th century. Learn about the suppression of the common use of Old English by the French-speaking Normans. Follow the language’s evolution through later texts, as the Middle English that became the language of the royal court promoted the English of the southeast–thus, explaining the variety of English dialects that thrive today.

27 min
Medieval Narratives of Nationalism

16: Medieval Narratives of Nationalism

Examine 19th century European nationalist movements which sought to self-legitimize by grounding their identities in the medieval past. Witness this in the attempts of at least five countries to claim the Beowulf epic as national patrimony, and the efforts of numerous others to base nationalist claims on medieval events. Observe how these divisive nationalist “medievalisms” became destructive.

31 min
Medieval Narratives in Modern War

17: Medieval Narratives in Modern War

Explore the co-opting of medieval history by the nations fighting World War I, seen in the symbolic invocation of Joan of Arc, England’s Henry V, and images of the Crusades, among other iconic figures and events. Also, observe the persistent invocation of medieval battlegrounds during the conflict, outrage at the destruction of medieval cities, and wartime political currents bolstered by notions of the medieval past.

29 min
The University’s Medieval Origins

18: The University’s Medieval Origins

Witness the rise of medieval universities, following on the religious schools that preceded them. Note how curriculums were broadened to a range of more secular subjects, leading to universities as confraternities of teachers, scholars, and students. Delve into the intellectual culture that surrounded universities, which transformed medieval lives by offering opportunity for advancement through education.

32 min
The Origins of the Scientific Method

19: The Origins of the Scientific Method

Learn the story of medieval science, and its integral contributions to the modern scientific method. Review the work of great medieval scientists, such as Anselm, al-Haytham, Grosseteste, Bacon, Ockham, Copernicus, and others. Grasp how their innovations crystallized the inductive-deductive method, while religious currents surrounding the Reformation effectively suppressed key elements of their work.

33 min
Our Debts to the Medieval World of Money

20: Our Debts to the Medieval World of Money

First, examine medieval accounting systems that were used until the 19th century, and the transformative innovations of Arabic numerals and the number zero. Delve into medieval forms of calculation, techniques of bookkeeping, letters of credit, and new methods of managing risk. Note that increasingly complex financial instruments and moneylending led to great disparities in wealth, then as now.

32 min
The Medieval Explosion of Documentation

21: The Medieval Explosion of Documentation

In the medieval world, paperwork placed new demands on people from all walks of life. Through illuminating historical examples, see how the need for documentation became a necessary fact of life: to validate legal claims, transactions, and to preserve family legacies, with writings and written evidence becoming valuable possessions. The resulting documents leave us a fascinating record of everyday medieval life and its resonances in our own era.

27 min
The Medieval Invention of Purgatory

22: The Medieval Invention of Purgatory

Study medieval teachings on sin and salvation, and notions of purification and atonement. Learn how the practice of interceding for the dead through prayer and penitential rituals figured in the emerging Church doctrine of Purgatory. Trace the history of “indulgences” for absolving sins, which were sold by clerics, the abuse of which fueled the Protestants’ stance against the ideology of Purgatory.

29 min
Medieval Evolutions in Hospitals and Prisons

23: Medieval Evolutions in Hospitals and Prisons

Examine the social, political, and economic factors that caused hospitals and prisons to emerge as prominent civic institutions in the Middle Ages. Trace the rise of subsidized public hospitals, often attached to religious complexes, and positioned centrally within towns. Study the culture of medieval prisons, their integral place in the urban landscape, and the role they played in civic life.

31 min
Medieval Rhyme, Romance, and Sagas

24: Medieval Rhyme, Romance, and Sagas

Here, delve into three medieval building blocks of European literature that endure to the present day. Track the adoption of rhyme from Arabic literature as a core feature of Western poetics. Then, see how verse and prose romances emerged in European traditions, commenting on contemporary values. Finally, encounter the dramatic Norse sagas and their key themes, archetypes, and fluid gender norms.

29 min
The Medieval Rise of Professional Authors

25: The Medieval Rise of Professional Authors

Distinguish the conditions that allowed some medieval writers to make a livelihood from their work. Learn about authorship within the monastic profession and under the patronage of aristocratic elites and the clergy. See the contours of medieval authorship in Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pisan, and Margery Kempe, and grasp how the internet replicates the channels through which many medieval authors worked.

29 min
How Vernacular Bibles Transformed Faith

26: How Vernacular Bibles Transformed Faith

In the spread of Christianity across medieval Europe, follow the processes by which biblical texts were revised, translated, and depicted visually to be comprehensible and acceptable to a new audience. Witness the clash between Church opposition to non-authorized Bibles and movements advocating the reading and interpretation of scripture by ordinary laypeople, in their own languages.

29 min
Recovering Medieval Arts and Artists

27: Recovering Medieval Arts and Artists

Locate the medieval origins of oil painting, long attributed to Renaissance artists. Then uncover the unknown legacy of female artists in illuminated manuscript production and reckon with the visionary paintings of Hildegard of Bingen and the visual works of Christine de Pisan. Contemplate the erasure of medieval women artists’ contributions, as seen in the example of the iconic Bayeux Tapestry.

32 min
The Medieval Artistic Imagination Persists

28: The Medieval Artistic Imagination Persists

The arts of the 19th century fostered a mania for medievalism across European society. Discover the ways in which Romanticism rejected Enlightenment doctrines and looked for a return to a medieval worldview. See how currents such as the British Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements and widespread neo-Gothic architecture glorified medievalism, not only in Europe but also in the United States.

31 min
The Black Death’s Lasting Lessons

29: The Black Death’s Lasting Lessons

Encounter epidemics and pandemics in antiquity, and explore the conditions of war, urbanization, and human and animal mobility that facilitated the spread of pathogens. Study new findings about the origins of the medieval bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, and the ecological, economic, and political factors that exacerbated it. Identify the core themes of this catastrophe that we can learn from now, and in the future.

30 min
The Medieval Invention of Race?

30: The Medieval Invention of Race?

Study early medieval conceptions of differences between peoples, which show an absence of judgments based on physicality. Observe how these views change in the 14th and 15th centuries, manifesting in an increasing preoccupation with skin color and bodily differences, with Jews represented as racially different from Europeans. Also, consider the roles of Christianity and travel literature in new kinds of race thinking.

33 min
Medievalism and Modern Racism

31: Medievalism and Modern Racism

Why does medievalism play a critical role in modern white supremacist and racist discourse? Trace the growth of the later medieval European slave trade, its racialization of slavery, and new ideas about European superiority. Grasp the grounding of modern supremacist thinking in the idea of a superiority based in Europe’s success in modernizing itself and the celebration of its unique medieval heritage.

30 min
Rediscovering Medieval Sex and Gender

32: Rediscovering Medieval Sex and Gender

Enter the surprising world of medieval gender identities and sexual dynamics. Take account of the Church’s developing misogynistic stance towards brilliant and visionary women. Study the shifting contours of medieval sexuality, noting the distinctive presence of queer identities and the sliding scale of gender practices, suggesting that medieval customs heralded, or even surpassed, those of the 21st century to date.

29 min
Medieval Games We Still Play

33: Medieval Games We Still Play

Dig into the medieval origins of globally popular games and sports, beginning with the French invention of tennis. See how tennis developed, becoming a major phenomenon by the 16th century. Learn about the culture and rowdiness of football in the Middle Ages. Finally, chart the evolution and penetrating cultural presence of chess and the colorful medieval history of playing cards.

29 min
Medieval Revolutions in Dress and Dining

34: Medieval Revolutions in Dress and Dining

Learn about the symbolism of colors and other markers of class in medieval clothing, and track the burgeoning uses of silk, velvet, and cotton. Note major and long-lasting medieval contributions to fashion, with new garments and styles of dress that endured into the modern era. Delve into refinements in dining and tableware, such as new utensils, foods, and a more inclusive dining culture.

33 min
Medieval Inventions That Changed the World

35: Medieval Inventions That Changed the World

Among landmarks of medieval technology, trace the development of mechanical clocks, a seismic shift in the measurement of time, and of the majestic clocktowers that graced medieval cities. Follow the 13th-century emergence of eyeglasses in northern Italy, and of maritime charts that revolutionized global navigation. Then, witness the introduction of cannons and handheld firearms into warfare.

33 min
Medievalism, Pop Culture, and the Present

36: Medievalism, Pop Culture, and the Present

Observe how medievalism in the 20th century moved from the realm of high art into popular and public culture, through routes such as new Gothic architecture and medieval Passion plays. Assess the contribution of medievalist authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Reflect on the range of “medievalisms” in our own era, from movies and TV to video gaming, and what they may tell us about ourselves.

35 min