The Medieval Legacy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.