Years That Changed History: 1215

Gain a truly global understanding of our world in the making-and discover the common themes that connect us across time and space through one single year.


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 wide-ranging lectures, Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University gives you the Big History of this singular year, introducing you to the people, events, and consequences of the world in 1215.


Dorsey Armstrong
Dorsey Armstrong

Every turning point in the medieval world discussed in these lectures shifted the flow of the river of history, bringing us ever closer to the modern world.


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, late-medieval print culture, and the Arthurian legend, on which she has published extensively, including the 2009 book Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript and Gender and the Chivalric Community in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, published in 2003. In January 2009, she became editor-in-chief of the academic journal Arthuriana, which publishes the most cutting-edge research on the legend of King Arthur, from its medieval origins to its enactments in the present moment. Her current research project-Mapping Malory's Morte-is an exploration of the role played by geography in Malory's version of the story of King Arthur.

By This Professor

Years That Changed History: 1215


The World before 1215

01: 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.

34 min
The Magna Carta: Patching Up a Squabble

02: 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.

31 min
What’s Really in the Magna Carta?

03: 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.

30 min
The Magna Carta’s Legacy

04: 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.

28 min
What Inspired the Fourth Lateran Council?

05: 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.

31 min
Canons for Christian Practice and Belief

06: 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.

30 min
The Canons of Persecution

07: 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.

28 min
Civilizations in the Americas in 1215

08: 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.

29 min
Civilizations of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1215

09: 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.

30 min
The Crusading Impulse

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.

32 min
The Fourth Crusade and the Crusader States

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.

30 min
The Fourth Lateran Council and the Jews

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.

29 min
The Jews in 1215 and Beyond

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.

30 min
Francis of Assisi and the Mendicant Orders

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.

34 min
The Crusade against the Cathars

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.

33 min
Mongol Culture before Genghis Khan

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.

31 min
The Mongols and the Rise of Genghis Khan

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.

32 min
The Battle of Beijing

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.

30 min
What Happened to the Mongols after 1215?

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.

33 min
The Status of Women in 1215

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, Héloïse, and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

33 min
Literary Trends in the Early 13th Century

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.

34 min
The Islamic World in 1215

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, Averroës, Saladin, and more, take a tour of this grand world. Learn about the foundations of modern medicine and mathematics.

32 min
Japan and Samurai Culture

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.

31 min
The World after 1215

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.

38 min