The Early Middle Ages, Paul Freedman

I can’t seem to finish any books because I am spending all of my spare time on Academic Earth..I just finished Professor Freedman’s course The Early Middle Ages, 284 – 1000 A.D.  

As the title of my blog suggests, I harbor no small fear that – as my 8th grade teacher suggested – civilization is descending into the Next Dark Age.  One of the first things Freedman does is say that “we” don’t like the term.  Another is that 470 A.D., when the Roman Empire is generally agreed to have fallen, was really only when the western part fell.  Constantinople hung in there quite well for awhile and Byzantium is one of the “heirs of the empire” (the other two being Christianity and Islam, if memory serves).

Freedman seems to think the Middle Ages rock because anything can and does happen.  He asserts that the people living in this time didn’t think of themselves as living in a “Dark Age”.  They merely led simpler lives in smaller spheres than in the great days of Rome.  Although it was admittedly rather more violent.

He warns us in the beginning that there is a lot of material on the Christian Heresies that not all students appreciate.  We know about the many, many rulers and battles and assassinations and this course does a lot to dispel some old mythology from my high school recollection about how and why it all happened.

But yeah.  A lot on religion.

My favorite statistics were regarding books and I wish I had written them down.  Apparently, around the time of Charlemagne there were only a few hundred book titles in existence.  Of those, something like 25 were not religious texts.  Rather startling until you remember that the monks are pretty much the only literate people.

I particularly enjoyed the lectures on Byzantium and then the birth of Islam.  Freedman tells a good story and I could watch him again.  But I don’t feel any better about the state of western civilization.

The American Revolution, Joanne Freeman

A couple of weeks ago, I checked back on Academic to see if there were any new courses.  I was in a bit of a panic because they moved a lot of courses from “History” to “Humanities”.  But after I figured it out, I found Yale Professor Joanne Freeman’s course on The American Revolution.


I am partial to the Yale history courses and Professor Freeman tells a really good story. The most educational piece for me was the first lecture, entitled “Freeman’s Top Five Tips for Studying the Revolution“.  It included thoughts like – language was different two hundred years ago.  Even “democracy” didn’t mean the same thing then that it does now.  Another was to keep in mind that we, as students of history, tend to make assumptions based on the knowledge of how things turned out.  We have to keep in mind that the colonists and early Americans didn’t have that luxury.

Another good one was “Heroes and Villains“, which told the story of Benedict Arnold.  Worth the 45 minutes, particularly if you’ve never heard the story before.

For those of us that have dutifully read our Joseph Ellis and David McCullough, et al, there aren’t many big revelations in the lectures.  But there are plenty of great quotes and anecdotes pulled from old letters.  More than once, Freeman confesses to re-writing a lecture on the fly because she wants to highlight something different.  Just the kind of history geek I enjoy.  In fact, I picked up one of the authors that Freeman mentioned at Half Price Books today.  Which leads me to a complaint regarding Academic Earth:

One of the things that made me fall all in love with the site was that the syllabus and all of the course reading were also published on the page.  I have literally purchased some of these books in the past to read during or after watching the lectures.  This course didn’t have them linked.  That made me go back to Professor Blight’s Civil War course, which I knew had them posted.  No longer.  There is a list of “Related Resources”, but a couple of things I recall being assigned were not listed.   However, I now see they can be found on the Open Yale Courses website.  (And OMG I just found three more courses I want to see!)

But I also have books to read, so the Half Time show is now over.

P.S.  Oh!  And Freeman says that the HBO mini-series on John Adams was pretty solid.

European Civ, John Merriman

After finishing up his course on modern French history, I started watching the lectures from Professor Merriman’s course on European Civilization on Academic Earth.   It was a survey course, so I can’t say I learned a whole heckuvalot, but there were several lectures that stood out.

Professor Merriman maintains that the key to understanding the French is to understand that as a country, France was weaker in victory after WWI than Germany was in defeat.   That theme, that permeated the French history course, comes up again in this one.  He spend far more time on the 20th century than on those earlier, with particular emphasis on the World Wars.  He asserts that they were really just one war, that lasted 30 years.

I appreciated the recurring themes of nationalism and identity.  I liked the way that Merriman talks through the similarities and differences in national experience and character.  I particularly liked one lecture in which he describes why every country in Europe had some kind of proletarian revolution in 1848.  Except England.

Obviously, France is Merriman’s area of expertise, so if you don’t want to hear about it, you might want to skip this one.  But I could listen to this guy talk all day long.

France Since 1871

France Since 1871 is a course at Yale taught by John Merriman.  The lectures are posted on Academic Earth, and I just finished them.  

I chose this one because:
  1. I like history classes.
  2. Everything I know about France is through the lens of American (or perhaps British) history.
Merriman starts by saying the most intriguing thing.  It was something like:
The key to understanding the French character is to understand that after WWI, France, in victory, was left a weaker country than Germany was in defeat.
Of the 24 lectures, almost five were about The Great War.  But there was lots of other stuff.  For example:
  • In France, the suburbs are where “unwanted” people live.
  • All roads lead to Paris, which is kind of a pain in the butt.
  • Regional identities, including other dialects, have disappeared at an alarming rate.  As Paris has taken over the French universe.
Merriman goes off on tangents, which I think were great fun.  He talks a lot about living in France and uses the language in his lectures to illustrate points.  He often says that he never felt that people were looking down on him as an American.
I was less impressed with his guest lecturers.
He has at least one more course on Academic Earth and I will absolutely be going through it.  

The Suburbs

I’ve been watching lectures from a course on Academic Earth called France Since 1871.  I am interested because almost everything I have known about French history has been in the context of American or, perhaps, English history.  More on that later.

In a lecture on the urban rebuilding of Paris (mid-19th century), Professor Merriman notes that in the United States, the suburbs are the place that people go to escape the Big Bad City.  Whereas in Europe, the suburbs are the place to which the riffraff is (are?) exiled.  Fascinating.

Isn’t that a huge part of the American character?  That we want land.  We want space.  But the work is to be found in the cities, so the best we can do is commute from the suburbs.

I could live in a college town, or a small town.  I could even go rural, assuming that there was Internet and a near-enough airport.  And UPS.  But I don’t think I could go urban for real.  Even when I went to college – AU is pretty much in the suburbs.

My friend Rich loves the city.  He loves it so much that when he figured out that he couldn’t afford a place he really liked in Chicago, he moved to Milwaukee.  Just to live in an urban environment.  For me, the city is an event, not an everyday way of life.

I need space.  I need green.  And I love my car.  I am ok with being the riffraff.

The Poetry of John Milton, Lectures by John Rogers

The Poetry of John Milton is the second course I have gone through on Academic Earth. As I’ve said, I picked it because I have had Paradise Lost on my shelf for years and nearly half of the lectures were on that piece alone.

The instructor was Yale professor John Rogers, and I loved him. He called Milton “the greatest of all the English poets” more than once. He was like the New England Yankee version of a high school English teacher I had – Ted Belch for you District 225 kids. I couldn’t stand Mr. Belch at 14. He was so into the language and everything was dramatic and erotic and I thought he was insane. But listening to Rogers do the same thing made me want to go back to high school for a week to see if I could better appreciate Mr. Belch and Candide.

Well. Not Candide. Candide was lame.

The course begins with some earlier Milton works, including some political prose. If I hadn’t understood Milton through the lens of the Restoration, I would have missed a whole lot about Paradise Lost. This is why school is cool.

There is a lot of discussion of Milton’s politics, and education, and religion and family relations and how they relate to each of the published works. Rogers makes it all sound so personal.

I didn’t read each of the assignments the way the students were required to, and I am certainly not an English major, but I think I got a lot out of it. And I see that there is a course on the Old Testament, which seems to be where Rogers and Milton are driving me.

I love this web site.

Paradise Lost, by John Milton

Book 5
As I was saying, Paradise Lost has been on my shelf for-practically-ever and I picked it up when I saw Professor Roger’s course on Milton’s poetry on Academic Earth.  I have not quite finished the course yet, but I will have plenty to say about that, too.

The most famous line in the poem belongs to Satan:  “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n”.  And Satan makes some convincing arguments until he is just plain mean to my friend, Eve.  Poor Eve.

I am not a real feminist, mostly because the world has been pretty good to me and even the Old Boys’ Club lets me play in the Clubhouse from time to time.  But my closet feminist self is the true and honest reason that I cannot embrace organized religion and it is from that perspective, (egged on by Professor Rogers) that I was attacking this piece.

Rogers says that Eve is “doctrinally wrong” in Paradise Lost, but that she asks some really good questions.  Although, it can be argued that asking any questions while you are living in Eden is by its nature doctrinally wrong. 

Eve is submissive to Adam, and apparently of her own free will.  But one of the great things that Milton does is in challenging the very concept of Free Will as it stands opposed to Predestination.  The old philosophical question – “If God knows it is going to happen, why doesn’t he stop it?”  blahblahblah.

Skip to the part of the text that really hit me.  Eve wakes up one day and suggests to Adam that he go work in one part of the garden and she will work in another part of the garden.  Splitting up for the day so they can get some actual work done.  (Apparently Dude can’t keep his eyes off her or something.)  Adam doesn’t want to do that, saying that the bad guy is out there ready to be bad and they are safer together.  Eve’s counterpoint (a great series of lines) is that if they have to live in fear of the Baddie, they can hardly call it Paradise.  It ends with:

“Frail is our happiness if this be so,
And Eden were no Eden thus exposed.”
People, I about came out of my chair at that one.  Because while Eve was actually talking about fear of the Baddie, there is also truth to the fact that her de facto subservience to Adam was bugging her.   (You really get to that after she eats the apple.)  Professor Rogers noted that any person that is the low guy on the totem pole is going to wish/plan/plot/hope to become equal, or even superior to the other guy.  Which led me to the conclusion that Eden wasn’t actually Paradise to Eve in the first place.  So why shouldn’t she disobey the one stupid rule of the Guy that created the Order to the Universe that has made her inferior?
(waits for the bolt of lightning)
The old school theology says that God knew she was inferior because He knew she was going to eat the apple so he created the sexual hierarchy for that reason.  Sorry, but I don’t buy that.
Anyway.  I think I am going to have to read Paradise Regained.