Western Culture: Ancient and Medieval

Humanities 111-02: Western Culture I

Fall 2019

“The mind if not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.”–Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures” (De auditu)

 in Moralia, AD 50–120. 

“Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning.”

–Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, finished by AD 1405.

Course Description 

What is a hero? What makes a hero?

What can epic stories tell us about the past and our contemporary moment? How do these stories bind us together?

How do images tell stories? What characteristics make for compelling visual storytelling?

In what ways do built spaces, such as temples, churches, or mosques, tell or shape stories?

Why is historical empathy important? How can de develop it by studying stories written, painted, or sculpted?

The subject matter of this class is the ancient and medieval worlds, and their continued relevance in today’s contemporary moment. It addresses important themes, ideas, and faiths from cultures that flourished around the Mediterranean, including those in northern Africa, western Asia, and southern and northern Europe from approximately 3,000 BC to AD 1400. Rather than provide an epic chronological narrative that attempts to “cover everything,” this class is concerned with developing your ability to think critically and building a specific skill set associated with humanistic disciplines to help you reason and reflect on the human condition. It seeks to answer the questions above, or rather, to have you form your own answers to the questions above.

This class is not solely about memorizing information to regurgitate on a test; it is about igniting the mind. It does not just provide knowledge, but hopefully helps in shaping your orientation to the world around you. It is not intended to simply help you make a living, but rather about how to make a life. 

For these reasons, we consider a limited number of thematic topics. Our three major themes this semester are: 

epic literature, 

sites of faith, 

and visual storytelling. 

These chosen themes are intended to strengthen you for a life of purpose, service, and leadership; to increase your global awareness; to help you reflect on your faith; to help you to serve others; and to transform your life, your soul, so that you can, in turn, impact culture. 


How this class is taught

How I teach

Similar to what Plutarch and Christine de Pizan note above, I see my role as someone to help guide you on your journey, to help kindle the fire, and to act as a “guide on the side.” For this reason, this class has a blended approach, using elements of the “flipped classroom” and team-based learning with more familiar lecturing. Our class is a mixture of lectures, activities, reflections, retrieval practice, virtual reality field trips, mini-quizzes, and even games–all of which have been carefully crafted to help you learn. I have structured the class in a more engaging and practical way to help you learn the skills described above in the objectives. The delivery of some content will happen outside of class, via readings and videos. You will complete mini-quizzes before class to help you process what you have learned. In the many years that I have used this model of teaching, students are engaged in new ways. Let’s enter Fall 2019 with a spirit of adventure. You–the students–will be part of a big experiment, and we will work together to make this semester a valuable learning experience.


Key Approaches that I use to help students learn

  1. Retrieval practice, and lots of it (low-stakes quizzes, polls, kahoots, games, and other types of activities to help you recall information)
  2. Basics quizzes to encourage important reading and help students to retain very basic information about those readings.
  3. Sharing ideas with others, which is proven to help students learn material better and give everyone a voice; this also allows you to understand and analyze materials better.
  4. Collaborating on in-class assignments; not solely sharing but also working together to generate answers.
  5. Writing reflections about what you have been learning; this is a way to help you process materials and connect it to your life in some capacity, which is proven to help you retain information and ideas better.


Course Schedule

Some of the subjects of the cultural texts in the ancient and medieval worlds raise issues that can be startling and unsettling: death, trauma, rape, suicide, murder, incest, and torture. I want to make you all aware in advance of the sometimes difficult nature of this content so that you can take care of yourself. 

At some point in the semester, if you suspect that specific material is likely to be emotionally challenging for you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have before the subject comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to course material with the class or with me individually afterwards, I welcome such discussions as an appropriate part of our classwork.

If you ever feel the need to step outside during a class discussion you may always do so without academic penalty. Your well-being is most important. You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually to discuss the situation. 


8/28: Introduction to HUM 111: What do we mean by the “west,” “culture,”  and “humanities”? 

Welcome! This week we will meet for the first time. During our initial convening we will have an opportunity to introduce ourselves to one another, begin to build our community, discuss any concerns you might have, and begin to wrestle with some big ideas and themes of this class. You will be asked to reflect on a famous maxim (Know Thyself)  as the first step in a larger process of self-reflection.

We will consider contemporary appropriations of the medieval and ancient world, and the invention of the past. We will look to popular culture (e.g., movies, memes, music, literature), controversies and debates (e.g., specific hashtags such as #metoo, #medievalpoc, #globalmiddleages, #medievaltwitter), Crusader rhetoric, artistic medievalisms, and events and movements like the Charlottesville rally.


Before Class (it looks like a lot, but it isn’t, I promise!)

StoryMap that provides an overview of what we will be doing this semester. It’s a fun visual way to get excited.

           The syllabus before coming to class on our first day. 

    • This is an important activity because it ensures that you understand what this class involves.

Basics Quiz 1 on the syllabus. Make sure you’ve read the entire syllabus beforehand. Due by 11:55 PM on Friday, 8/30. This quiz is to ensure you’ve read the syllabus, and to get you acquainted with taking Quizzes on Courses in an easy low-stakes way. The quiz is timed.


Buy the Google Cardboard for class.

    • You can buy it in the bookstore. Amazon also sells them. You can also use one in the Genesis Lab.
9/4: “Forget death and seek life!”: The Epic of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia

This week’s topic grapples with the topics of friendship, power, death, immortality, the divine, and suffering using The Epic of Gilgamesh. This ancient Mesopotamian epic helps us to reflect on how to build a life, and in so doing we are able to consider the epic of Gilgamesh in relation to the themes of purpose, service, and leadership in the ancient Near East. 

Look over (and ideally print) the handout on Gilgamesh and Mesopotamia (handouts always linked on this syllabus) before watching videos and doing readings

  • Materials on the handout are terms, concepts, names, and so forth that students will need to be able to identify, use, and discuss during class activities, on quizzes, and on exams.
  • Use the handouts to structure notes and to guide readings and videos.

Ancient Mesopotamia 101 for a brief overview of ancient Mesopotamian civilization (4 minutes)

  • (remember, due by 11:59 PM the night before!)
  • If you still need to sign up, see the previous class day.

Dr. Senta German, “Ancient Near East: Cradle of civilization,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/ancient-near-east-cradle-of-civilization/.

Philip Freeman, “Lessons from a Demigod” (10 min)

Excerpts from the Epic of Gilgamesh, pp. 69–75, 151–164, 173-189, 194-199 (it is very large print, so it isn’t as much as it seems).

Quiz 2 on Courses 

Also, please make sure you download the following apps on your phone. You will need them the rest of the semester to use the Google Cardboard. They are all free.

    • Street View (Google Street View)
    • Expeditions (Google Expeditions)
    • VRTube (Youtube’s virtual reality)

***Please bring your Google Cardboard to class every day from this point forward (unless you hear otherwise from me). We will not necessarily use it each week, but in case we do please come prepared.***

In class we will be getting used to using Google Cardboard and some of the apps that I’ve asked you to download. We will use part of class time to discuss virtual reality and how we will use it in this class.

9/11: “There are two roads which human beings can follow, one of wisdom and the other of ignorance”: The Book of the Dead and the Temple of Amun-Re Karnak, Egypt

This week’s topic reflects on what one of the oldest civilizations in the world–that of ancient Egypt–believed happened to people after death, as well as what they needed to do during life to appease the gods and prepare for the afterlife. We consider the ‘spells for coming forth by day’, known more commonly as the “Book” of the Dead, as one entry point to understanding this culture’s complex beliefs about the hereafter. In addition to the “Book”, we also turn to what material and visual culture might reveal to us, looking specifically to the grandiose Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak (the largest temple in the ancient world!). We will reflect on how these beliefs and their accompanying practices relate to our own beliefs and feelings about death and the hereafter in the context of our own faith. 

Ancient Egypt 101 for a basic overview of ancient Egyptian civilization (6 minutes)

Dr. Amy Calvert, “Ancient Egypt, an introduction,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/ancient-egypt-an-introduction/. (5 minutes)

Dr. Amy Calvert, “Ancient Egyptian art,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/ancient-egyptian-art/. (5 minutes)

Last Judgment of Hunefer (7.5 minutes)

Dr. Elizabeth Cummins, “Temple of Amun-Re and the Hypostyle Hall, Karnak,” in Smarthistory, November 27, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/temple-of-amun-re-and-the-hypostyle-hall-karnak/. (5 minutes)

Virtual tour, for definitions and identifications, of Digital Karnak-Terms and Definitions

    • Use this 3D-video to help you identify specific terms and identifying features of Karnak that are noted on the handout
    • Also, using your Google Cardboard, go to Google Expeditions and find Karnak Temple, Luxor (for tour) as well as the HUM 111: Karnak

Basics Quiz 3 

9/18:  “Rage: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage”: The Iliad and Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia

War, death, suffering, tragedy: these are some of the important topics of the epic, The Iliad. This well-known epic will launch our first lecture on ancient Hellas, and why this text was and still is among the most recognized stories. We will also consider how it united peoples of Hellas, and from there examine some of the panhellenic sanctuaries which also served as sites that brought different Greeks together. Know the Olympic Games? Well, did you know that these athletic events took place at a religious sanctuary?

Ancient Greece 101 for a basic foundation on what is ancient Hellenic history (4 minutes)

for more foundational knowledge, this brief essay: The British Museum, “Ancient Greece, an introduction,” in Smarthistory, February 28, 2017, https://smarthistory.org/ancient-greece-an-introduction/. (5 minutes)

Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker, “Introduction to ancient Greek architecture,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/introduction-to-greek-architecture/. (10 minutes)

Troy Story: The Iliad, an animated video that provides an overview of The Iliad (2.5 minutes)

The Iliad, 1–10, 16–19, 96–99, 305–309, 329–331, 355–359, and 482–485.

This short essay on The Olympic Games: The British Museum, “Olympic games,” in Smarthistory, August 29, 2016, https://smarthistory.org/olympic-games/. (10 minutes)

Explore and read about the ancient site of Olympia through this digital and VR project. At the very least, please read, watch, and explore the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It will give you a better sense of the temple overall and what it looks like today. (There is a short video, and several 360 photos).

Also, watch short virtual reality video on Olympia, as reconstructed, here. (1:30 mins)

Basics Quiz 4

9/25: “There is no happiness where there is no wisdom”: Antigone

This week’s topic revolves around a theatrical drama from Athens considering how it relates to themes of political order/disorder, gender, democracy, religious life, and warfare. Specifically, the drama revolves around this question: do traitors deserve proper burial? Set amidst the “Golden Age” of Athens during its short-lived experiment with democracy, the drama also allows us to explore the reason why its message would have been profound and thought-provoking in its time period. It allows us a lens through which we can consider larger questions about faith versus reason, suffering, beauty, and happiness. 

An Introduction to Greek Theatre, from the National Theatre, London (be aware that the speakers are British, so some of the pronunciation might sound different!) (7 minutes)

Then watch this short video that helps to further contextualize 5th century Athens, the time during which Antigone was written: The Athenian Agora and the experiment in democracy (4.5 minutes)

the entire drama of Antigone in Sophocles’ The Three Theban Plays, pp. 59–128. 

Basics Quiz 5

10/2: “Rome will extend her renowned empire, To earth’s horizons, her glory to the stars”: The Aeneid and the Ara Pacis

From ancient Hellas we journey to Rome, specifically the moment in time that a republic transformed into an empire under Octavian, otherwise known as Augustus Caesar. We examine two of the most important commissions made by Augustus: Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, and the altar known as the Ara Pacis. Themes of duty, honor, piety, and abundance transect in different ways in these two case studies. 

Ancient Rome 101 (5 minutes)

The Drama of Rome (8 minutes)

The Roman Republic (8 minutes)

Introduction to the Roman Empire (6 minutes)

Ancient Rome–Reborn–thanks to virtual reality (11 minutes)

The Ara Pacis–Intro (4 min)

Read selections from the The Aeneid, 1–4, 48–53, 85–90, 98–99, 153–157.

Basics Quiz 6 on Courses

10/9: “I believe in one God, Father the Almighty”: Catacomb of Priscilla and Old St. Peter’s in Rome

This week’s topic examines the intersection of art and faith in imperial Rome, and the transformations that occurred as the empire incorporated more territories–and so more peoples of various backgrounds. Specifically, it considers the necropoli known as catacombs, and what they tell us about early Christians in the Roman empire. We will also turn to Old St. Peter’s basilica, which no longer survives, but which was an impressive site of the Christian faith after Constantine legalized Christianity in Rome. Consideration of the dynamic changes occurring in late antiquity will help you to increase your global awareness and reflect on your own faith, as well as generate more ideas about how people coexist in diverse communities.

The British Museum, “Introduction to ancient Rome,” in Smarthistory, March 1, 2017, https://smarthistory.org/introduction-to-ancient-rome/. (To provide a refresher and give you a longer intro to the Roman Empire) (5 minutes)

Dr. Allen Farber, “Early Christianity, an introduction,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015,https://smarthistory.org/early-christianity-an-introduction/. (5 minutes)

Dr. Allen Farber, “Early Christian art,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/early-christian-art/. (5 minutes)

Dr. Allen Farber, “Early Christian art and architecture after Constantine,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/early-christian-art-and-architecture-after-constantine/. (5 minutes)

Dr. Jennifer Freeman, “Architecture and liturgy,” (STOP at “Medieval Worship”) in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/architecture-and-liturgy/. (5 minutes)

Catacombs and Appian Way (2:30 mins)

Virtual reality tour using Google Cardboard of Catacombs of Priscilla

Also watch in your VRTube App the 360 video: Inside the tomb of St. Peter at the Vatican

Basics Quiz 7

10/16: Midterm Exam Essay 
10/23: “He who wields power over time and tide: He is the true Lord:” The Book of Kells and Beowulf at the “edge of the world”

This week’s topic will explore the history, making, and meaning of the Book of Kells, and the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf. We will begin by examining the Book of Kells’s cultural background (the structure of the early Irish Church and the early monastery in Kells from which it derives its name), its creation, and its possible meanings when it was made. If there is time, we will also look at its life in the modern era. Our second case study will be the epic of Beowulf, a story about courage, duty, and kingship. 

The Middle Ages: What are they? (7:30 mins)

Introduction to the Middle Ages on the northern frontier (4.5 mins)

Dr. Nancy Ross, “Medieval manuscripts, an introduction,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/medieval-manuscripts/. (5 minutes)

Who were the Anglo-Saxons? from from the British Library (10 mins)

Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms from the British Library (10 mins)

Religion in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms from the British Library (10 mins)

Making Manuscripts (4:30 mins)

Introducing the Book of Kells (4:30 mins)

Basic overview of Beowulf from the British Library, where the surviving manuscript is kept (10 minutes)

Excerpts from Beowulf, 1–13, 25–31, 35–37, 49–55, 169–177, 189–191, and 211–213.

Basics Quiz 8

10/30:  “O you who believe, bow down and prostrate yourselves”: The Great Mosque of Cordoba and the Song of Roland

A Roman temple, a Christian Visigothic church, a mosque, a cathedral. The Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain is a testament to the complexity of medieval Spain, and the fluidity of sacred architecture over time. We examine it primarily as a mosque, and what it tells us about the Islamic faith and its spread to and transformation in Spain. It also allows us to broach the topic of cultural interaction among the three faiths in Spain: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Our second case study is French epic, The Song of Roland, which tells of an earlier age, and the battle between Charlemagne’s Christian forces and Muslim forces in Spain. It allows us to consider how racial tropes are used in literature, in addition to talking about themes of courage, duty, and death.

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, “Introduction to Islam,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015,https://smarthistory.org/introduction-to-islam/. (5 minutes)

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, “The Five Pillars of Islam,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/the-five-pillars-of-islam/. (5 minutes)

Kendra Weisbin, “Introduction to mosque architecture,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/introduction-to-mosque-architecture/. (10 minutes)

Glenna Barlow, “Arts of the Islamic world: The early period,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/arts-of-the-islamic-world-the-early-period/. (5 minutes)

Experience Pilgrimage: A 21st Century Journey Through Mecca and Medina (NY Times) (4:30 min) using Google Cardboard via VRTube

Experience the Great Mosque of Cordoba in virtual reality on VRTube (use phone app)

    • Search for 360 virtual tour-Mezquita-Cathedral Mosque-Cordoba (1:02 minutes). Use Google Cardboard. This will show you a section of the Great Mosque.

Intro to the High Middle Ages for the Song of Roland (14 mins)

Song of Roland, pp. 29–41, 96–105

Basics Quiz 9

11/6:  “Look!…A miracle, a miracle of Saint Foy!”: Conques and the Relic of Ste.-Foy

How did Christians connect with God, saints, as well as other peoples and places, across time and great distances? In the Middle Ages, one of the most powerful ways in which Christians connected with God was through making pilgrimages to visit holy sites and relics. Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela were the three most important sites. We consider how individuals made these sacred journeys, what they encountered along the way, and how local communities accommodated the thousands of individuals stopping along the way. We will turn specifically to the pilgrimage church at Conques, France, and the relic of Ste-Foy contained there.

Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline: Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe (10 mins)

Valerie Spanswick, “Medieval churches: sources and forms,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/medieval-churches-sources-and-forms/. (5 minutes)

a video about the Last Judgment Tympanum at the Cathedral of Sainte Lazare, Autun, France. We are not going to discuss it in great detail, but we will look at something similar. This video gives a nice overview of Romanesque churches, pilgrimage, and relics, as well as the importance of Last Judgment scenes–all of which is relevant to our discussion. (5 mins)

Experience in Google Expeditions a VR tour of Ste.Foy, Conques/HUM 111 (made by Dr. LKE). Search for “Conques” and you will find it. You will need your Google Cardboard.

Basics Quiz 10

11/13: “The church shines, brightened in its middle”: Notre Dame de Paris and Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral

Gothic cathedrals are some of the most recognized architectural forms in the world. They have come to represent a pinnacle of cultural achievement, and testify to the lengths to which communities sought to glorify God and express their devotion. Reaching to the heavens and filled with colorful stained glass, French Gothic cathedrals are some of the best known, and we will explore the many meanings attached to these glorious buildings. We will also discuss their fragility, and what they mean in this current moment. It was a shocking thing to see Notre Dame in Paris, one of the most famous cultural landmarks in the world, burning on live T.V. in early 2019.

Valerie Spanswick, “Gothic architecture, an introduction,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/gothic-architecture-an-introduction/. (5 minutes)

(the essay portion) Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, “The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris,” in Smarthistory, April 24, 2019, https://smarthistory.org/notre-dame-fire/. (5 minutes)

Birth of the Gothic: Abbot Suger and the ambulatory at St. Denis (5 mins)

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris (before the fire) (5 mins)

Experience In 360: Notre-Dame cathedral before the fire–BBC News (1:30), with Google Cardboard via VRTube.

Basics Quiz 11

11/20: “Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated”: Christine de Pizan, The Queen’s Manuscript and The Book of the City of Ladies (c. 1405)

This week’s topic revolves around the following themes related to the late Middle Ages: gender, the pairing of faith and reason, building a community of readers, the expectations and education of women, powerful female role models, and female authorship. To do this we largely focus on Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. We also consider the manuscripts produced in Christine’s scriptoria in the context of late medieval book production and art.

Read Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, Part I: chapters 1–30, 57–62, and 139–141.

Basics Quiz 12

11/27: No class–Thanksgiving
12/4: Conclusion and Peer Review of Know Thyself Final Essay

Please upload a draft to Courses before class AND bring a printed version of your know thyself essay to class. You will be engaging in peer review. 

The final essay is due during our final exam (in hard copy and online). 


Final Exam is in Elkins on Wednesday, 12/11, 4:30–7:00 PM

  • Final Exam Essay 2

***Please keep in mind that the final exam date and time are non-negotiable. Every student is expected to attend the final exam at this time. If you need to request a change of exam date for another class, you can find that form here: http://www.pepperdine.edu/registrar/forms/***. The last day is Dec. 4.