Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey

Next year, I’m going to be teaching Shimer’s senior capstone, which is purportedly an overview of the broad Western tradition (ancient and medieval in the fall, modern in the spring) with an emphasis on the concept of “history.” That narrative is becoming less and less compelling to most students, and the through-line of the focus on history tends to get a little lost amid a very crowded reading list (my list will seem crowded, but it’s nothing compared to the existing version!). So I’m going to have a chance to make some changes, to lighten the load somewhat and to incorporate more contemporary perspectives.

I don’t know how much flexibility I’ll actually have, but my mind has started to churn about what I would do with the concept if I had a totally free hand. Accepting the “ancient and medieval” frame for the fall, and taking into account that we have a 13-week semester and that the capstone class meets four times per week (and we generally do 20-30 pages of reading most days), this is what I’ve come up with so far. (Note that most of these books will be read in selections.)

My overall goal is to give students a sense of conflict and struggle over legitimacy and agency in the realm of world history, and secondarily whether history has an overarching narrative arc or consists of cycles. We’d begin and end with broadly cyclical views (ancient Greeks and ibn Kalduhn), but in between we’d have various forms of what you might call messianism — the Roman messianism of empire (supplemented by Roman voices protesting the violence and decadence of empire), Jewish and Christian versions of messianism, the merger between the two in Constantinian Christianity, and the reawakening of the prophetic/apocalyptic challenge in Islam. It’s especially important to me that students can see “alternate histories” — above all Islam, which I’d want to portray as integral to the broad debate I’m setting up rather than some kind of sideshow, but also post-70CE Judaism to the extent possible.

Concepts of History in Greece and Rome (4 weeks)
Primary sources: Homer, Iliad; Herodotus; Thucydides; Virgil, Aeneid; Augustus, Res Gestae; Tacitus, Annals and Germania

Secondary sources: Nicole Loraux, The Invention of Athens; GEM Ste. Croix, Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (I’m less sure on Rome-oriented sources. I want to set up the conflict with Jewish apocalyptic and Christianity, and I have sources directly from New Testament studies that speak to that — but I’d need some guidance on a broader view of the field.)

Covenant, Prophecy, and Apocalyptic (4 weeks)
Primary sources: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel; Mark, Romans, Revelation; Josephus, The Jewish War

Secondary sources: Fiorenza, Revelation; Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree; Scholem, “The Messianic Idea in Judaism”; Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul; Boyarin, TBD

The Constantinian Synthesis (2 weeks)
Primary sources: Athanasius, On the Incarnation; Eusebius, Life of Constantine; Augustine, City of God; Dante, De Monarchia and Inferno

Secondary sources: Bynum, TBD; Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (and maybe Agamben’s chapter from Homo Sacer critiquing it? More broadly, I could use some suggestions.)

The Islamic Alternative (3 weeks)
Primary sources: Qur’an (selections from both Meccan and Medinan surahs); ibn Rushd, “The Decisive Treatise”; ibn Kalduhn, Muqaddimah (I’d like some primary sources related to Sunni vs. Shi’ite as well)

Secondary sources: Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam (Need some help here.)

20 thoughts on “Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey

  1. Great list up to Josephus, and I like the approach to Islam, but surely something important was written in Europe between 426 and the 1300s…Dante doesn’t spring out of thin air.

    If you’re considering Bynum as a secondary, why not some saints’ lives? Same with Kantorowicz and chroniclers of the empire, say, Otto of Freising (my copy of KTB is in a box at home, so I can’t check what he might refer to). Also, not that it helps you fill the chronological gap, but perhaps Marsilius’ De Translatione Imperii would provide one synthesis of cyclical and imperial approaches to history (and it’s pretty short, compared to the Defensors).

  2. I would add that I have a similar chronological gap with Islam. This may not be fixable. And yes, there are important things in every era, but are the things that are decisive in the ongoing struggle over legitimacy and authority, with lasting consequences, more or less evenly spaced out?

    In any case, backfilling the Bynum and KTB with primary sources they refer to is a good solution.

  3. It sounds like you want Brett Whalen’s Dominion of God: Christendom and Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (2009) for the Constantinian Synthesis section, and it might help lead into the Islamic segment as well.

  4. You’re going to make them read the Iliad, Herodotus, Thucydides, the Aeneid a good chunk of the Bible and the whole of The City of God, plus all the other shorter stuff, all in one term? Good luck with that.

  5. I’m a bit skeptical of the framing of Greco-Roman sources as “Concepts of history” and the Jewish sources as “Covenant, Prophecy, Apocalyptic”; I think it’s tending a bit unhelpfully towards perpetuating the idea of religion in general (and Judaism in particular) as contra-rational, and of course I’m skeptical of framings of Jewish history that orient it along messianic lines, but of course that’s just me.
    Regardless, I would suggest you add the first chapter or two of Josephus’s Contra Apionem to the first section, for the critique of Greek historiography that can function as a bridge into the second section. You should also add Yerushalmi’s Zachor to the second section.

  6. You might add Eusebius’ History of the Church. Perhaps not the most gripping of reads, but the Ur-text of ecclesiastical history and a fundamental text of Western (Christian) historiography. I enjoyed it, for what it’s worth.

    A critical text that comes to mind is Agamben’s provocative “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum” in Infancy and History. Might give the students some critical tools for approaching the broad, thematic questions that the course is based around.

    Sounds like a great course, by the way!

  7. I see you already have “The King’s Two Bodies” here but the collection of Kantorowicz’s essays, “Selected Studies” (J.J. Augustin, 1965), contains shorter texts that analyze medieval considerations of “histories” (human, divine, imperial). A number of the essays focus on philological-historical approaches to the texts of Augustine and Dante that you have included.

    If you can’t track down a copy I think I have scans of most of the relevant sections. From what you say above I would recommend “Dante’s ‘Two Suns,'” “Deus Per Naturam, Deus Per Gratiam: A Note on Medieval Political Theology,” “The Problem of Medieval World Unity,” and “Pro Patria Mori in Medieval Political Thought.”

    Hope this can be helpful. The class sounds excellent.

  8. I strongly second Fred’s recommendation of “Time and History.” I refer students to that text regularly as well as “In Playland” and “The Prince and the Frog.”

  9. On the white dudes point, FWIW medieval Christianity does afford the opportunity to bring in some non-dude writers. I believe we covered Hildegard of Bingen and Christine de Pizan in the version of the course I took ~18 years ago; there are certainly some alternative possibilities.

  10. Kantorowicz was a slog for my non-humanities second year students. But yours would likely be more prepared. I remember Kantorowicz on Dante being good—Lefort on Dante good, too, and Lefort does an interesting spin on KTB in relation to totalitarianism and democracy.

  11. You might opt for al-Farabi (or Ibn Sina) over Ibn Rushd to close the time gap a bit and also illustrate ways that the Greco-Roman and Prophetic are integrated in the Islamic alternative. Ibn Rushd does this too, but it’s a bit later. Another idea would be to include Maimonides in this section. As for secondary, you might look at the start of Shahab Ahmed’s “What is Islam?” for some reflections on the complications and complexity of Islam. Or you could use Mohammed Abed al-Jabri’s work (translated with IB Tauris) as he is keen on invigorating the legacy of both Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun.

  12. two more ideas for the secondary/contemporary sections on Islam would be Anne Norton’s “On the Muslim Question” and chp 1 of Bulliet’s “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilisation”

  13. This may not be too helpful, but for twelfth century Europe, there is a concise overview of this topic (the shape of history, messianism) along with discussion of some of the major sources (Otto of Freising, etc) in: Classen, Peter. “Res gestae, Universal History, Apocalypse: Visions of Past and Future,” in Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century, ed. Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 387-417. And since Joachim of Fiore usually comes up in this context, I’ll mention Marjorie Reeves’s book The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages (1969), which is an old standard (but there are more recent works on him I’m sure).

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