Having taught philosophy to MFA students since 2007 and having taught a variety of classroom and hands-on subjects for many more years before that, I find that there is no essential conflict between engaging the mind and engaging the senses. We take in information constantly about how we fit into the “big picture” as individuals in community.

Putting Ideas Into Practice

One of the ways we can all get a little more engaged with historical topics is to think about what the people of that time were actually seeing, eating, smelling, and listening to in their worlds. In the case of late medieval and early modern Europe, I put together a short series of 5-minute videos just to introduce the turn of each century through the lens of the arts.

1300: The high Middle Ages were a time of soaring Gothic vaults and the birth of the Ars Nova in music. The turn of the century marked the end of the Crusaders’ kingdom in Jerusalem and Europeans such as Dante began to take a fresh look at their own lives and history, as documented in illuminated manuscripts. This video and the one after it have had an unexpected life on YouTube thanks to people curious about the time period after playing Assassin’s Creed!

1400: Still devastated by the Black Death and subsequent plagues, Europeans were forced to transform their political and financial institutions in countless ways. The papacy had been in schism for nearly a generation, leaving Mediterranean Europeans vulnerable to Ottoman military and economic expansion. Nonetheless, early Renaissance European universities continued to expand and prosper, and the rising and literate merchant class provided a ready market for portrait paintings and manuscripts in the last years before the invention of moveable type.

1500: An Age of Exploration—Dynastic political volatility in Europe meant that rulers had to focus on raising money as never before. Invasions, trade, and exploration increased cultural exchange within Europe and refreshed Europe’s contact with the wider world of Africa, Asia, and now the Americas.  The virtuosity of high Renaissance artists affected every medium–sculpture, architecture, and painting– even as religious consensus began to crumble.

1600: The early modern era gets fully underway. It was the age of Cervantes and Shakespeare in literature, the beginning of the Baroque style in music, and the height of the Dutch Golden Age, fueled by resources from the New World. However, it also marked an uneasy and momentary lull in religious warfare across Europe, outwardly torn between Protestant and Catholic allegiances.