Lecture: The Early Middle Ages & Medieval Politics, Economics and Technology

The Early Middle Ages

From the 7th to the 10th centuries, Western Civilization was influenced by four main groups. The first were the Germanic barbarians, who were settling into organized communities and converting to Christianity. Latin Christendom would consolidate under the Carolingian dynasty. The second was the Byzantine Empire, the empire ruled by Christian leaders and imbued with Greek culture -- the old Eastern Roman Empire. The third were the Muslims, who would ultimately impact Europe greatly, particularly in preserving the knowledge of Rome and Byzantium. And the last were the 9th century invaders (Vikings, Magyars and Saracens), whose raids would help explain the advent of feudalism. The medieval economy would expand only after they had also settled in Europe.

The Rise of Islam

The seventh century saw the rise of Islam, starting in Arabia and spreading to the edges of Europe by AD 750.

"Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" in ArabicMuhammad was a member of the Quraysh tribe in Arabia. The Arabian peninsula, going back to ancient times, had been home to traders on the coast and Bedoin tribes inland. Muhammad and his followers would have been influenced by both traditions. They would have had knowledge of Judaism and Zoroastrianism from international trade, and of the hospitality and harsh desert environment of the Bedouins. This environment led Bedouin tribes to always offer hospitality, even to enemies, because the harsh conditions could kill at any time. Many Muslim peoples who live in desert environments continue the tradition to this day.

The Quraysh tribe was responsible for the upkeep of the Ka'aba, a temple in Mecca dedicated to the pantheon of Arabian gods. To tell the story of Muhammad, of course, we get into the legends of Islam. As with the life of Jesus, about which we have information only from the Gospels compiled much later, the life of Muhammad is told through Muslim stories about him. Having grown and married a wealthy older woman, Muhammad began to hear voices, which his wife interpreted as revelations from God. The intermediary was the archangel Gabriel, the same angel who had spoken to Daniel in the Jewish tradition, and who informed Mary of her pregnancy in Christian tradition. Once convinced to share these revelations, Muhummad was considered a prophet in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Ultimately he and his followers travelled to Medina, where he was accepted by the Jewish community there, and returned to Mecca with converts to take over the Ka'aba and sanctify it for the one God. The name "Allah" for God was likely chosen because Allah had been the superior god in the Arabian pantheon, so his name was thus easily understood. As Islam expanded, it did so as a partly political, partly religious force. But it also was an economic tool, as regions that converted to Islam were thus able to access increasingly global trading arrangements and benefit from them.

old map: The Moslem Empire 750 AD

Jihad is the spreading of Islam. Although it could take place through force, more often leaders and regions converted voluntarily, but "just war" was acceptable against pagans. Jews and Christians, at first persecuted, were later determined by Mohammad to be "People of the Book". Jews and Christians had also been blessed by the revelations of the one God, and the prophets of Judaism and Jesus himself were considered important in bringing those revelations to the world. But Muhammad is seen as the last prophet God will ever send. My interpretation is that it's as if God sent the Jewish prophets, and the Jews tried to be good but were unable to be completely righteous, so He send Jesus and the same thing happened.

Muhammad was sent, not with an interpretive message or narrative story, but with the exact words of God, channeled verbatim through the archangel Gabriel. These revelations were ultimately complied into the Qur'an, which unlike the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament is not comprised of stories or history. For this reason, Muslims are supposed to learn the Arabic language, the original language for these messages.

The Five Pillars

Islamic religious obligations are focused on the Five Pillars. The word "Islam" means submission, as in submission to Allah, and humility before him. As befits a religion that derives from the desert, the pillars also include social responsibility as well as personal worship.

1. Shahadataan: The Declaration of Faith

This is the simple declaration that "There is no God but God (Allah), and Muhammed is his prophet". The person who believes and states this, even though no one may hear, is considered a Muslim (a practitioner of Islam). Islam thus takes the "portability" of God, which we last discussed in regard to the Hebrews, to its logical extent. There is no need to be a member of a congregation to practice Islam, although community traditions encourage it.

2. Salaah: Prayer

Muslims pray five times a day, at appointed times, facing Mecca. (If you visit a hotel in Indonesia, an island nation where it's easy to get confused, there are arrows on the ceiling pointing toward Mecca.) The willingness to stop what you're doing to remember God is an important part of the devotion of the faith.

3. Sawm: Fasting

In addition to fasting for repentence or observation, there is a month of fasting. The annual Ramadan is celebrated with fasting from sunrise to sunset each day. This teaches forbearance, since overeating at night would cause discomfort and sickness.

4. Zakaah: Charity

When one has wealth, one is required to share it. Traditionally, beggars give Muslims the opportunity to fulfill Zakaah, and thus they have standing in the stories and legends of Muslim cultures. The wily beggar is a popular character in tales like The Thousand and One Nights (where stories of Aladdin also come from). In Muslim societies, transients begging money are given alms by people passing in cars. Even the taxation system is part of almsgiving in most Muslim countries -- paying taxes is considered a sacred responsibility since the money is redistributed to support social services.

5. Hajj: Pilgrimage

Once in a Muslim's lifetime, if it is possible for him/her to go, s/he must visit the Ka'aba at Mecca and pray there. Worshippers must remove all signs of distinction from others (jewelry, fancy clothes) and wrap themselves in plain cloth to enter the Ka'aba, where they join others to walk around the temple, believed to have been built by Abraham, the Jewish patriarch. People come daily from all over the world.

After the death of Muhammad, followers were divided as to whether the leader of the faith and the political empire should be descended from Muhammad or chosen by merit. Those who believed that the political leader must be Muhammad's descendant eventually became known as the Shi'a (from "Shi'at Ali," or "the party of Ali", Muhammad's son-in-law and closest male relative). Thus the division between the Sunni (those who follow the Sunnah, or secular writing of Muhammad, instead of his descendants) and the Shia began very early and Muslim history.

Islam's Golden Age (8th - 9th c.)

In the 8th century, although the Abbassid caliphs (princes) had connections to Muhammad, they ruled as Sunni and controlled the Arab world from Baghdad in astrolabeIraq. We study the Abbassid caliphate and the other Muslim dynasties of that era because this era marks the height of Islamic culture in the Middle Ages. Many of the most influential figures, however, were from Persia or Spain.

For example, the Persian physican and chemist Al-Razi was head of the hospital in Baghdad in the early 10th century. He wrote 200 treatises on medicine and chemistry, including clinical studies of smallpox and measles. He is considered the father of pediatric medicine for distinguishing children's diseases, and wrote on eye disease. All this plus he wrote philosophy.

Scientific instruments invented during this age included the astrolabe (pictured left). Although invented in classical times, many uses for it were discovered by Muslim scientists, including the calculation of the times of sunrise and sunset (important to prayers) and its use for navigation at sea.

The use of paper, adopted from China during this time, made printing and distributing information more practical. Parchment, made of animal skin, was expansive to manufacture.

Other advances of the era include trigonometry, biological evolution (a good example of lost knowledge that needed to be reconstructed later on), and advances in optics that would later lead to progress in both telescopes and microscopes. And history. Al Biruni, an 11th century scientist, physicist and geologist, saw commonalities among all religions (his specialty was Hinduism, and he had visited India). Here's his analysis of the flood story:

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In addition to Baghdad, other Muslim areas also thrived in intellectual progress. Persia was home to Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the west), a 10th century medical scholar whose books became the standard textbook in western medieval universities. His works carried on from Hippocrates and Galen, helping preserve and advance classical medical knowledge.

Islamic works are not just examples of the preservation of classical culture. One of the reasons we study this era is because Muslim cultures during this time not only kept the classical knowledge of Greece, the Hellenistic Empire, and Rome for future generations. Their scholars, supported by rulers who (like Charlemagne in the west) cared deeply about intellectual heritage, advanced significantly on the ideas of previous generations. When medical, astronomical, geographic, philosophical and scientific knowledge was filtered back into Europe, it came in an improved and advanced form.

The caliphs of Islamic states could patronize science and the arts (did I mention this was the height of Islamic art and architecture too?) because they had aquired vast wealth from trade. The networks extended throughout West Asia and the Mediterranean, including northern Africa and Spain. Jewish merchant activity gives an idea of its extent, here recorded by Ibn Khordadhbeh, postmaster-general of Baghdad, in 847.

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European invasion

Over a century before they had to deal with the expansion of Islam in the Byzantine Empire, Europe was subjected to invaders from all sides. In addition to Muslim Saracens raiding southern ports, Magyars were moving in from the east, and Vikings from the north.

The Vikings had an extraordinary impact in the 9th century. They came by sea, attacked coastal communities, plundered the goods, and left again. Unlike the Germanic peoples, they were not yet Christianized, and so considered monasteries and churches, with their vast wealth, a great source of booty. The raids were reported by monks and other literate peoples:

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Political rulers could not respond quickly to such raids -- most kings were too far away to mobilize troops and help in time. As a result, government throughout Europe became more localized. Kings granted land (fiefs) to the vassals (the vassal just below the king is called a "lord"). The lords pledged to serve the king militarily when he called. These lords in turn granted some of their land to their own vassals and knights, who would also provide military service to them and thus up the line to the king if needed. Feudalism is the name given by historians to the contractual arrangement between kings/lords and their vassals/knights -- military service in return for land. Land, laid out in manors or estates, provided income for the owner by producing surplus agricultural goods. Villagers on a manor thus became serfs, who were "tied to the land" -- when a manor changed hands, the serfs stayed put.

Mouse over the parts of the manor to see what they're about:

At first, fiefs were given to a particular male vassal and his immediate family for use during his lifetime. After his death it would revert to his lord, although the family might keep it if they paid some money. But over time, lords and vassals began to consider the land as theirs and the right of their descendants so long as they paid up each time the generation changed. This strengthened the hold of great families on the land, but weakened kings because they eventually could not control the land directly. However, the system meant that all the territory could be defended.

Lessons of History

1. Early medieval Europe was shaped by the influences of Islam and invasions from the east and north.

2. Islam, based on the idea of submission to God, was adopted over a wide area.

3. Feudalism developed in response to a need for local government.

High Medieval Expansion - Church, Economy, Technology

You should see a button for audio below. If you do not, please use another browser. The audio is me reading the lecture. You will need to read the documents and view the annotated map from this page.

triangle with kings, nobles, church at cornersMy professor at UCSB, C. Warren Hollister, taught us that the High Middle Ages was a time of "Triangular Tension". Three major powers were on the rise. The Church, which I will discuss first, was achieving greater and greater power over people and countries, challenging both kings and nobles. The nobles (the great lords) were by now inheriting their estates, and challenging the power of both Church and kings. The kings, in their turn, were trying to increase their power in the face of rising powers of the Church and their own nobles. This tension can help us understand much of the political conflict during the High Middle Ages (1000-1350).

The High Middle Ages is a very complex time -- since it is my specialty I usually want to dedicate more time to it than standard textbooks or more general historians. So in this lecture we will discuss the era in terms of the expansion of the international aspects: the Church, the economy and milling technology. Next lecture we'll look more at medieval culture.

Rise of Papal Power

You may recall that Pope Gregory I (who was pope 590-604) had bolstered the power of the papacy (the pope's office) through the Petrine Theory, the idea that the Pope had supreme power because he ruled from Rome. For the next several centuries, this power had expanded slowly, and the Church remained a part of everyday life as well as politically powerful. Another Pope Gregory, Gregory VII, used several tools to not only increase his own power, but to expand it above both kings and nobles.

His Dictatus Papae of 1075 specifically asserted, among other things, the pope's right to depose kings. One may well inquire what powers the pope might have to enforce such rights. The Investiture Controversy (1076-1122) provides an excellent case study of the power of the papacy.

At issue was the investment of bishops. Bishops, you may recall, were the heads of dioceses, geographic areas determined by the Church centuries before. Bishops were thus landholders too, and associated very closely with the lords and kings who either originally owned these lands or who had Church lands on or near their estates. Bishops wielded not only power, but were often advisors to kings and lords, and could be dependent on their largesse for additional wealth and influence. In addition, sometimes the office was sold, raising money for the noble lord. "Investing" is the act of naming a bishop (the "vestments" were the garments placed upon a bishop when he was named to the office). For some time, kings had been naming their own friends and advisors to the position of bishop in the more powerful kingdoms, and Gregory wanted this ended. Investiture would be the great tug-of-war between kings and the Church until 1600.

Emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire began the Investiture Controversy by appointing his own bishop specifically in violation of an earlier ban, from 1073:

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Gregory VII had already appointed a bishop to that post, and condemned Henry for appointing his own. Here's where we get into the tools popes can use against kings and uppity nobles.

The first is excommunication. This essentially expels someone from the Church, denying him/her the sacraments. It is a form of spiritual banishment, and very serious. Your neighbors will not speak to you. And if you are a pious believer, it means you are cast outside mankind.

Gregory excommunicated Henry and officially deposed him as king. Henry was having none of it. He wrote back to Gregory what I've always considered a very insulting letter, but one which makes clear his position on the pope's rights:

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Henry was not able to hold his position politically, however, and ultimately had to repent. German princes had taken advantage of the pope's actions to rebel against Henry, and he could not gain support against them without being readmitted to the Church (this is exactly how excommunication is meant to work). He appeared as a sinner begging forgiveness, coming to Gregory at his palace at Canossa and standing barefoot in the snow. Gregory withdrew the excommunication. He had to. As much power as he had, he could not refuse a penitent standing in the snow, even though he knew Henry would just appoint the next bishop.

The Crusades

Another tool of the popes were Crusades. In 1095, the Seljuk Turks were taking over territories run by the Byzantine emperor, Alexios. Alexios contacted Pope Urban II to arrange for European mercenaries to help him out. But Urban saw this as a great opportunity. By this time, the invasions of Vikings, Magyars and Saracens were over. All had settled into Europe or left. But the localized, militarized feudal culture remained. Most of the elite were fully armed and controlled armies of vassals and knights. The little wars that happened were sometimes difficult to control, and not all worked out well for the Church.

CrusadesIn addition, the Church had positioned itself as an international power, spritually and temporally above the politics of countries. Urban fashioned the adventure into a Crusade for Christianity against the Muslims, in order to regain Jerusalem, a city that had actually not been under Christian control for many centuries. Lords and knights came from all over Europe to travel to the Holy Land, retake Jerusalem for Christianity, and while there gain control of lands for themselves to make their fortunes.

The First Crusade also ignited extraordinary violence against the Jewish population of Europe. French and German Jews particularly were attacked and killed leading up to the Crusade, almost as a celebration of the triumph of Christianity to come. Various bishops tried to protect and shelter the Jews. Some took money from the Jews to protect them. The violence was populist in origin, and has been seen as a popular correspondence between Jews and Muslims in the minds of ignorant people.

The groups that went Crusading were not organized -- some split off and pillaged cities along the way, having brought little in the way of food and supplies. Nevertheless, they managed to capture Jerusalem, and followed their occupation with massacres of Muslims and Jews in the city. With the success of the First Crusade, others were planned. Each was more violent and disorganized than the last. The worst may have been the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), which attacked and despoiled the Christian city of Constantinople.

Innocent, John, and Magna Carta

The other tool the popes had was interdict, where the pope closed the Church over an entire country, denying ordinary people the sacraments to punish their ruler. This technique was developed by Pope Innocent III, who you will read about in the next lecture in connection with the establishment of new orders to combat heresy.

Innocent IIIInnocent III, known as the "lawyer pope", was pope 1198-1216. His rival was John I, king of England.

John was a king who used much of his power for his own personal gain. His father, Henry II, had been a great king. Henry had married Eleanor of Aquitaine, which expanded his domain to control much of France as well as England. Henry II had also created English Common Law, a rational system that could be superimposed on Germanic traditions of justice, and gave us juries and legal precedent. But his son John managed to lose all the French holdings through bumbling, and angered his own lords, the barons, with arbitrary taxes to raise money to reclaim Normandy. He was profligate in his keeping of mistresses, some of them married noblewomen.

The archbishop of Canterbury was the head of the Church in England, and when one died, John tried to do as his father had done and appoint his own. The bishops of Canterbury then put forward their own candidate. When Innocent III appointed his own candidate, John refused to allow him to enter England. On March 1208, Innocent put all of England under interdict. John tried to force the English clergy to chose sides, punishing those who closed their churches in obeyance of the interdict. Innocent excommunicated John the following year. Although there was no rebellion in response, there was a chance of France invading, and even a chance that the pope would support the French king taking over England. John was forced to aquiesce to Innocent's demands, surrendering England to the pope as a papal fief. This essentially made the pope the overlord of England.

Many of the barons had no stake in wars in France, and when the final English campaign failed, they rebelled against John. To prevent civil war, John agreed to the Magna Carta. This document has been held up as the beginning of democracy, but its only purpose was to control the power of the king.

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Agricultural revolution

One reason for the desire to control land was that land was very profitable during the Middle Ages. Climate change was again involved, since there was a warming trend. Agriculture experienced a technical revolution that would cause more production, and thus more surplus, greater population, and more trade during the High Middle Ages.

scratch plowThe first major invention was a change in ploughs, which dug trenches (furrows) in which to plant seeds. In the Mediterranean, the soil was light, sandy or rocky, and drained well. To safely plant seeds, you only needed a wooden scratch plough (like the Egyptian one shown left) to dig a furrow. But the soils of northern Europe were heavy, with lots of clay that held the water. Scattering seeds over the surface was inefficient, since birds would come and eat quite a few. A scratch plow would only dig a shallow furrow, so seeds would often wash away or wash down the furrow, causing uneven spacing.

moulboard plowThe moulboard plough (pictured right) was much heavier. In addition to using a big piece of molded wood that added weight, it used an iron tip to dig into the soil. The moulboard was shaped to scoop up the heavy soil and deposit it to the side of the furrow. With enough oxen "horsepower", it could effectively dig quite deeply, enabling seeds to be planting deep enough that they wouldn't wash away or be eaten by birds and animals. Although it seems like a minor thing, the moulboard plough was a major achievement, and caused vastly increased yields. This meant more food at harvest, so more surplus to sell on the market.

Another technical innovation was the horse collar. You can see in the picture how oxen are yoked to the plow. Oxen are great, very strong, but they don't exactly turn on a dime. For this reason, medieval fields were farmed in long strips. Every third strip or so belonged to the lord, so that the good and bad areas of the field were evenly distributed.

Horses could also be used for farming, and they were more maneuverable and ate less. But the horse yokes choked the horse when it was forced to haul heavy loads (see image below left). Thus it couldn't be used for the wonderful moulboard plow.

The horse collar was adopted in the 9th century. As you can see in the image on the right, the collar put the load on the horses shoulders instead of across the front of the throat. This enable the hauling of heavy loads like the new plow.

horse yokehorse collar

Athree-field rotationnother innovation of the era was three-field rotation. In earlier times, farmers knew that it helped productivity to leave a field fallow (unplanted) so the soil could recover. In a large area, this left half the field unplanted each year, so it used 50% of the arable land. During the Middle Ages, some landowners began planting a fall or overwintering crop in 1/3 of the field, leaving only 1/3 fallow for the year. This increased the amount of feed for animals like oxen and horses, and meant less land that was out of production. The land that was planted in peas and beans also tended to do better the following season. This is because those legumes have nodes on their roots that store nitrogen from the air, and when plowed under put it back into the soil. So instead of exhausting the soil further, three-field rotation actually improved it by putting back the nitrogen that had been removed by other plants.

All of these innovations led to a population increase, and an expansion of the economy throughout Europe. There is some question the extent to which this led to the rise of towns, or whether towns were already there and agricultural growth just added more people and more goods.


There are a number of theories of how towns emerged during the Middle Ages, after an era of extremely local economies during the times of Viking, Saracen and Magyar attacks.

My favorite theory is that towns built up from trade fairs. As agriculture expanded, there was more surplus to trade, and merchants would meet up at a handy crossroads or half-way point. As more began to join them, tents went up to sell food and drink, and schedules evolved for spring, summer and fall fairs. As people became used to these locations, they became more permanent, as taverns and stores were established to make money from the trade events. Towns may have grown up around these areas, places where there was easy transport (good roads, rivers) and some safety when meeting. Great lords often encouraged these events on their land, to make money and get the latest cool stuff for themselves. They could provide safe passage for merchants, and got first pick of the goodies.

Some towns, of course, were administrative centers, and built up around defensive fortifications built by the local lord. But because all towns were in some respect established on land belonging to a lord, all had the same issues of governing. Since merchants were at the heart of the founding of towns, they were its default "government". They made the deal with the lords to control the towns, and established guilds. Guilds were groups of merchants who worked together, setting their own rules and keeping strangers out. Guilds protected their members as well as the prices. They were given charters by the lords in some cases -- a chartered town got to pay the lord a set annual fee and govern themselves. Thus members of the merchant guild (Gild Merchant) became very powerful, even though they didn't fit into the official catagories of Church, royalty, or nobility. And they certainly weren't serfs.

bakeryAs towns grew, craftspeople became more important. By the High Middle Ages, they too were organized into guilds. One entered a crafts guild as an apprentice, then advanced after many years to journeyman status, which allowed one to have a say in manufacturing. Only masters controlled the craft, whether it was pottery making or cloth weaving. They set prices, and protected their members, plus ensuring quality standards. Merchant guilds, lords and even kings could give certain craft guilds charters or arrangements for monopolies on certain products.

Occasionally merchant and craft guilds came into conflict (this was the area of research I began as an undergraduate). In areas where there was a lot of money to be made, the merchant guild's control of access to markets could cut into the profits of the crafts. And the biggest place where money could be made was in the textile industry.

Wool: industry of the Middle Ages

Women and cloth productionWool, of course, begins with sheep, raised on the land of lords. Once sheared, the raw wool would be either carded (for short staple wool) or combed (for long staple wool). This would change it from a mass of matted wool into either a puff kind of like a cotton ball (if it had been carded) or long thin strands (if it had been combed). Then it was ready to be spun into yarns. In the Middle Ages, all this would have been done by hand, using simple tools. But all of these process had standards. In rural areas, families would shear and spin their own yarns. In towns a guild would handle each process.

Weaving was the next, and most complex, step.

Ancient weaving was done on a warp-weighted loom (the warp is the set of longer yarns, through which the other yarns are woven). During the Middle Ages, framed looms were created, which allowed the yarns to be lifted by using pedals, automating the process and leading to more complex weaves. In towns, the Weavers' Guild was the most powerful of the guilds - their work took much talent and essentially transformed raw materials into a useful product (woollen cloth).

But there was still more processing after weaving. Cloth could then by dyed (if it hadn't been dyed while in wool or yarn form) by the Dyers' Guild. The last stage was where a revolution tool place: fulling.

Fulling is the act of washing and shrinking the cloth to a uniform size and thickness as determined by the Fullers' Guild. Since ancient times, fulling had been done in flat troughs with rounded stones at the bottom. The cloth would be laid in the trough, and water and urine (for ammonia) added to cover the cloth. It would then be "walked" by the fullers, to crush the fibers and mesh them together in the chemicals. After fulling it would be rinsed and hung up on hooks for tentering, which stretched it while it dried to the desired thickness and size.

fulling stocksBy at least the 11th century, fulling took advantage of watermill power to treat the cloth by beating it automatically. There is some question as to the extent waterpower had been used before for industrial processes. We believe that the Romans and other ancient societies only used watermills to grind grain, but here in the Middle Ages it's being used to produce an industrial item. Since water power for a vertical overshot wheel was stronger in rural areas, entrepreneurs built mills in rural areas with a higher fall of water. Lords rented the land they were on, or built these mills themselves and charged their tenants for using them. In towns, where fullers had to walk the cloth, the Fullers' Guilds got very angry about fulling mills. They created strict rules that searched anyone carrying anything out of the town at night, looking for cloth being smuggled out of town for fulling. Gives you an idea of how important control was, and how much money could be made in the business.

Fulling mills were technological marvels, using a cam or tappet protruding from the waterwheel to raise and lower a hammer to pound the cloth. During the Middle Ages, this same engineering (which changes rotary motion to reciprocal motion) was used in mills to mash beer hops, stamp coins, and saw wood.

(Fuller, by way, is a medieval vocational surname. If you know anyone named Fuller, or Tucker, or Walker, their ancestors fulled cloth.)

Images by John Lienhard.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.