Jordan*73 won Princeton's Behrman Award for distinguished
achievement in the humanities in May.
July 2, 2003: Aquinas,
the Church, and the plague Professor
William Jordan *73 sheds light on the Middle Ages
By David Marcus '92
William Chester Jordan *73 has taught a lecture course on medieval
history at Princeton for more than 20 years, but when he began to
write a book surveying the topic, he found that his teaching had
lulled him "into a false sense of security. By giving a strong
argument in the lectures, you leave out nuances," he says.
This winter, Viking published Jordan's Europe in the High Middle
Ages, the first volume in a series on European history for educated
lay readers. The book covers the period between 1000 and 1350: the
era of Gothic architecture and the Crusades, during which Dante
and Thomas Aquinas flourished, and in which the modern European
nation-state began to emerge. Among other topics, Jordan looks at
daily peasant life, the conflict between the Catholic Church and
the state, and the devastating effects of the plague in 14th-century
His survey differs from other such studies in two ways, says Jordan.
While most books focus on Western Europe, Jordan's work incorporates
regions like Poland, Hungary, and Scandinavia. He also discusses
the implications of Jewish-Christian relations for state building
and the formation of Christian social identity.
Although Jordan, a professor of medieval history, director of
the Program in Medieval Studies, and author of The Great Famine
(1997), used his lecture notes as a blueprint for the book, he had
to do substantial work to complete it. He begins his course with
the Investiture Controversy, the late 11th- and early 12th-century
debate over whether the Catholic Church would have the right to
self-determination or would be subject to lay control. But the book
starts in the year 1000, so Jordan had to do an immense amount of
reading to write the first several chapters.
Jordan imported two techniques from his teaching into his writing.
He quoted primary sources to give readers a sense of the period,
just as he assigns such reading to his students. "One of the
things you work against so much is the idea that people in the past
were quaint," Jordan says. "Reading 50 pages of Aquinas
puts that to rest."
He also sketches certain scholarly debates of the era such as
the one around the Magna Carta. "I wanted to discuss them enough
to suggest that the word definitive should not be in the historian's
vocabulary," Jordan says. The Magna Carta averted a brewing
conflict between King John and the English nobility, who demanded
a charter of liberties as a safeguard against the king's arbitrary
behavior. Although it came to be considered a foundational document
of English law, Jordan says, it was "hammered out over several
days in 1215, with three sides arguing in an effort to prevent a
civil war. It's full of ambiguities and badly drafted language."
His next book will be a study of Jacques de Thérines, a
professor at the University of Paris and Cistercian monk who was
involved in virtually every major struggle within the Catholic Church
around 1300. "If it works, it could be lively and interesting,"
Jordan said. "If it doesn't, it'll be scholarship."