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Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

Scribner Seminar
Course Description

Sextants, Nutmeg, Maps and Muskets: Medieval Technology in the Age of Exploration

Instructor(s): Erica Bastress-Dukehart, History

European sailors in the fifteenth century believed that a sea creature’s siren song caused shipwrecks; that cannibals ate unfortunate men who washed up on their beaches, and whales swallowed ships whole. So, why did these superstitious mariners leave their homes for unknown shores? How did they know where they were going, and what technology did they use to exploit and shape the new continents once they stumbled upon them? Students in this seminar will investigate the technology that late medieval Europeans had available to them when they set off to explore a world they did not fully understand. We will begin by examining the intellectual origins of these technologies, including war machines, maps and navigational innovations, and scientific and agricultural inventions, to understand how they transformed Europe. We will then investigate how they were adapted to the wider world. Our discussions will center on the intellectual and religious debates surrounding Europeans’ expectations and experiences. Toward the end of the course will consider what medieval technology meant for the world’s environment and people.

Course Offered