HIS 101
Book/Document Background Notes
 
 
Hammurabi Gilgamesh Genesis Pericles
Russian Primary Chronicle Sermon on the Mount (New Testament)
Hadith Roland Feudal Document Magna Carta
Chaucer Machiavelli Luther Columbus
 
 
 
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Hammurabi (d. 1750 BCE) was a ruler of Old Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BCE. His principal achievement was the unification of a large Mesopotamian kingdom through control of the Euphrates River. Though little is actually known about him, he was undoubtedly a successful military leader. An archeologist discovered his law code in 1901 on a stone that showed the king accepting the laws from the sun god, Shamash, who was also the Babylonian god of justice. The code was a compendium of earlier laws with the guiding principle of lex talionis, "an eye for an eye." A close study of the 282 laws reveals much about Babylonian society, its moral values, class structure, gender relationships, role of kingship and the importance of religion.
 
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The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world's oldest surviving pieces of literature. Only incomplete versions survive, with the longest being twelve clay tablet pieces found in the late nineteenth century by Austin Layard, George Smith and Hormuzd Rassam during excavations of the Royal Library of Nineveh. The epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, a historical figure who was the fifth king of the Erech dynasty in Ancient Uruk, one of the most important of the Mesopotamian city-states around 2000 BCE. The stories had long been transmitted orally before being written down sometime in the seventh century BCE.
 
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Genesis (from the Greek word for "beginning") is the first book of the Old Testament, which contains the Hebrew scriptures, a collection of thirty-nine books written over several centuries by many different authors until eventually collected into one book. Although Moses, who lived around 1200 BCE, is traditionally credited as the author of Genesis, the book underwent a long and complex development with numerous different sources and authors. The book presents the Hebrew conception of the origins of humanity.
 
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Pericles (495?-429 BCE)  was the central figure of the Golden Age of Ancient Athens. He was a gifted statesman and talented military commander who led Athens in the opening stages of the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE) before his untimely death as a result of a plague that struck Athens. After early Athenian casualties in the war, he delivered a speech in honor of the fallen, a speech brilliantly reconstructed by Thucydides (460?-400), a Greek historian who sought logical explanations for men's actions and motives and who rejected divine explanations for human events.  The speech is considered as a classic expression of the principles of Athenian democracy, one of the great speeches in history.
 
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The "Sermon on the Mount" is found in the gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament of the Bible. Although Matthew the Apostle has traditionally been credited as the author of the book, religious scholars have since attributed the book to an unnamed, second-generation, Greek-speaking, Jewish Christian living in Antioch, probably around 90 CE. The book was based on the gospel of Mark and a circulating collection of the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth.
During the reign of Tiberius, 14-37, the Roman governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, executed, on charges of sedition, an obscure, Jewish religious teacher. Jesus of Nazareth had brought a message of hope and salvation to the Jews of the regions, and he appeared to be either a new prophet or the long-awaited messiah.  After the death of Jesus of Nazareth, his followers founded a church and transmitted his teaching orally. Somewhat later, the gospels were all written thirty to fifty years after his death and collected into a definitive edition in the fourth century.
This Sermon on the Mount was delivered by Jesus sometime after the beginning of his ministry around 27 CE. Recorded by Matthew, it is a classic example of his teachings and contains a great insight into his ethical message.
 
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The Russian Primary Chronicle (Povest' vremmennykh let) dates to the early twelfth century and is often attributed to Nestor, a learned monk in the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev.  The chronicle, completed in 1116 and based on the work of earlier monks, is almost the sole surviving Russian source on the formation of the early Kievan state.  The text of the chronicle, a copy of the original found in the Laurentian monastery, perished in a fire in Moscow after Napoleon occupied the city in 1812.  Other slightly different versions do exist.
 
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The Qur'an is the holy book of Islam revealed to Muhammad over the course of two decades after he received his first revelation in 610 CE. Since it is held to be the actual word of God (Allah in Arabic), it cannot be translated; and it is considered to be the final authority on all moral and legal questions.
The Hadith are "traditions" associated with the life and teaching of Muhammad that help to explain aspects of the religion and the writings in the Qur'an, which can be very difficult to read. The Hadith record the words/actions/sayings/practices of Muhammad, relating
incidents in the Prophet's life that help to explain the purposes and ideas of the new religion.
There are different Hadith collections that were compiled many years after the death of Muhammad, and each ahadith in a collection is often evaluated on how authoritative it is. Because these collections all differ a bit, that has resulted in different practices amongst Muslims. The selections in this excerpt are from just one such collection dating to the 13th century CE.
Read a scholarly article about the Hadith, Did The Prophet Say It nor Not? The Literal, Historical, and Effective Truths of Hadiths in Early Sunnism by Dr. Jonathon Brown (also here).

 
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The Song of Roland, circa 1100 CE , is one of the most important of the numerous medieval epics and is reflective of some of the mythology that grew up around the figure of Charlemagne. While crossing the Pyrenees on a return to France in 778, the Frankish rear guard was ambushed by Gascons. Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, perished in the conflict, as did the entire rear guard. Their story circulated in oral form for centuries before finally being recorded.  The facts were changed a bit in the final version of the Song.
 
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Feudalism was the political and social system of the Middle Ages that slowly developed as an ad hoc system of security in an insecure world after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The heart of the system lay in the relationship of mutual duties between a lord and his vassal, bound together by a sacred oath, and bound to lend military assistance to each other.
 
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The Magna Carta (the Great Charter) was a series of concessions made by King John I (1199-1216) to his rebellious English barons. The failures of the Third Crusade, the expensive ransom of King Richard I, territorial losses in France and a bitter dispute with the Church provoked great unrest in the kingdom. In the Charter, John I recognized the liberties of his vassals, the clergy and the towns and swore to govern by due process of law. Although not a bill of rights, the document did formally define the rights of the barons for posterity.
 
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Chaucer (1340?-1400 CE) was an English diplomat, translator and poet who held several important positions in the household of King Edward III. In the Canterbury Tales, he described a typical medieval pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.  The tales played an important role in the development of an English vernacular literature and reveal much about medieval English society.
 
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Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527 CE) wrote The Prince (Il Principe) in 1513. Born in Florence, Machiavelli received a brilliant humanistic education and, at the age of twenty five, entered the service of the city republic as a diplomat. After the collapse of the republic in 1512, Machiavelli was jailed, tortured and exiled. He wrote The Prince as a guide to assist political leaders in the acquisition and maintenance of political power, more specifically a guide for the unification of Italy. The book remains classic of western political theory with its realistic view of politics.
 
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Martin Luther (1483-1546 CE), an Augustinian teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg, had no intention of founding a new church when he wrote his 95 Theses in 1517. His protest against the sale of indulgences was only meant to stimulate reform within the Church, but instead an escalating crisis led him to the creation of an independent Christian church.
Luther's visit to Rome in 1510 had left him profoundly disturbed at the grandeur of the papal establishment. Then, in an effort to finance the rebuilding of the church of St. Peter in Rome, beginning in 1515, the papacy offered an indulgence to those who gave alms for the project. An indulgence was a mitigation or remission of the penance imposed by a priest on someone who had confessed a sin. The Church's argumentation was highly complex, but papal "indulgence sellers" often deceived people into thinking that they were buying their way out of their sins and into heaven. Luther denounced this practice in the 95 Theses.
 
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Christopher Columbus (1451-1506 CE), from the Italian city of Genoa, long dreamt of making his fortune in the spice trade. With the closure of the eastern Mediterranean spice route by the Ottoman Turks, Columbus became obsessed with the idea of finding a western route to the Orient. Repeated, and persistent, approaches to rulers on the Iberian Peninsula finally paid off when Queen Isabella of Castile decided to fund a small expedition in 1492.  The rest is history.
 
 

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