Week 32 – The Medieval World (It’s only a flesh wound!)

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It’s been such a long time since I’ve written about what’s going on in our History classes.  Let’s catch you up.

The Middle Ages has got to be one of the most difficult units to teach. (I’ll admit that, mentally, I add the word “properly” as an addendum.)  Historically, the age varies by country in Europe depending on when the Romans left, if they left, when the Renaissance started, etc., so you have to be specific about who and when you are talking about.  Not even this is simple.  People moved a lot and one group invades another with astonishing rapidity.  You really can’t say the English fought the French because of the moments when the king of England was French, and vice versa.  Not even the popular monikers make it easy.  Is it the Medieval Period, or the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages?  Many historians are coming to argue against the idea that there even was a “dark age” despite the History Channel’s gratuitous offering.  (Watch that video with a bucket, because their main idea is to make you vomit from all of the blood, screaming,  and general grossness.)

As a teacher, you are constantly swimming uphill against what the Victorians did to the stories and histories of Medieval England and France.  I have just about out-and-out banned fairy tales at this moment.  Never mind the damage that Shakespeare did.  I’ve explained about thirty times that Shakespeare’s History Plays are more like Shakespeare’s Trying to Get in Good with The Ruling Monarchs and Not End Up Dead or on The Rack Like Christopher Marlow or Thomas Kidd Plays, no matter how much I love him.  Then, there is the question of two major characters of the middle ages who simply didn’t exist except in fiction, King Arthur and Robin Hood.  People have wanted them to exist so badly that they selectively present research to feed into the idea that they did.  Again, enter the History Channel, in cahoots with Ridley Scott (more shame to them).  And let’s not get started on the crusades, all five of them.  Let’s face it, most educators don’t.  Or they talk about them as if some great tragedy wasn’t being played out.  You couldn’t even call it genocide.  It was just killing anybody in the way. And along the way.

I think I understand why teachers focus more on the fairy tales, the castles, and the fictional characters.  The middle ages were without doubt the apotheosis of wildly violent behavior in European history.  As soon as you ask the question, “Why did castle walls have to be so damn thick?” you have fallen down a rabbit hole of bad behavior and bloodshed.  Explaining the arms race of the middle ages is explaining why the armor had to be stronger, and it ain’t because it was pretty.

Sometimes, I really envy my friends who are of Asian extraction.  They get Kong Fu Zi, and Daoism, and the Hundred Schools of Thought.  I know that much of these developments came out of a period of strife, but it seems that the Chinese didn’t seem to absolutely revel in breaking each others’ heads open.  Who have we got?  Charlemagne?  Richard the Lion Heart?  Pope Urban of Cluny?  Bastards to a man.  Especially William the Conqueror.  As a person with almost all Germanic and English ancestors, when I look at all of the bad behavior, I worry that it might be genetic.  (Nobody give me a broad sword, just to be safe!)

Still, it is so exciting.  So fascinating.   My word, there are some wonderful documentaries, and texts, and ballads, and images.  The most exciting part is doing the research to set the record straight.  For example, for Literature, we read one of the very first accounts of Robin Hood from the 1300’s.  It was amazing how different it was from the versions we know today.  Little John could be a better archer?  Little John and Much could murder in cold blood a little page-boy?  Huh?  And then to go back to the documentaries and take them to task.  The History Channel’s The Real Robin Hood states that Robin was put in an oubliette, but we read the story, and although it does say he was put in the deep dungeon, we know he would be expected to stand trial, which is a little difficult if you are forgotten down a hole.  In the words of Poirot, “Non, mon ami, non.”

I’m enjoying studying this unit with my students.  We read from the BBC history magazine about the Black Prince, and we read an article on Hildegard von Bingen from Fordham Universtity.  We are comparing historian Mike Loades’s “Going Medieval” to historian Terry Jones’s “Medieval Lives”.  We watch Brother Cadfael mysteries, and read ballads from the 1400’s.  We will be looking at an ancient Irish poem about a cat written by a monk.  We will look for truths peeking through pop fiction.  But more on that later…

Like all teachers, I’m trying to shield my students from the worst of the violence and mayhem.  But I do not believe that this is a reason to avoid the hard questions.  Questions like, “What’s up with the women wearing traffic cones on their heads!?  Seriously!”

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