By Danielle Trynoski
A list of activities, discussions, and assignments to support teaching the Middle Ages. Many of these suggestions can be adjusted for different ages, but I’ve arranged them in a roughly age-progressive order. For more great ideas and specific grade-level lesson plans contributed by others, check out this page. Happy teaching!
Draw a Medieval Monster
Find or write an abridged version of a medieval story like Beowulf, Tristan and Isolde, King Arthur, or The Greenlanders Saga. Read it out loud to the class in one or more sessions and ask students to pick their favorite character. Draw a picture of how they envision that character, and write the character’s name on the paper.
Using the Plan of St. Gall as a map and Legos or building blocks for materials, create a model of an ideal medieval monastery. Learn more about the Plan of St. Gall here and here. This activity is easily adapted for other types of building complexes or large buildings, i.e., castles or a cathedral. For younger students, start with photos of medieval buildings like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Tower of London, or the walls of Carcassone, and ask students to build what they see.
Medieval people loved to listen to stories. Discuss some common jobs in the Middle Ages including farmer, shepherd, miller, weaver, soldier, and many others. Create a story with these characters, and you can even introduce a monster, villain, or religious themes if you want to be creative! Cast your class into these roles with you, the teacher, as the narrator or encourage them to tell each other stories about these characters.
Gardens and cooking
Plant a medieval herb garden. Find images of medieval gardens and plants, monastic cloisters, and cooking to inspire your students. Find some medieval recipes and talk about what types of foods your students enjoy which were also common during the Middle Ages. Using Styrofoam cups, potting soil, and seeds, have your students plant and care for herbs like spearmint, sage, basil, rosemary, etc. Carry this activity further by making medieval food or cooking something with the herbs when mature.
Hide-and-seek, Compare and Contrast
Browse the Internet for medieval images from manuscripts and tapestries. Grab some images with modern subjects like animals and clothing, and challenge students to identify them. Use examples with various levels of difficulty; some tapestries feature animals prominently, while some animals are hidden in trees or bushes. Ask students to observe these images and talk about what they see. Do we put images of animals on our modern clothing and fabrics? Talk about similarities and differences in how objects were used (e.g., clothing) or valued (e.g., cats were rodent-catchers, now mostly pets). Discuss how we get our materials and objects; e.g., thread. Now, we usually buy it in a store. In the Middle Ages, wool was shorn from a sheep, washed, dyed, and spun. To take the discussion further and add an activity, have students create their own manuscript page or tapestry, or draw some popular medieval animals like unicorns, stags, or dogs.
Illustrate a manuscript
Research a medieval topic and illustrate a handwritten manuscript. Choose a topic from the following: Noble Etiquette, Agriculture, Hunting, Monastic Life, Religion, or Military Training. After researching your topic, search the Internet and collections of museums, libraries and archives for some examples of medieval illustration styles (Celtic, Hiberno-Saxon, Tours, Reims, Trier, Ottonian, Byzantine are just a few of many schools of illustration). Your manuscript must be at least 7 x 6 inches, and should include at least 3 illustrated elements, each being 1 inch tall. Your handwritten text should be legible.
Write a story
Write a short historical (fictitious but plausible) story about a medieval person. A few examples could be a sheep farmer in England, a textile weaver in Norway, a ceramicist in Germany, a sword maker in France, a merchant in Sweden, or a monk in Greece. You can use one of these suggestions or find your own inspiration from history. Use real people such as religious leaders, authors, kings or warriors if you wish, but their actions must fit with their surroundings.
Write a travel narrative
Imagine that you are a medieval person going on a journey or a pilgrimage. Write a travel narrative or biography. Describe the people, places, geography, and/or events you witness. Use maps, medieval words, and routes to add details to your narrative.
Using this (http://www.medievalists.net/2013/07/28/ten-beautiful-medieval-maps/ ) excellent list of examples, create your own medieval map. Choose your favorite modern country, pilgrimage route, or city and illustrate important roads, rivers, seas, oceans, locations, religious centers and/or buildings as needed. Don’t forget to fill in the blank spaces with angels, devils, sea monsters, etc. in a similar style to the medieval examples. A nice extra detail is to use parchment, linen paper, or brown paper to mimic medieval materials.
Write a script and act out a scene based on a selection from a primary source. Make sure you pay attention to costumes, weapons, and jewelry if they are part of your scene. Scripts must include at least 3 words from a medieval language, and at least two members of your group should be wearing costume accessories of some kind. Skits should be at least 4 minutes long, and not longer than 10 minutes. After the skit is over, explain to the group the origin or context of your selected scene, definition of your medieval words, and the meanings behind your costumes.
Creating medieval artifacts
Imagine that you are a medieval artisan. What kind of product do you create? How much work space and labor do you require? How do you get your materials? Do you need to support helpers like an apprentice, keep slaves, or hire staff to create your product? Do you work in a permanent location or a mobile place? Urban or rural environment? Do you sell your product directly to customers or work through a merchant or dealer? Write a description of yourself, your occupation, your products, your workshop, your business plan, and your location. Your description must include at least two relevant images, such as photographs, drawings, or diagrams. If you use photos from a source, make sure your source is referenced and credited correctly.
Find a reputable, scholarly source of information about a ‘barbaric’ culture from the Middle Ages. It can be a primary source which has been translated or a secondary source from an academic or professional researcher. It can be an artifact or piece of art, or an archaeology site. Write a descriptive report or show through a visual aid its importance in the following factors:
- Description: Tell us about this information and your source. What is it? Who created it? Why does it still exist in the 21st century or how do we know about it?
- Origins: Where does it come from? What was the author’s or artist’s goal in creating this object? If it’s a secondary source, what is it studying and why do you think this person decided to investigate this topic?
- Relevance: how does it connect to your cultural group, and why is it important?
- Take it further: What does it tell us or illustrate about the early medieval lifestyle and point of view? Does it show a change in language, technology, nationality, or craftsmanship? What relationships or connections does it illustrate?
In your report, be sure to include a works cited section if you do cite works, and if it’s an object or a site, include information about its current location or status. A written report should have a paragraph for each factor, and a visual report should be neatly labeled and easy to understand, with a works cited or location & status information attached or displayed somewhere.
Make a medieval meal to share with the class! Find a medieval recipe online and bring it to class for everyone to taste. Even better, be a medieval cook and create your own recipe. Think about the different ingredients and resources available to early medieval people, and who would have access to certain items like expensive spices. Whip up your creation and bring it in to share with the class.
Read and Discuss
Read the following article about the English town of Repton and discuss it in class. Some discussion questions could include:
- What surprised you the most about what was discovered at Repton?
- What were some of the most scientific parts of this investigation?
- What were some of the less scientific parts of this investigation?
- How did the investigators gather information about the site before beginning the excavation? What sources or methods did they use?
- Compare the evolution of the use and form of the church with a modern building. Today, are there any buildings which have changed their use, or any which have so drastically changed their shape?
- Consider the material buried with the body in Grave 511. Who chose those items and why? Were there any objects or materials which surprised you?
Design a Medieval City
Using a known Roman castrum (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/98862/castrum), design a Medieval city. Choose your castrum carefully; its association with fresh water, harbors, ‘old’ Roman roads, agricultural resources, and/or other natural resources may be important for the success and longevity of your city. Do you need housing for your military forces or inner council in your city? Consider the placement of churches and government buildings. Do you want to create separate areas for manufacturing or do you want your craftsmen near a market area, if your city does include a market?
Create an artifact history for an item found far from the point of its origin, or an item which has clearly been created by one culture then adapted for use by another cultural group. Examples include the Hunterston Brooch, Arabic coins adapted as jewelry, or Frankish swords used in Viking raids and discovered in Irish rivers. Describe the artifact’s appearance in detail, including measurements in metric units if possible. Include a drawing or photographs (original source of photos should be cited). Identify the artifact’s date and culture of origin and what identifying marks led to your conclusion. Then detail the artifact’s journey through history. Was it moved to other geographic locations? Did its function change? Was its form altered? You may make educated guesses but any hypotheses should be clearly stated as such. Conclude your artifact history with the artifact’s current location, form and function, and a prediction for the artifact’s fate in the year 2045.
Great Theological Debates
You are a monk or a nun educated in theology, logic, and philosophy. You are attending one of the great councils or synods of the Middle Ages. During your travels to the meeting location, you write a persuasive argument for your views on one of the main topics. Build your argument using knowledge gained during your monastic career in your Benedictine, Cistercian, or Franciscan monastery. If you wish to bridge the Middle Ages with the Renaissance/Reformation, then you may allow arguments for or against Martin Luther and Protestant sects. To expand this activity, create platforms for debates in class and have students attend an actual council or synod in which they present their arguments.