How to “mess up” a medieval survey course

Posted: July 28, 2013 in medieval history, Pedagogy
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My friend Jon asked me this question the other day over lunch, and it kind of took me back for a minute. But it got me thinking. How does one mess up teaching a medieval course? How can you ensure that what should be a fun and eye-opening experience for students becomes instead a dull, confused mess that fails to broaden perspective, and maybe even leaves students alone in their smug prejudices? Below is a greatly expanded, cleaned up version of what I came up with verbally the other day. Note that I don’t claim to have a perfect record. Some I’ve succeeded quite well in avoiding, others I’ve fallen into without realizing it.

How to mess up a medieval survey course, in 10 easy steps:

1. Fail to directly engage with students’ popular knowledge of the Middle Ages. Some folks will disagree with me on this, and that’s fine. But I think that if a history class is supposed to foster understanding and critical thinking, engaging with what students bring to the table in terms of popular culture can be extremely important in that regard. Most of them have seen Lord of the Rings (which, let’s face it, IS a frame of reference), Kingdom of Heaven, Game of Thrones, Knight’s Tale, Braveheart, Robin Hood (any of several versions), hopefully Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the BBC show Vikings, maybe Ironclad and if you’re really lucky The Seventh Seal and Arn: Knight Templar, to name a few.  Maybe they’ve read Pillars of the Earth, or any of Bernard Cornwell’s medieval books (can’t wait to read 1356, myself).  Use it. Use all of it. This could be what drew your students to your course in the first place; if you kill their enthusiasm, or treat it with disdain, even if it derives from a  popular source you find laughable, you’re doing yourself and your students a disservice. Students are generally fascinated that their professor is a walking, talking IMDB “Goofs and inaccuracies” page, and are equally fascinated that there’s so much more backstory to events that they’ve only ever known through watered-down cinema. Pointing out the only scene in Braveheart that deals with the Balliols, using the Poitiers scene from Knight’s Tale to show how knights’ identified with war and tournament, explaining the ideological inaccuracies of the surrender negotiations in Kingdom of Heaven–these lead to more open and inquiring minds, which lead to more learning and understanding, which lead to a better history course.

2. After engaging with students’ pop Medieval knowledge, fail to challenge and complicate it. Letting students leave the course with a fixed definition of “chivalry,” for example is something I always try to avoid.  Or simply telling them to forget everything they’ve seen or heard about the Middle Ages. Or doing an uncritical film viewing.  Don’t let it be a one-time thing. Keep challenging what they think they know about the Middle Ages, and then show them that there’s more to it.

3. Omit clearly identifying the large themes that bind together your different units. Otherwise it becomes just one reading after another. This may seem strange to put up there, but it’s very necessary. There’s a reason we tend to divide the Middle Ages into Early, High, and Late periods. Explain why you’re dividing up your class the way you are, and how each lesson helps move toward the larger issues and questions that you feel are the best portals to the era.

4. Skip the foundational reference points of Medieval European culture: Rome, early Christianity, pagan learning, and migrations. Again, most courses will cover this, of course. But I would sooner err here on the side of too much coverage, rather than too little. Sometimes my students are surprised that we spend so much time on Constantine and Augustine when this is a medieval course–when are we going to get to knights and castles, and courtly love?  But this is time well spent. You can’t understand the Middle Ages if you don’t understand what came before; how and why Christianity grew, what the doctrinal issues were and how that played out in political and cultural consequences for the medieval period, what “the Inheritance of Rome” (the title to Chris Wickham’s magnificent book) really meant in political, cultural, social, military, academic, agricultural and economic terms. Nicaea, Chalcedon, Augustine, St. Benedict, and preferably Boethius as well are worth the lessons spent. And even some time thinking about the knotty question of why the western Roman empire disappeared…

5. Don’t push students to explore and take seriously medieval spirituality, intellect, and world-view.  If you’ve avoided #4 you’re already half-way to avoiding this trap as well.  I’m absolutely adamant about this point, which is essential if you want to have a worth-while medieval course. Students will respect the intellect, and brain power of those who lived 15 centuries before them.  Students will analytically explore how medieval spirituality made sense to its population, and was no more badly thought through than our belief systems today (in fact, most modern philosophies owe something to medieval philosophy). Students will assess and analyze the relationship of the medieval church administration to the body of the medieval congregation at large, so they can avoid the two sentiments for which I will  dock them at least one letter grade: “medieval people were stupid,” and “in the Middle Ages the Church ran everything.” Neither was the case; debate, negotiation, inquiry, and argument characterized much of the medieval church, uncomfortable as that makes some historians.  And really, I couldn’t care less what your personal beliefs are–you could be the world’s most confirmed atheist, or the world’s most devout Catholic, that’s none of my business. What IS my business is to make sure that you make an honest effort to understand the  changing cultural and religious underpinnings of the medieval world, and how people related to the spiritual world, the natural world, and the material world.

6. Set up a tidy cut-off point where the Middle Ages conveniently “ends.” One of my pet peeves. “1453, Constantinople has fallen, see you in the Spring;” “1492, the Columbian Exchange began, and ended the world as they knew it, see ya!”; “1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began what would shatter the medieval world view.”  You’ve probably heard them. Now, time and space restrictions being what they are, you have to end somewhere. But HOW you end is very important, I think. The last lesson this spring asked the question of when the Middle Ages ended, and wrapped up a sub-course theme on medieval science and apprehension of physical realities, the process of change, and the point at which we claim there to be a rupture with the past. A successful history course destabilizes students’ placid assumptions about the past, and challenges them to think their way through the question at hand.

7. Omit the non-Christian “Other” from your course coverage.  These days, it’s virtually unthinkable to offer a medieval survey course and NOT cover Christian relationships with Jews, Muslims, pagans, heretics, etc. Yet there is a very powerful argument, to which I mostly subscribe, that medieval western Christian Europe gained its collective identity from encountering, puzzling over, and increasingly subjugating those who were not like them. Charlemagne and the Saxons, the crusades, the rise of Islam (which should always get at least one lesson in a survey course, no matter HOW crowded the schedule is), the changing status of Jewish communities over time, the Ottomans and Mongols, the rising specter of heresy in the medieval church; these should all be among the encounters that students have with the medieval past. If you have time, a lesson or two discussing the Age of Exploration is the perfect way to finish the course.

8. Omit gender from your course coverage, because, well, there are SO many things to cover.  This applies especially to warfare and political junkies, who can have a set against gender history, like it is a distraction from the main events. Oh, but it most certainly isn’t. Now, I’m not a historian of gender, and probably never will be. However, this spring I pushed gender on my students (many of them type-A males) far more than I thought I would. Because without including gender history, you’re skipping the history of, oh, half the population of your period. And you’re missing a crucial component of what informed the daily lives of everyone. And you’re overlooking key questions on what shaped the behavior of men as well as women. Among other things, we connected Capellanus and Peter of Blois’ letter to Eleanor to Christine de Pizan and the Goodman of Paris, to Joan of Arc, to papal crusading policies for women, to the Luttrell Psalter and the importance of women in inheritance and family lineage. And perhaps most important for me, I impressed on them in discussion and primary source readings the violently gendered world chivalry and knighthood, what the real consequences of norms of “masculinity” were for knights and their society. The next time I teach this course, there will be even more readings on gender, because yes, it IS that important. And guess what, they found it fascinating and well worth their brain power.

9. Never bother with a “case study” lesson. Alternately, never dwell on the “big questions” of the course. The question is greater than simply being one of “balance.” It also touches your philosophical preferences on what you think is worthwhile for students to learn and remember. I find myself, as in much else with pedagogy, trying to hold a middle line. Big concepts are great, and the course should always come back to them. However, case study lessons can help students dig down into the physical reality of the past, and engage history as process and as lived experience. Medieval agriculture and manors are a great example of this; understanding how Carolingian and 14th-century English manors work–hard data, maps, charts, on land use, inheritance, techniques and organization–can help students better evaluate arguments about the “rise of feudalism” and the impact of the Black Death.  Like it or not, studying history entails some amount of data. On the other hand, if all you do is focus on the details, you’re missing that link to the larger, intellectually broadening questions that make history such a valuable discipline.

10. Skip warfare and the political, because it’s old-fashioned or just not your cup of tea. Now, warfare is what I study, so you probably think this is special pleading. It’s not. It’s an interpretive stance on what the Middle Ages was like. Basically, teaching the Middle Ages without addressing warfare and violence (the two were philosophically linked in the Middle Ages) is like teaching the Civil War and forgetting to discuss slavery.  It was there, it existed, and it was something that affected life on a near-daily basis, especially in some decades. I’ve known many people who skip the nasty stuff as much as possible because they don’t like violence and war (who does?), or it’s not their specialty, or they have a prejudice against teaching it. So what if it’s old-fashioned? Don’t teach it in an old-fashioned way! Now, I’m not saying you need to name all the different parts of a suit of plate armor, but covering Joan of Arc, say, without talking about the fighting is making your students miss half the story.

And there you have it!

  1. andrewforney says:

    Need to talk to you about course development when you get a chance…or I get a chance…ha!

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