Saints and lice- unravelling the medieval past

Jessie Phillips, History Teacher at Sawston Village College, shares work that relates to cultural history/perspective but with a particular focus on the medieval. Her overarching ideas are based on Wineburg’s conception of finding the ‘familiar within the strange’ and the ‘strange within the familiar’ and using this approach she unravels the attitudes, ideas and values of people in the past. She also explores (very carefully) the constructive role of presentism in the classroom.

During my PGCE year, I gave my Year 7 classes questionnaires to learn more about their views of the medieval period. As a medieval enthusiast myself, the results were as unsettling as they were amusing, and the general tone of the responses can be best summarised by the sombre assertion that:

‘everything would be wet and you would have to do lots of miserable things.’

After wondering why it was that the first words Year 7s associated with the term medieval were ‘black horses’, ‘foggy skies’ and ‘four-poster beds’, I began to unearth some deeper, more concerning trends. When pupils were asked in what ways the medieval period differs from the present, they claimed: ‘there is more equality and fairness now’, ‘there was more violence, crime, and disagreements,’, ‘no one is a slave (now)’, ‘women aren’t sold and forced into marriage’, ‘there are not as many wars’ and ‘I think that it is more peaceful now.’ These slightly naïve descriptions of contemporary life made me begin to wonder whether an unfavourable view of the past could be creating a skewed view of the present. After all, if the ‘past’ is seen by pupils as the opposite of the present, it is easy to see how the social issues of the medieval world would have no place in the 21st century.

Like others before me (such as the contributors to Exploring and Teaching Medieval History in Schools)[1], I wanted to combat these ways of thinking about the past, and I wanted to do it by injecting vibrancy, variety, and richness into their understanding of the medieval world. I therefore turned to the work of cultural historians and the controversial curricular concept of ‘empathy.’ Often associated with activities of the ‘dear diary’ type, empathy in the classroom has sometimes been branded as ahistorical because, as Low-Beer explains, activities were often ‘based on invented characters or generalised stereotypes’[2] or reliant upon what Husbands describes as ‘wild fantasy in which the premium is on creativity’[3] rather than history. Christine Counsell’s famous assertion that you might as well ask pupils to imagine you’re a badger firmly illustrates how little value such activities hold for pupils’ historical thinking.

Yet recently, Alex Benger rebranded empathy as ‘perspective‘ by drawing links between cultural history and how it might look in the classroom. Anxious to prevent pupils from the belief that they could ‘unproblematically and simply ‘experience history’’[4], Benger made sure his pupils’ claims about the ideas of past individuals had been interweaved with historical context to create ‘thick description.’ This is as opposed to the ‘thin description’ created by pupils who are reliant on presentist ideas alone and end up misreading the meaning behind the words and actions of those in the past. This is where the consensus now seems to lie, with the emphasis on avoiding over-familiarity with the past to prevent ahistorical understanding. Indeed, recent works which have focussed on past thoughts and feelings through a tightly context-specific lens (like Jacob Olivey’s exploration of what ‘class’ meant to chartists)[5] hold much more historical validity than previous iterations of empathy.

But that doesn’t help me and my Year 7s’ melancholy medieval worldviews very much. Historians specialising in medieval culture have been telling us for decades that the medieval period already ‘arrives accompanied by at least a background of alterity and marginality.’[6] Rather than starting from a stance of over-familiarity, the period is more likely to be viewed as a far-flung, unintelligible world (due to traditional historiography and many popular portrayals). So whilst cautioning distance from other periods of history might create fresh interpretations and lead to better practice, applying this to the already ‘irrational dark age’ only moves the discipline backwards. And what could be gained by emphasising the strangeness of a medieval world to pupils whose main preoccupations with it are already that ‘simple things like cooking, washing clothes or sending letters was challenging’ and that it ‘would stink because there are a lot of cows?’

Instead, these same medieval historians speak of a world that is at the same time ‘alluringly strange’ and ‘discomfortingly familiar.’[7] I therefore decided to create a cultural history enquiry which used Benger’s ideas of ‘perspective’, but with the particular goal of helping my Year 7 find (to use Sam Wineburg’s labels)[8] the familiar that lies within the strange. This meant placing more emphasis on a common ground between past and present while building up the depth of pupils’ knowledge to prevent them from distorting the past in the ilk of old empathy activities. Ultimately, I hoped the combination of contextual knowledge, sense of period and some helpful presentisms could create a ‘recognition to something in medieval culture that speaks to us of ourselves through the thick and distracting layers of cultural differences.’[9]

I planned each lesson around a medieval source which, at first glance, would be seen as undeniably strange. For example, an extract from the Vita of St Catherine of Genoa:

A superficial reading of this source generates disgust (my Year 7s were appalled!) and perhaps even a misreading of ideas about hygiene in the medieval period. But, throughout the lesson we picked at the source and, through contextualisation, unravelled its particular meaning to a medieval audience. To do this, I created a source diagram which I hoped would replicate the unravelling process from ‘superficially strange’ to ‘makes sense at the time.’ Crucially, the middle stepping-stone involves this common ground between past and present mentalities. This is because, although the specifics of a source may be ‘strange’ to us and ‘normal’ to them, the bigger ideas in them often link to emotions, needs and desires which are to some extent familiar to us.* To understand why they were normal at the time, we need to make a connection between our understanding of the more permanent aspects of human nature and period-specific context to explain their medieval meaning. For example, when we ask our Year 9s what it ‘meant to belong’ on Mill Road, we assume a shared human experience of belonging but explore with pupils how it manifests on Mill Road in 20th Century.

Other examples included unravelling why a new genre of music (Ars Nova) was met with outrage:

At the end of the enquiry, I asked pupils to write about the meaning behind similar but unseen sources. I found pupils wrote descriptions of past mentalities without superficial projections of presentisms but with an underlying appreciation that the medieval world had underlying familiarities which played a role in the unravelling of the period-specific meaning of each source effectively. I have made a rough attempt to show where I feel the ‘familiar within the strange’ (the conceptual content of the middle diagram layer), can be seen in pupils’ work. Where it emerges, I feel it both plays an important tool in reaching the end goal of explaining what the sources meant at the time, but also in generally capturing the humanity and vibrancy of the period as was my original goal.

(The exclamation mark in pupil work 2 seemed to indicate a personal astonishment at the audacity of the Ars Nova in a way that resonated with the pupil, and I therefore classified it as an example of emotional familiarity.)

As well as helping with the process of explaining past mentalities, it is my hope that the approach of finding the familiar also brought the medieval world into greater resolution for my Year 7s to combat their mundane pre-conceptions of the period. My tentative conclusion is therefore that, although especially important for the medieval period, shining a light on the ‘familiar’ within the past could actually scaffold pupils into exploring the ideas of any time period and that presentisms have a constructive role to play in the history classroom more generally (to be continued….)

(With thanks to Rachel Foster, Sarah Jackson and Sam Lofthouse for challenging and helping with my thinking.)

*This is clearly a contestable historical and philosophical position, but I don’t have space to do anything more than state my own position in this blog

1 (2018). Chronicles: authorship, evidence and objectivity. Teaching History, Exploring and Teaching Medieval History

2 p.10 Low-Beer, A. (1989). Empathy and History. Teaching History, 55, pp. 8-12.

3 p.61 Husbands, C. (1996). What is History Teaching? Language, ideas and meaning in learning about the past. Buckingham: University Press.

4 p.25 Benger, A. (2020). Teaching Year 9 to argue like cultural historians: recasting the concept of empathy as historical perspective. Teaching History, 179, pp.24-36.

5 Olivey, J. (2019). Teaching Year 8 pupils to take seriously the ideas of ordinary people from the past. Teaching History, 176, pp.60-72.

6 p.679, Freedman P., and Spiegel, G. (1998). Medievalisms Old and New: The Rediscovery of Alterity in North American Medieval Studies. The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, 677-704.

7p.5 Cohen, J.J. (2000). Midcolonial. In (ed. J.J. Cohen) The Postcolonial Middle Ages (pp.1-7). New York: Palgrave.

8 Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

9 p.xii Partner, N. (2007). Medieval Presentism before the Present. In A. Joy, J. Seaman, M. Bell, & K. Ramsey (Eds), Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (pp.xi-1.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.










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