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Jack Pettitt, an Exeter graduate and secondary school history teacher, has spent his summer filming a series of online videos to help his students learn about the Normans. To make this series look as professional as possible, Jack not only filmed on location at historical sites, but recorded interviews with several academics, including myself and others from the CMS. And after Jack had finished talking to me about the Norman Church, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about medieval history and the current secondary school curriculum…
What aspects of medieval history do you teach?
‘In my school, we go from the decline of the Roman Empire to the migration of tribes into Britain, so the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles. And then we look at Anglo-Saxon England itself. We cover very basic topics, such as what it was like to live in Anglo-Saxon England, and look at VIPs like Alfred the Great, Offa, etc. Then we do the Norman Conquest in quite a lot of depth. We go from the invasion itself – we cover all three battles in 1066 – all the way through to how William secured control. Then we move on to medieval England. First we take a bottom-up approach and look at things like town life, village life, and the Black Death. Next we do more top-down history and look at medieval kingship. We focus on King John, Magna Carta, and the Peasants’ Revolt.’
How do students respond to medieval history in comparison to modern history?
‘In most lessons I hear “when are we doing WWI?” or “when are we doing WWII?” The students have this perception that modern world wars are the most important and the most engaging and fun. And I think that partly comes from what they do in primary school. But, also, I suppose because it wasn’t that long ago. I teach in a boys’ school and a lot of boys have grown up with stories from their grandparents about WWII and Nazi Germany so it’s more relatable. It’s close. It’s the same with the Cold War when I teach it to my GCSE students. They’ve got an emotional or cultural connection to some of the stuff, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan – and you can see it. Whereas when you teach about the Anglo-Saxons or Normans, it’s so far away it’s another world.’
So how do you make medieval history engaging?
‘My ethos is that I love the subject and that’s going to come through, hopefully, in my teaching. But sometimes for the average person, you need to make a link. Teaching history is about finding the relevance for your students. For example, showing how the Magna Carta is relevant today, how it was a step towards a more democratic society.
I also try to bring topics to life and I think that’s very, very important. You’re not meant to have a bias when teaching, but some of the stuff I find really dry, like the farming calendar – I couldn’t think of anything drier! In contrast, my Black Death scheme of work runs over four lessons: I turn the whole classroom into a medieval apothecary and I wear a lab coat and look at symptoms and cures.
I also teach every lesson to an inquiry question, which is grounded in historical rigour. For example, my King John lesson asks if Disney’s representation of King John is fair. So we look at how Disney portrayed him in Robin Hood and then we look at what historians, such as Marc Morris and Stephen Church, have said. I try to ground my lessons with the work of historians. And it makes it fun, doesn’t it?
Finally, why are you doing the video series?
‘This is a crazy idea I had in January. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could teach a lesson and the kids could see me, their teacher, doing history in the field? How inspiring would that be! They would love it! And it makes use of current digital technology. Plus, not only will it show the kids that their teacher is passionate about the topic, but it will be a great teaching aid for others.’
There has been a huge proliferation of online resources for research and teaching in Medieval Studies in recent years, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of them all. So we’ve put our heads together and come up with a list of some of our favourites – though this is by no means exhaustive. We hope this will be useful to people researching at all levels but it may come in particularly handy for our second-year undergraduates, who are beginning to think about dissertation topics at this time of year, and for our MA students who are getting started on their dissertation research in earnest.
General Reference for a wide variety of topics and periods:
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, a large (if slightly patchy) archive of translated sources; some are full texts, others extracts.
The International Medieval Bibliography (provided by Brepols, access through the Uni e-library search engine); MLA Bibliography (access ditto) – these are the two main resources for finding research that’s been produced on a topic. The latter is specific to Modern Languages research, the former is Medieval Studies.
Online dictionaries – for French, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and the DEAF (Dictionnaire électronique d’ancien français available in French or German only) are the best. For Latin, the DMLBS (Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources as well as the online Lewis and Short. For English, the Middle English Dictionary (MED).
British History online is very useful for following up charters, roll entries, etc. The search facility is quite good as it has a wild card option, though you will need to anticipate the variant forms of a name in order to find everything relevant.
In French, but covering primary material in various languages including Latin, is arlima.net (Archives de literature du moyen âge). A good place to start when looking for lists of manuscripts of a particular work, basic information e.g. about authorship and length, or bibliographical suggestions. The completeness of entries is rather uneven (some are excellent, some are basically shells) but it is being updated all the time.
http://www.medievalarchaeology.co.uk/ Portal for Europe’s foremost society for the study of medieval archaeology; contains many useful links.
Pastscape: Online database for the historic environment in England and a key starting point for the study of any medieval site or building.
Digimap allows users to find and download Ordnance Survey maps of any date and scale; invaluable for researching medieval landscapes, sites and settlements and depicting them.
More specific sites that we like, in no particular order:
http://www.esawyer.org.uk/about/index.html and http://dk.usertest.mws3.csx.cam.ac.uk/ for Anglo-Saxon charters. The former provides texts of (almost) all Anglo-Saxon charters as well as summaries of modern scholarly commentary, alongside full details of all surviving manuscripts etc., whilst the latter is something of a companion site, which for those signed up provides images of almost all surviving single sheets, along with maps and other useful materials for teaching (and studying) Anglo-Saxon England.
The Monastic Manuscript Project site, especially the page containing a list of links to archives and libraries with digitized medieval holdings It’s presented as a resource for the study of early medieval monasticism, but, really, it’s of use to anyone working on medieval manuscripts.
Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. An outstanding digital edition of an invaluable primary source for medieval political history.
Wellcome Images: database of images from the collections of the Wellcome Library in London. Invaluable for studying the history of medicine (European and worldwide) but also much on manuscripts, religion, science and more. The Library also runs a blog, with some good medieval content.
Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi – database of stories and motifs in medieval exempla, useful for finding references to particular topics or establishing which authors tell which stories. A French site but it provides some English keywords for searching.
Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France is one of the most significant recent digital projects in medieval literary studies – it explores the transmission and mobility of Francophone literature across Europe via a database of the manuscripts of six important textual traditions, including Classical material (romances of Alexander and Troy, Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César) and Arthurian romance (Lancelot, Tristan).
Finally, for information on French-language and Occitan-language material specifically, Jonas, the ‘Repertoire des texts et des manuscrits médiévaux doc et d’oïl’. Again, this is a resource which is improving all the time, and aims for exhaustivity.
Thanks to Helen Birkett (History), Oliver Creighton (Archaeology), Tom Hinton (Modern Languages), Elliot Kendall (English) and Levi Roach (History) for suggesting their favourite websites.
Catherine Rider (History)
I recently participated in a campus visit for Year 9 and 10 school pupils as part of Exeter’s Widening Participation scheme to encourage a larger pool of students to consider a degree in the humanities. I offered the pupils two workshops in historical studies, focusing on the medieval and early modern worlds. I selected these topics, partly, because they represented my own areas of expertise and, partly, because I wanted to provide a (hopefully, welcome!) alternative to the predominance of modern history in the current school curriculum. The experience of planning and leading the workshops was very illuminating and prompted some reflections on my own attitudes to the differences between education at school and university, and the influence which these differences have on the responses of students to the work we assign them.
‘Preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done’…..so wrote Herodotus in his introduction for the Histories of the Greco-Persian wars in the 5th century BC. This description of the historian’s trade, fortified by Leopold von Ranke’s 19th-century insistence on ‘what really happened,’ remained current until at least the early 20th century and the explosion of the Whig tradition by Herbert Butterfield. Despite this, national and local identities have often depended upon the Rankean ‘scientific’ and teleological interpretation of the past, particularly because it is amenable to narratives of popular, public histories. In contrast, there is the approach taken by the pupils in my recent workshop, who happily observed that ‘history is written by the victors!’ Here effective analysis of events and patterns is done through thoughtful consideration of the position and experiences of the characters who appear in the records. The scholarly version of this second approach, which engages with the diverse perspectives of class, gender and race, is bread and butter for academic historians, but it is often perceived to be in conflict with the ideal of a collective community, which seems to require the support of Ranke’s model of historiography. The black and white shading of these positions are, of course, illusions; the pupils in the workshop were quite aware of the difficulties in examining evidence which is biased or incomplete, and of all disciplines in the humanities history is arguably the most resistant to the stereotype of postmodernist relativism. Nevertheless, even if the distance between the models of history taught in secondary and tertiary education is not so wide, many students seem intimidated by the transition. In this post I would like to discuss this issue from the perspective of working with pupils who were still in school. In brief, reflecting on this change is as useful for tutors as it is for potential students!
One of the difficulties faced by new undergraduates is the frequent requirement for them to recognise and reject some of their preconceived ideas about their chosen subject. The purpose of this demand should expand and invigorate their approach to a discipline, but it can also cause confusion and lead them to question their own abilities… A healthy sense of bamboozlement is, of course, vital for a good life (as I, and others, tell myself in
most some situations). Indeed, for postgraduate research onwards ‘feeling stupid’ is, or should be, a reminder that we are scaling the peaks we once viewed from the base camps in which we produced our undergraduate dissertations. Primary and, especially, secondary education is so focussed on the linear progress of attainment, however, that some students can become so discouraged by the approach to history at university that changing programmes or dropping out entirely seem to be the best options for them. Of course, there are many valid reasons for making these choices, but it ought not to be because of premature assumptions they are not good enough to complete the challenges we set them. The Widening Participation initiative in the College of Humanities seeks to manage the leap across this chasm for students entering undergraduate programmes in its departments, especially if they come from underrepresented groups. The opportunities offered by the College include campus visits, in which pupils receive a tour of the university and attend workshops led by PhD students in the subjects that they might be interested in studying for a degree here or elsewhere.
Designing any seminar or workshop is, of course, challenging and it is especially so when the participants differ from your usual audience. However, the potential for providing an influential experience was an effective motivation; I know myself that early impressions can be very formative… although I decided, wisely I think, to eschew simply screening The 300 Spartans or A Bridge Too Far! I doubt that Richard Egan’s
recitation of his lines performance would have instilled a lasting affinity for the concept of the past not already achieved by Horrible Histories! I led the group of 19 pupils in two sessions, which I divided into discussion of medieval and Early Modern studies (no Nazis!). I began the first session by inducting the pupils into one of the finest traditions of university education: a quiz (including chocolate for the winners). I asked teams of pupils to find a list of images amongst the illustrations on, rather natty, A3 copies of the Mappa Mundi. It was produced c. 1300 and is the largest surviving document of this type and currently resides at Hereford Cathedral. The map, publicised by the cathedral’s wonderful website, is a splendid resource for offering newbies a vivid depiction of the medieval imagination…. The illustration of the Golden Fleece is especially delightful, but all of the images introduce a cultural landscape thankfully removed from the standard syllabus of the Battle of Hastings and Magna Carta. These events are, of course, important landmarks in English and European history, but this was an opportunity to provide the pupils with experience of topics which were not selected because of relevance to their national identity. The first group to find the emblems were suitably rewarded with the aforementioned prizes… Although this was not entirely representative of a university seminar, it did try to explore a different aspect of the past and the students seemed to appreciate it (or, at least, the chocolate!).
I had hoped to devote most of the workshop to discussing a ‘source-book’ of documents on medieval medicine (continuing my focus on the more graphic features of the period!), but the interest of the pupils and teachers inclined towards discussing the general practice of studying history at university: the structure of the degree, the choice of modules, the format of lectures and seminars, the criteria for assessment… These questions would perhaps not inspire them to specialise in the Middle Ages, but it was a useful primer for the general study of history. It was also, as most teaching is, very insightful for me; many aspects of academia that I take for granted (degree classifications etc) were unfamiliar to the students. Holly and Kate, the undergraduate historians who were supporting the school for the entire visit, were probably more useful for this! We did eventually turn to discussion of a medieval source: the rules for doctors in Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi (1231). Identifying sources which represented the experience of a university seminar, but were accessible for a mixed group of year 9 and year 10 pupils proved difficult. Although they were willing and had some good ideas, the difference between these stages of education was apparent in the reaction of the different year groups to the material. This was not, I think, because the source was too esoteric or difficult to understand of itself, but because of general intimidation by the perceived complexities of it. This was also apparent in their reaction to the Early Modern texts in the second session: records from the trial of Charles I (1649) and accounts of the Battle of Lexington (1775) by British and American correspondents. Although initially surprised by this reticence, I realised that it was little different from the feelings many of our undergraduates display and, after some prompting from myself and the teacher, the pupils managed to summarise the principal points of both of these sources.
I was genuinely excited by this opportunity to teach school pupils, especially because the brief permitted me to use material so different from that on the usual secondary school syllabi! While I hope it was useful for the pupils, it was definitely a fascinating and informative day for me. It can often be frustrating for tutors when undergraduates have difficulty grasping the content or implications of a particular source, especially when, after so much time above the clouds, if nowhere near the summit (!), it can be difficult for us to see these difficulties ourselves.This workshop reminded me of just how much basic understanding and intellectual engagement I expect from my students – and how daunting it might be to deal with such unfamiliar material. It is something I will bear in mind when teaching classes in the future when, perhaps, one of these pupils might become one of these students!
Zoe Cunningham is a PhD student in the School of Law, affiliated to the Centre of Medieval Studies