Bringing the Middle Ages to Life in the Classroom: Teaching through Performance

Evelyn Birge Vitz and Marilyn Lawrence (New York University)

We are delighted—and honored—that this special issue of The Once and Future Classroom is devoted to two websites that we direct: Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase <> (henceforth PMNT) and Arthurian Legend in Performance <> (henceforth ALP). Together these websites offer hundreds of videos clips of performances of medieval stories. Clicking through the sites, we can see the Middle Ages come to life: Beowulf fights Grendel, Tristan rescues Iseut, Aude mourns Roland, Yvain meets the Lion, Perceval beholds the Grail, the Green Knight challenges King Arthur, Robin Hood bests the Sheriff of Nottingham—and much, much more!

These video clips are primarily intended for use in the classroom, and many had their origin in the classroom as student projects. The sites include performances by internationally-acclaimed professional performers, as well as by academics and teachers, from as far and wide as Croatia, Egypt, Sweden, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, as well as the United States. However, the majority of the clips on these sites record students’ interpretations thanks to a course at New York University called Acting Medieval Literature that Vitz developed to explore the use of performance in teaching and learning about medieval narratives. Acting Medieval Literature is structured as both a seminar and a workshop. Students read a variety of medieval narratives and discuss pertinent themes, characters, structures—as one might in many a seminar. Yet the students go beyond the work they might do in a traditional college course: they select sections of the narratives on the syllabus to perform.

Preparation for performance requires the students to delve deeply into the medieval texts, to tease out meaning they might otherwise skim over, and to reflect on possible ways to convey the story and its significance to their classmates. To fulfill their assignments the students not only must read the texts, but must read them closely, engaging thoughtfully with the narratives. Because they know they will perform before their peers, students are more likely to complete their homework carefully, thoroughly, and punctually. As a result of actively preparing for their own performances and critiquing fellow classmates’ performances, students tend to remember the narratives vividly long after the semester ends. Moreover, the workshop atmosphere encourages students to collaborate and bond together as an intimate social and intellectual community. The students negotiate various ways to work together to create performances, and learn to give constructive and productive criticism in their role as audiences to peers’ performances. All of this evidence supports an argument that teaching the Middle Ages through performance makes pedagogical sense—but beyond the pedagogical legitimacy of the method lies the fact that incorporating performance into the classroom is just plain fun, for students and teachers alike.

PMNT includes numerous performances from Acting Medieval Literature, recordings both of assignments executed in the classroom and of final projects performed in other venues and open to the public. Many students from the course have so enjoyed their experience in Acting Medieval Literature that they have continued their work with us after the semester’s end, and even after graduation. We are proud that PMNT and ALP include many performances from these students who continue to collaborate with us as they move on to become NYU alumni, and, in some cases, colleagues—themselves now teachers, using performance in their own classroom instruction.

We aim for PMNT and ALP to be useful to the study of the Middle Ages in a wide variety of courses and classrooms, from middle school or even earlier, through high school, and up to college and graduate school. The PMNT website offers a page devoted to Teaching Tips, which gives suggestions as to how teachers might use the site with their students. The contributors to this issue of The Once and Future Classroom provide more ideas stemming from their uses of the websites in their courses. Recent scholarship argues that stories were not read silently, but rather transmitted and received through live performance in the Middle Ages. PMNT provides a Bibliography of relevant recent scholarship, as well as a Videography. You can also find specifics on the genesis and objectives of the site on the About page.[1]

PMNT currently features over 200 clips, with more to come, from an extensive array of medieval narratives. PMNT contains a broad selection of genres (allegory, ballad, epic, fable, hagiography, lai, lament, romance, satire, song, and more) and subjects (such as Arthurian legends; the Bible; Christian, Islamic, and Jewish legends; Anglo-Saxon, Buddhist, Celtic, and Classical mythologies; stories of Renart, Robin Hood, and Tristan). The clips include narratives from analogous traditions (such as epics still performed today), as well as medieval narratives. The collection of works represented span the centuries from Antiquity to today, and were composed in over a dozen languages (Egyptian Arabic; Medieval and Renaissance Croatian; Old, Middle, and Modern English, as well as the Lowland Scots and Shetland dialects; Old French; Middle High German; Hebrew; Old Irish; Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern Italian; Karakalpak; Classical and Medieval Latin; Norn; Occitan; Pali; Medieval Russian; Turkish; Medieval Welsh).

PMNT is a treasure trove of performance possibilities, illustrating how medieval narratives lend themselves to a rich range of types of performance. The site offers both solo performances and group performances that approach medieval texts from a variety of angles, from reading aloud to memorized recitation to free adaptation. Site users can find performances executed with costumes, props, musical instruments, illustrations, and modern technology; dance, mime, puppetry, and song; comedy, parody, and animal impersonation. The majority of clips are performed in Modern English, however PMNTdoes also include a selection of performances in many other languages (namely Egyptian Arabic; Renaissance Croatian; Old and Middle English, in addition to the Lowland Scots and Shetland Dialects; Old French; Middle High German; Hebrew; Renaissance and Modern Italian; Karakalpak; Medieval Latin; Norn; Turkish).

For each clip, PMNT provides fundamental information for the teacher and student about both the performance and the work. Brief explanations about the scene, the medieval work, the genre, the edition or translation used, and about the performer and particular production accompany each video. In addition, posted next to each video is a list of essential information about the clip, such as performance descriptors (comic reworking, multiple performers, costumes, props, theatrical staging, and so on); musical instruments used; name and type of performer (e.g., professional performer, student, teacher, etc.); language, setting, and geographical location of performance; title and author of work; genre and subject of the story; time period and language of the narrative.

ALP is more specific in its mission. As its title suggests, Arthurian Legend in Performance focuses on stories of King Arthur and the Arthurian world. ALP complements PMNT, which also includes much Arthurian material, but ALP is especially geared for use in courses that concentrate on Arthurian legend. ALP does include performances in Modern English, but it primarily aims to introduce students to performances in the original medieval languages (such as Latin, Welsh, Old French, Middle English, Byzantine Greek, and Hebrew), providing subtitles and English translations to facilitate comprehension. ALP features narratives read aloud or recited from memory, some with medieval musical accompaniment, performed by students, alumni, teachers, and professionals. Launched in 2011, ALP has nearly twenty video clips, with dozens more planned for the near future.[2]

We hope teachers will find both PMNT and ALP useful resources for incorporating performance into instruction of the Middle Ages. The contributors to this issue of The Once and Future Classroom share their experiences as students and teachers using performance and our websites in the classroom, from graduate school and college, to high school, to middle school.

In “Teaching Medieval History through Performance in the College Classroom,” Jennifer Lynn Jordan recalls her first experiments as a student using performance as an approach to medieval narratives and lyric poetry in Vitz’s Acting Medieval Literature course. Inspired by this method, Jordan then began viewing historical texts through the lens of performance in her graduate work. She now employs strategies she has learned through performance, as well as performance itself, as a teacher introducing a new generation of students to medieval history.

Logan E. Whalen also uses performance in his teaching to help students relate to challenging medieval texts. In “Teaching Medieval Literature through Performance in the University Classroom,” Whalen examines how viewing performances on the PMNT website, particularly clips that incorporate music, can engage his students on an emotional level and inspire in them an appreciation of the aesthetics of medieval literature.

Zuzanna Marcinkowska-Golec has found PMNT to be a fruitful tool in teaching her tech-savvy high school students, for whom the Middle Ages seems inaccessibly distant and foreign. Her essay “Teaching Medieval France through Performance in the High School Classroom” explains how viewing videos on the PMNT website helps her students visualize medieval stories, connect with characters, and better understand themes prevalent in medieval French literature.

Fifth grade history teacher Ellen O’Malley stimulates her students’ interest in medieval life by having them perform monologues in the character of various medieval children, as well as view performances on PMNT to promote discussion of medieval culture. “Teaching Medieval Culture through Performance in the Middle School Classroom” offers ideas, suggestions, and lesson plans for integrating performance into a medieval unit at the middle school level. O’Malley that finds that performance engages both visual and auditory learners, promotes interest in the Middle Ages, and creates a fun and entertaining classroom atmosphere.

O’Malley’s student B. Maxwell Lawrence corroborates the success of this approach in “Discovering Medieval Culture through Performance in the Fifth Grade Classroom.” Sharing his perspective as a student, Maxwell discusses his experiences performing in front of his peers, viewing videos in classroom lessons, and ultimately creating with classmates his own video performance as a final project.

These contributors attest to the excitement and enjoyment that performance can bring to the classroom, engaging students and bringing the history, literature, and culture of distant centuries closer in a vivid and even visceral way. We hope the teaching models and ideas presented here will encourage teachers and students to experiment with performance and inspire them to bring part of the Middle Ages to life for themselves.


[1] We initially created the pilot website of PMNT in 2004 along with a colleague at New York University, Nancy Freeman Regalado, to accompany a book that we were coediting: Evelyn Birge Vitz, Nancy Freeman Regalado, and Marilyn Lawrence, eds., Performing Medieval Narrative (Cambridge, D.S. Brewer, 2005). We are grateful to Project Manager Jennifer Vinopal of New York University Libraries and the team at NYU’s Digital Studio for the technical development of PMNT from its inception.

[2] We thank TEAMS: The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages for its generous funding of Arthurian Legend in Performance.


Evelyn (Timmie) Birge Vitz is Professor of French, and Affiliated Professor of Comparative Literature, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Religious Studies at New York University, where she has twice received the Golden Dozen Teaching Award (1995, 2005). She has written widely on medieval French literature, in particular on performance. Recent books include Orality and Performance in Early French Romance (1999), Performing Medieval Literature (with Nancy Freeman Regalado and Marilyn Lawrence, 2005), and Medieval and Early Modern Performance in the Eastern Mediterranean (with Arzu Ozturkmen, forthcoming). She is working on a book tentatively titled Passions in Performance in French Medieval Literature.

Marilyn Lawrence has taught a variety of courses on medieval literature and culture at New York University, where she was awarded the Outstanding Teaching Award from the College of Arts and Sciences (2002). Her publications include Performing Medieval Literature (with Evelyn Birge Vitz and Nancy Freeman Regalado, 2005) and Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative: Interdisciplinary Studies on Anagnorisis (with Philip F. Kennedy, 2009). She holds a BA from Princeton University and a PhD from New York University, where she is Visiting Scholar in the French Department.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 2, Fall 2012

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies