Teaching Medieval History through Performance in the College Classroom

Jennifer Lynn Jordan (SUNY Stony Brook)

As a nineteen-year-old sophomore at New York University in 2002, I found myself torn between an old passion and a new one. I had organized my life around theatre in my high school years, and I had long planned to pursue a career in acting. I had entered college as an English major at the College of Arts and Science with a plan to apply for a double major in acting at the Tisch School of the Arts during my first year. However, a freshman honors seminar on Abelard and Heloise taught by Penny Johnson launched a fascination—primed by an adolescent obsession with Monty Python—with medieval literature and history. I enjoyed the course so much that I began to contemplate switching majors and changing my long-held plan. Medieval and Renaissance Studies was a long and time-consuming major, requiring both a modern and an ancient language in addition to ten courses in two areas of concentration. There was no way to pursue a Medieval and Renaissance Studies major and an acting major, and Tisch did not offer a minor. If I wanted to pursue one, I would have to abandon the other.

It was with this conflicted mindset that I enrolled in Professor Evelyn Birge Vitz’s Acting Medieval Literature course in the first semester of my sophomore year. I was pleased that I would get a chance to indulge both my old interest and my newfound one; perhaps, I thought, it would help me come to a decision about my future studies. I spent the semester reading and performing (and talking about performing) epics, fabliaux, romances, and the songs of the troubadours. When the course was over, I dropped my plans for a theatre double major and switched to Medieval and Renaissance Studies.[1] My first semester with Professor Vitz turned into years of mentoring, collaboration, and friendship. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career I have performed a number of texts, many of which can be found on Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase.[2] In doing so, I not only learned much about performance and medieval culture, but also came to realize that studying the Middle Ages through performance afforded me a number of valuable strategies and insights that are not highlighted in more traditional pedagogies that view performance and history as distinct and separate pursuits.

Reading medieval narratives as performance pieces rather than static texts allowed me to slow down and spend time immersed in them, to live in their world a bit, understand them more fully and retain them more successfully. As a modern reader who had largely experienced reading as a silent, solitary activity, I was able to understand more fully the context in which narrative was produced and received. Listening to literary works remained the dominant mode of reading well into the Renaissance; recent scholarship has done much to dismantle the idea of steady progress in the transition from oral to written culture.[3] Performing the texts we read helped to recreate the conditions of their reception and shed light on their social function. Performing medieval narratives gave me new questions to ask, new approaches and issues to consider, and new ways to step outside of modern bias.

I have continued to use the insights gained from Professor Vitz’s course in my current career as a doctoral student in medieval history. I realized that the questions I had asked of literary texts could also be asked of the historian’s sources, such as charters, capitularies, legal treatises, chronicles, and the like. As most historians do today, I came to see the historical record itself as a performance, a construct. Those who “make” history—by living, loving and hating, worshipping and conquering—do so on the world stage, embedded in political, cultural, social, and economic frameworks that shape their actions and experiences. The texts they left behind may reflect their authors’ realities, but they also played a vital role in shaping them. What is more, in a world where literacy was restricted to a tiny, elite portion of the population, these texts represent the views and experiences of only a fraction of medieval people. Viewing the texts they left behind, narrative or otherwise, as constructs encourages the historian to look at them from different perspectives and affords him or her access to the mindsets of those behind them. It can shed light on the circumstances that mediated the creation of texts—patronage, political and religious identity, the social composition of the text’s “audience”—and can help the historian begin to recover the experiences of the unrepresented, the silent majority.

Performance has been just as vital as I begin to develop my skills as an instructor of medieval history. First and foremost, as a teacher, I perform every time I step in front of a group of students. It is a performance of myself, to be sure, but it is a tougher, less shy version of myself. A version of myself that is much more confident in my knowledge of my subject matter than my new graduate student self. My theatre background has taught me how to gauge my audience and adapt my delivery to their needs, and to have the flexibility to change tacks on the fly when needed. But more importantly, performing medieval sources has afforded me useful strategies for teaching students new to the study of the Middle Ages. One of the greatest challenges facing instructors of medieval history is cultivating open-mindedness in students who may assume the Middle Ages were a brutal detour on the road to modernity. Popular culture is rife with representations of the Middle Ages that might spark interest in the period but reduce it to an unflattering stereotype. There is a sense of “Otherness” that distances modern students of history from medieval society; the alien social and cultural contexts can prevent them from sympathizing and connecting with the people in and behind its sources. Modern history, in many ways less exotic than the more distant past, can engage the emotions and interests of students in a way medieval history, initially, cannot. The student of twentieth-century American history, for example, might have a grandparent who served in its great wars or witnessed its events firsthand, giving the student a very personal and invested connection to the past. The prevalence of World War II films might make it easier for the student to imagine what it was like to take cover from enemy fire in a trench than, say, to attack a castle wall with siege engines.

Of course, there are exceptions, and certain medieval texts are perhaps more accessible than others. While the data contained in the Domesday book might seem distant, many students could perhaps find familiar ideas and feelings in Einhard’s grief at the passing of fidissima coniunx, his “most faithful wife.”[4] Nevertheless it takes both luck and skill to bring medieval people to life from fragmentary and difficult sources: the luck to have the evidence to turn a medieval person into something more than a name or a Wikipedia entry, and the skill to open the minds of non-specialists who do not expect much more than plague, war, and mud from a medieval history survey course. Some of it happens in the “performance” of teaching; if you can communicate what has sparked your interest and excitement in the period, you can begin to bridge that gap. But teaching with performance can be just as useful. Having students read, interpret, and perform medieval texts can help students step outside their modern perspectives and connect with difficult material.

Professor Vitz has described the process by which we used performance to work through medieval narratives in her course.[5] A close reading, preferably aloud, is followed by a class discussion of the text’s literary qualities and its performance potentialities.[6] The teacher might ask questions about the text’s performative aspects and its “performability”: Who is speaking, and to whom? What sort of audience would have watched this kind of performance, and on what kind of occasion? Are there references to gestures or voices the performer would have utilized? Perhaps musical accompaniment? These and other questions could also be used to talk about the students’ ideas for its performance: Will you use props? Will this be a solo performance or a group one? What sort of moods or tones are appropriate to the text? What emotions will you portray, and how will you portray them? The students then pick a passage and perform it for the class, after which the students discuss the performances together.

Though I worked on a number of performances over the years, in a number of styles and mediums, a puppet performance of Yvain remains a personal favorite.[7] I have always tended towards performances that utilize a visual component; I have never been good at voices, and images help me to distinguish between characters. Yvain was not a particularly “authentic” performance; rather, with colorful sock puppets and a large wooden puppet theatre painted like a castle, I presented Yvain’s first encounter with his lion companion as a piece of children’s theatre. Similarly, a performance of Aucassin and Nicolette combined puppets with more “traditional” recitation.[8] Performing with puppets might be an attractive choice to shyer students, and would introduce another performance mode with which medieval audiences themselves would have been familiar.

I have asked the above-listed questions of my students even when the texts under study were not going to be performed. Reading with performance in mind encourages more careful reading of what may be difficult assignments for newcomers to medieval texts. It gives students who are new to textual analysis an introductory framework for preparing for class discussions, and helps them to experience texts rather than receive them passively. Performing Medieval Narrative Todaycan be particularly useful in a class discussion of the performance of medieval texts. For instance, I have shown a number of performances in different styles of the same texts, and asked students to discuss their differences, the choices the performer made in crafting their pieces, and the consequences or meanings of these choices. Students see that performances constitute an interpretation of a given text, just as texts constitute interpretations of people and their ideas, or events and their consequences. But perhaps most importantly, thinking about performance can help bridge the gap between modern readers and medieval literature and history. Considering the emotions contained within a text can help students sympathize and connect with its creators and those depicted within them. By sympathizing with medieval texts students can perhaps begin to see the people in and behind them as real, living beings who, despite living in very different contexts and believing very different things, experienced some of the same emotions as they. The aim is not to eradicate its “Otherness”; rather, the aim is to soften the text’s “Otherness” while also encouraging students to acknowledge and sit with its alterity, to show that difference does not preclude the finding of similarities and vice versa.

Performance has shaped my development as a student, instructor, and historian. In many ways, we read history as we do plays: With defined settings—courts, battlefields, peasant huts—within which we mentally construct intangible worlds. With characters who drive stories and shape events just as they themselves are driven and shaped by them. With texts that serve functions similar to dialogue, giving voice to our characters. With directions and suggestions provided by experts—directors, dramaturges, historians—providing interpretations, reenactments, and reconstructions. And with our own imaginations, which allow us to envision the unseen and intuit the unsaid. History, in many ways, is a play we have not seen that we have recreated for ourselves, directed and played out in our minds, with what guidelines remain to us. Performance, as a supplement to the other pedagogical strategies available to teachers of medieval history, can help make the unseen visible.

[1] Class readings included The Song of Roland, Aucassin and Nicolette, the Lais of Marie de France, Our Lady’s Juggler, Three Women of Paris, and others.

[2] Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase <http://www.nyu.edu/pmnt>.

[3] Joyce Coleman, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also the Introduction to Performing Medieval Narrative, ed. Evelyn Birge Vitz, Nancy Freeman Regalado, and Marilyn Lawrence (Cambridge, D.S. Brewer, 2005).

[4] From Einhard’s April 836 letter to Lupus of Ferrieres. Quoted in Julia Smith, “Einhard,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 13 (2003): 55-77.

[5] See Evelyn Birge Vitz, “Teaching Arthur through Performance,” Arthuriana 15 (2005): 31-36, for an extended discussion of her teaching method. A link to the article by Vitz, as well as more suggestions, can be found on the Teaching Tips page of the Performing Medieval Narrative Today website.

[6] In my own work, I still read new texts aloud to this day. Reading aloud forces me to slow down, remain focused, and consider every word.

[7] You can see my performance on Performing Medieval Narrative Today under the clip title “Yvain: Yvain Meets the Lion.” The segment I performed comes from Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain or the Knight with the Lion, trans. Ruth Harwood Cline (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1975).

[8] Performing Medieval Narrative Today under the clip title “Aucassin: Torelore.” See also my performance of The Song of St. Eulalia, where visual aids allowed me to depict the characters and supplement my English-translation recitation with the Latin text; clip title “Séquence de Sainte Eulalie (Sequence, or Song, of St. Eulalia).”


Jennifer Lynn Jordan is a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook. She received from New York University a BA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, with a minor in History, as well as a MA from the Draper School in Social Thought and the Humanities. Her research interests include medieval Italy, women and the family, medieval apocalypticism, gender and eschatology, and contemporary popular medievalism.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 2, Fall 2012  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Fall2012/Fall2012College.html

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