Teaching Medieval France through Performance in the High School Classroom

Zuzanna Marcinkowska-Golec (School of the Holy Child, Rye, NY)

Recently I discovered the website Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase and would like to share my experience using this website’s material in the high school classroom.[1]

I use the textbook Trésors du temps as a primary reader for French Level 4.[2] This textbook introduces my students to excerpts of several medieval French texts, such as La Chanson de Roland, Tristan et Yseut, La Farce de Maître Pathelin, and François Villon’s La Ballade des Pendus. Even modernized versions of these medieval texts prove challenging for young students unfamiliar with the aesthetics and topics of the medieval era. Some students feel they would like to learn more about medieval French literature, but there is no room for more reading of Old French texts in the typical French 4 curriculum. Watching a video in English translation is a solution that helps students and teachers prolong the conversation about the Middle Ages. My students eagerly watched videos of Aucassin et Nicolette, Le Roman de Renart, Le Lai de Chevrefeuil, and numerous other narratives. The students were moved by Tristan and Yseut’s eternal love, and fascinated by the humor of Pathelin and the too-sudden death of Aude.

Watching live performances of these masterpieces is a key experience for understanding medieval narratives with their ancient—yet incredibly modern—themes. With the drama unfolding before their eyes, students of our technological era can better visualize each story. The video performances speak to the students directly and better communicate the thoughts, struggles, and doubts of the characters. For the modern generation of students who remain in constant communication with their network of friends, it is a revealing experience to hear the engaging voice of performers inviting them to listen and to comment on their adventures.

Aida, a French 4 student, remarked, “I never knew that in medieval times people listened to the poem and to the music at the same time. It makes sense. Poetry is always very musical. I think we should read poetry aloud; it makes the words alive. Watching performances from this website made me realize the connection between words and music.”

Danielle, who is a senior in high school, stated, “I look forward to taking part in this type of performance when studying French in college. French medieval literature is at first glance so remotely different and outdated, but when you act it out it becomes part of your imagination.”

My student named Nicoletta chose to watch a performance from Aucassin et Nicolette to see the story of a girl named just like her. Nicoletta commented, “The story is charming and very romantic. I am a very romantic person myself and I really like to see that my name and my personality have such a charming ancestor. It is a great love story. I will tell my friends!”

Finally, Juliette enthused, “These performances show a very naïve stage of French literature. All characters are so sincere, so dramatic. They remind me of fairy tales and of children’s literature. I love the performances. They are so diverse: puppets, dance, singing, reciting. There are professional performers and student performers. The student performers have so much fun doing it! We should invite them to our school, so they can perform for all of us.”

My students were delighted to get a better taste of medieval French literature thanks to the videos the website offers.

In addition to watching the clips, each of my students wrote summaries in French of three videos of their choice. Because they wrote their summaries in the past tense, it was an excellent exercise in tense agreement and narrative writing. I am sure that this lesson was only a modest beginning for the creative use of this inspirational material.


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

[2] Yvone Lenard, Trésor du temps (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996).

Zuzanna Marcinkowska-Golec teaches French and Spanish for grades five through twelve at the School of the Holy Child in Rye, New York. She has presented on the use of technology in a foreign language classroom at the New York State Association of Independent Schools Teaching with Technology conference, the annual convention of the American Association of Teachers of French, and other conferences. She holds a MA in Spanish from Lehman College and a MA in French from New York University.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 2, Fall 2012  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Fall2012/Fall2012France.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