Discovering Medieval Culture through Performance in the Fifth Grade Classroom

B. Maxwell Lawrence (Trinity School, New York, NY)

I am a student in Ellen O’Malley’s fifth grade history class at the Trinity School in New York City. We just finished our second trimester, which was entirely dedicated to the Middle Ages. We studied Western European feudalism, knights, castles, the Black Death, and other subjects. Then we chose a specific subject for our individual research projects.

We learned about feudalism and knights through the monologue assignment. Our teacher gave each of us a character from the book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.[1] We were assigned to recite the character’s lines using props and perform it in front of the class. My character was Simon, the knight’s son.[2] At home, I found a tunic in my sisters’ costume bin and practiced my lines for homework. We did not need to memorize the monologue; we could use the book. But practicing at home helped me figure out how to convey the emotion and helped me become familiar with the texts and words. There were some words that were hard to pronounce, so working at home with a parent was useful.

In the classroom, I was a little nervous to perform the monologue. I had a little stage fright, but it helped me to see my other classmates performing, too. I found I liked getting up in front of people to perform because when I am the performer people are not allowed to interrupt me. I have the power: they can’t interrupt me; they can’t move away; they can’t do anything except listen. I liked feeling the power the performer has in front of the audience! It must have been great to be a performer in the Middle Ages: because most people couldn’t read or write, they were dependent on you, the performer, for entertainment. Minstrels were the ones who passed down great stories. I would have liked to have been a minstrel in the Middle Ages because everyone needs you. This assignment made me feel like a minstrel a thousand years ago. It was interesting to see how my classmates imitated minstrels. Each person had his or her own way of performing.

We also had another lesson using performance. Ms. O’Malley showed us two clips from the website Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase.[3] She showed the clips to the whole class as part of a SMART Board presentation. I really liked the videos. We learned how medieval stories were performed. We saw a college student perform a story with dramatic noises and acrobatics. The other clip showed how without hand gestures a story could be performed so well. The woman used few hand gestures, just her mouth to tell the story. I felt each scene was so vividly described that a mental picture popped into my head. It felt different from reading the story in a book because of the atmosphere created by the person telling the story to you. I wish that today people still performed stories like minstrels did in the Middle Ages. It is another very interesting way of putting a story into somebody else’s mind. I will not forget the extremely vivid mental pictures that the performer put into my head.

At the end of our trimester, the entire fifth grade presented an exhibition to the whole school. The exhibition was called the “Medieval Museum” and it was set up in the Lower School library. We worked in teams of two to four students to create exhibits around a subject we had chosen. I worked with two classmates on knights and the Crusades. The Museum stays on display for a couple of weeks in the library, but one day is scheduled as the exhibition day. That morning, Lower School students, from kindergarten to fourth grade, toured our exhibits in small groups. We presented our topics and discussed our subjects with the younger students and answered any questions they asked. Then in the afternoon, the fifth grade parents visited the Museum and we got to present our projects to them.

As part of my project, my classmates and I made a stop-action video that told the story of a medieval battle. We used Lego pieces to create the characters and set. We filmed the story by moving the Lego pieces. Then we recorded our voices for the soundtrack. The story tells how a king and queen wake up one morning and go and knight a squire. When they are finished knighting the squire, a messenger arrives saying that an enemy army is approaching. The king’s army fights and forces the enemy army to surrender. I had the role of the voice of the queen and I helped make the battle sound effects. We showed the film at the Museum exhibit and people really liked it. It taught them about knights, dubbing ceremonies, and medieval warfare, through a filmed performance. The film really drew people’s attention and they really enjoyed it. It taught me about another way of telling a story: through stop-action animation and computer programs. We also had a teaching poster and a Lego display, but the film was the highlight.

I think using performance to teach about the Middle Ages is an extremely good idea because it engages the audience very well. It is fun for the student to perform, as I did in the monologue lesson. It is engaging to watch performances, as we did in the SMART Board lesson where Ms. O’Malley showed us clips from the Performing Medieval Narrative Today website. And it was fascinating to learn how to tell stories yet another way by making my own video with classmates. I recommend middle school teachers use performance as a teaching style. It worked for me and my fifth grade class!

[1] Laura Amy Schlitz, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (Cambridge, MA; Candlewick, 2007).

[2] Schlitz, 34-35.

[3] Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase <>. Clip titles: “Yvain: Yvain fights boldly, defeats Count Alier” and “Silence: Minstrels arrive.”

B. Maxwell Lawrence, now a sixth grader at the Trinity School in New York City, was exposed to the wonders of the Middle Ages at school by his teacher Ellen O’Malley and at home by his mother, Marilyn Lawrence. His interests include fencing (epee), flag football, and playing the double bass. He enjoys reading science fiction and military history; his all-time favorite literary work is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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