Book Review: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from A Medieval Village

Good Masers! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007. 85 pp.

Review by N. M. Heckel

Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Villageis a set of twenty-one monologues (some performed simultaneously with one another), each of which is from the point of view of a different young person of the medieval period. The youths in question cover a wide range of social stations: both men and women, aristocrats, peasants, professionals, and craftsmen; Schlitz even includes a Jewish boy talking about his interactions with a Christian girl. The wide range of characters is a strength of the book, as it helps to remind young readers that the medieval period wasn’t just about valiant knights and beautiful ladies, but in fact was home to just as wide a variety of people and roles as our own time. However, teachers should take care when using the book to treat it as a collection of fictional dramatic pieces, and not as a resource for objective historical information. While it can be an engaging way for students to gain an understanding of a seemingly alien time, it has some weaknesses in regards to accurate representation of the period, due mostly to the subtle intrusion of twenty-first century judgments on people whose base assumptions and aspirations were very different from our own, no matter how easy it is to empathize with them as individuals.

Schlitz wrote the monologues for the fifth grade class at Park School in Baltimore, and tried to create characters of about the same age as her target audience. As she says in her introduction, “I wrote plays about children because I was writing for children. I say children, but the people in these plays are not all the same age. I imagine them being between ten and fifteen years old . . .”1 The characters she imagines are figures who, more in medieval society than our own, sit on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. As a result, the subject matter she addresses occupies a similar in-between space, and her not-yet-adult-but-no-longer-child characters consider difficult topics such as financial stability, class conflicts, religious bias, and the repercussions of war. Though Schlitz’s original audience was composed of fifth graders, who fall at the younger end of her characters’ ages, the monologues’ subjects are not softened or cushioned, and an older junior high audience would probably still find ideas and concerns that intersect with their own. The dramatic format, too, would help to keep students interested in what might otherwise seem a dry and distant subject, as it encourages performers to empathize with the parts they play.

The empathy produced by performance could in some ways be problematic given the rather dark overall mood of the monologues and dialogues, leading students and teachers to come to some inaccurate conclusions about the period. Reviewer C. B. James of Ready When You Are, C. B. worries about the bleakness of the monologues, comparing them to Chaucer’s Canterbury Talesand particularly focusing on the way that Chaucer tempers his sharp social commentary with humor. “Ms. Schlitz’s characters, while well-constructed and all believable,” James writes, “together paint a picture of a society that was so awful one wonders why they kept it together for so long, 100’s of years. A few more funny monologues wouldn’t hurt.”2 Students might have fun reading and performing the pieces, but as they do so, they will be internalizing a picture of the medieval period as being generally harsh and hard and lacking in joy or beauty, and thus as being very alien to the clean modern world, where beauty is a goal unto itself, and flashy multimedia entertainments are always waiting to help us get our minds off a hard day. Schlitz has chosen to focus on more unpleasant aspects of the period, showing figures who are often getting the proverbial short end of the stick, such as Will, the plowboy who says his peasant father was given fields too small and too far apart for him to support his family effectively, or Mogg, the villein girl who believes her lord is so cruel that he would take the best of their animals, even if doing so left the family to starve. Schlitz mentions nothing about the joys that might have also been present in these children’s lives; for instance, toys they might have played with or seasonal fairs they could have attended. Also, her focus on the harshness of everyday conditions is not tempered by the flip side of hard earthly life: the consolation and joy that religion could bring through hope of a better life in the next world. This might be difficult to communicate clearly to a modern audience, but it could be done, perhaps by the inclusion of an oblate (a child raised in the church) or even just by adding a mention of religion that is not colored by self-importance (as in “Isobel the Lord’s Daughter”) or guilt (as in “Barbary the Mud-Slinger”).

Also problematic are those characters who reinforce stereotypes about the medieval period. Giles, the beggar-boy who describes the foolish folk who believe in the performances given by himself and his relic-selling father, is one such instance. Giles crows over his achievement and insinuates that all people of the medieval period were superstitious fools. Another is Thomas, the doctor’s son, who makes medieval medical practice seem perilously close to quackery as he cynically describes the way that the doctor must always declare his fear at the patient’s condition, no matter how ill the patient actually is, explaining “That sort of talk protects you if he dies. / If he recovers, it was all your skill / That brought him back to life.”3 These depictions are perhaps understandable if we remember that each monologue is being written from the subjective point of view of the character in question, and so it is logical that Will and Mogg would see the systems they work in as unnecessarily harsh, and Giles and Thomas would see their victims and patients as gullible. However, the question remains: will middle school students understand the difference between subjective depiction and more objective historical information? This is one area in which Schlitz comes dangerously close to reinforcing the stereotype of life in the medieval period as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Schlitz’s use of footnotes also sometimes contributes to both problems of accuracy and reinforcement of stereotypes. The footnotes are short and simple enough to give students information without overwhelming or boring them. This is understandable, but it is this very brevity which seems to be the problem. Sometimes, Schlitz merely includes questionable information, such as the contention of “Simon, the Knight’s Son” that the son of a bankrupt knight would become a monk, an idea which ignores two issues: first, that this could severely complicate his family’s duty to provide military support to their lord, and second, that one often had to pay to join a religious order. At other points, the issue goes beyond such easily corrected misinformation, as the footnotes over-simplify complex ideas in such a way that they lead to a general reinforcement of inaccurate negative stereotypes about the medieval period and medieval people. An example of this problem is the first footnote in “Mogg, the Villein’s Daughter”: “A villein was a peasant who wasn’t free. He could be bought and sold like a slave. His house, his family, and his labor all belonged to the lord of the manor.”4 This description covers the major points of villeinage, and mostly uses appropriate terminology, with the exception of one major problem: the parallel drawn between villeinage and slavery. The concept of slavery, particularly for American audiences, brings with it a large quantity of conceptual baggage which is generally inapplicable to medieval villeinage. Slavery, as imagined by 21st century Americans, has none of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities inherent to the system binding villeins and lords. Additionally, the parallel with slavery also casts a much more negative connotation on the idea that the villein, his family, his house, and his labor “belonged to the lord,” which might not seem quite so bad if it were not being associated with slavery. This one footnote could lead the unwary reader to dismiss the medieval period as a barbaric time that can be set up in opposition to the ideals of the “modern” world. The note in “Mogg” is not the only problematic one; similar oversimplifications and negative associations can be found in footnotes in most, if not all, of the monologues and dialogues. While all this is something that medieval specialists would know and be able to explain, neither students or the non-specialist instructor who wishes to use the book as a teaching tool can be expected to question such an authoritative statement, particularly as the entire book would seems to have been written after thorough research, the presence of which is attested to by the (fairly lengthy, for a children’s book) bibliography.

The bibliography itself is another area in which teachers should take care. While Schlitz did research the period, her decision not to use any critical materials written after 1997 (when she originally wrote the pieces) means that she has missed some of the major recent work on children in the medieval period, most notably Nicholas Orme’s book Medieval Children (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). She has also made use a number of non-scholarly sources (in other words, sources that may not be peer-reviewed) such as Time-Life and Reader’s Digest books which should probably not be considered unquestionably authoritative.

If used in a way that emphasizes its strengths as a dramatic text rather than its weaknesses as a factual resource, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! could be an excellent teaching tool, though teachers and parents should perhaps not count on students to pick the book up on their own.5 The direct participation of the dramatic performance will allow students to become more invested in the material, as the format of the pieces — subjective personal observations from clearly drawn and motivated characters — encourages students to develop a personal connection to characters whose lives are clearly very different from their own, though the experience of emotion may be familiar. Teachers who want to use the text as one way to gain an understanding of the medieval period should consider pairing it with material from more conventional histories so that students are able to understand the difference between the subjectivity of the dramatic pieces, and the more objective approaches of traditional history.

1  Laura Amy Schiltz. “Forward,” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007) ix.

2 C. B. James, “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Amy Schlitz,” Ready When You Are, C. B., 13 February 2008 <http://readywhenyouarecb.blogspot.com/2008/02/good-masters-sweet-ladies-by-amy.html>, (11 November 2008).

3 Schlitz, Good Masters, 19.

4 Schlitz, Good Masters, 24.

5 A number of bloggers who reviewed the book expressed concern that the book, while fun when one actually reads it, might seem too boring, in concept and appearance to catch students’ interest, as the bloggers themselves, all educators or parents, all initially made that prejudgment. See Rebecca Reid, “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! By Laura Amy Schlitz,” Rebecca Reads: Thoughts About Reading Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children’s Books, New and Old, 23 October 2008 <http://reviews.rebeccareid.com/good-masters-sweet-ladies-by-laura-amy-schlitz/> (11 November 2008), Introduction; Natasha, “ Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz,” MAW Books Blog, 23 April 2008 <http://blog.mawbooks.com/2008/04/23/good-masters-sweet-ladies-by-laura-amy-schlitz/> (11 November 2008); and James, “Good Masters!.”


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VI, Issue 2, Fall 2008
http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/F08/goodmasters.php

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies