In this unit, there is normally SO MUCH that I want to talk about: knights, chivalry, torture devices, the Black Death, and on and on and on. But not every student is interested in the same things I am. So, I created a “Choose Your Own Medieval Adventure” lesson that allows students to pick from a list of topics to explore in more depth.
AP teachers: I end by having the students create their own AP-style essay prompt and then outline the essay they would write. This allows each student to create a prompt that works for what they studied and it’s incredibly helpful for students to learn how to make their own prompts. I always encourage them to “get inside the heads” of the AP exam writers so that they can study more efficiently.
Lesson: Choose Your Own Medieval Adventure!
Students select topics from the five below and explore the resources in depth. They should take notes on the packet as they go.
Topic 1: Society (Women in Medieval Europe)
- S1: “Women in Medieval Society”, British Library
- Background: Read this first! It will give you a good overview of the traditional role of women in the Middle Ages. Then check out three examples of women who used their “sphere of influence” to gain more power in society.
- S2: “Joan of Arc”, Cloud Biography
- Background: Joan of Arc is a rare example of a woman gaining power in the military.
- S3: Excerpt from The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan
- Background: Christine de Pizan was an Italian author and thinker. Her works addressed gender relations in medieval Europe, often giving advice to members of the court on relationships. This excerpt is from her most famous book which defended women’s contributions throughout history. It is often referred to as one of the earliest works of feminist writing in history.
- S4: “Eleanor of Aquitaine”, History.com
- Background: Eleanor of Aquitaine is a great example of a woman using her “traditional” role as a wife and mother to gain influence, not unlike mothers and wives of the Roman Empire.
Topic 2: Politics (Law and Order)
- P1: “Life in the Middle Ages: The Knight”
- Background: The basis of political life in medieval Europe was feudalism. One of the most important relationships was between a lord and his vassal – those beneath him who served him in some way. Some were given land and worked the farms; others were expected to defend the lord’s land or property if attacked. Warning: This video is super old and cheesy – enjoy!
- P2: “Crime and Punishment in Medieval England”
- Background: Remember that with the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a lot of cultural collapse and isolation. As Europe lost its overarching government in Rome, local leadership became much more important. There was no unifying legal system anymore and so each region, or even each town, often had very different approaches to dealing with crime and punishment.
- P3: “Spanish Inquisition”, Encyclopedia Britannica
- Background: As the Spanish reconquered the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, the king and queen wanted to force out the Muslims (or Moors) who had taken the land as part of their caliphate. The Inquisition was the most extreme example of a government establishing a criminal system to regain political control.
- P4: “Torture Museum”, Amsterdam
- Background: Whenever you leave crime and punishment up to individuals, you’ll find that humans are very… creative. Since there wasn’t an overarching legal system to support the leadership, they often turned to brutal method of punishment to deter (prevent) people from committing crimes in the first place.
Topic 3: Interaction with the environment (Black Death)
- I1: “The Black Death (Hollaback Girl)”, parody by HistoryTeachers
- Background: This teacher is amazing and I want to be her best friend. Even though the video is silly, it also gives a great overview of the Black Death. You might want to watch it more than once to catch everything.
- I2: “Cures for the Black Death”
- Background: This is chart of proposed “cures” for the Black Death based on what people in medieval Europe believed was causing the disease to spread. Keep in mind that scientists didn’t fully put together the connection between germs and disease until the late 1800s!
- I3: “DBQ: The Bubonic Plague”
- Background: Don’t worry, you don’t have to write a DBQ. But check out these primary and secondary source documents about the Black Death, or the bubonic plague.
- I4: “The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever”, History Today
- Background: It is very difficult to estimate deaths during periods in history when they didn’t keep great records, especially when so many people are dying so quickly it would be hard to keep up. (Another time when this problem also arose: the conquest of the Americas and the death of the Native Americans.)
- I5: “Impact of the Black Death on the Decline of Feudalism”
- Background: Although the Black Death was an incredibly tragic event in European history in the short term, some of its long-term consequences were strangely positive.
Topic 4: Culture (The Power of the Catholic Church)
- C1: “The Split That Created Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Catholics”
- Background: Start here. This is a good overview of how the Christian Church split into Roman Catholicism (in the West) and Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy (in the East).
- C2: “Pope Urban II Orders the First Crusade,” History.com
- Background: Read about the Pope and his declaration that sparked the Crusades!
- C3: “Life in the Middle Ages: The Monk”
- Background: This is a very old, cheesy, and informative video about what it would have been like to be a monk in the Middle Ages.
- C4: Medieval Cathedral Tours (Choose at least one to look at: Canterbury Cathedral in England, Notre Dame Cathedral in France, Il Duomo Cathedral in Italy, or La Catedral de Sevilla in Spain)
- Background: The Catholic Church had enormous wealth in the Middle Ages and they used some of that wealth to build amazing cathedrals across Europe. These were symbols of God’s (and the Church’s) power and were meant to amaze everyone who visited.
Topic 5: Economy
- E1: “Medieval Manors”
- Background: Feudalism is the social system that established relationships and power dynamics between different groups. On the other side of that coin was manorialism, or the economic organization of medieval life. Remember that when Rome fell to the “barbarians,” most people fled the cities and went into rural areas. The wealthy patricians who had country estates were soon flooded with poorer people hoping for lodging and protection. As they set up in the lands surrounding these estates, or manors, that small area became the heart of the medieval economy.
- E2: “Medieval Guilds”
- Background: Some of the earliest attempts to organize the medieval economy was through guilds. Even those these were highly localized and didn’t usually connect across multiple towns, it is an early example of people trying to reunite people together to create a more efficient economic system.
- E3: “The First Common Market? The Hanseatic League”, History Today
- Background: Another attempt to unite economically on a larger scale was the Hanseatic League.
- E4: “A Fascinating Map of Medieval Trade Routes”
- Background: After the Crusades, Europe was much better linked with the rest of the Afro-Eurasian world. Remember: Africa, the Middle East, and Asia hadn’t experienced decline on the same scale as Europe. They were still more united and, thus, able to continue trading – unlike Europe until after the Crusades.
- E5: “Medieval Merchant Culture”
- Background: As regional and international trade rises again, merchants become very important to European society. Note: this is going to be different from other civilizations. Others, like China, often look down on merchants because they don’t create anything themselves and they deal with “outsiders.” However, Europe comes to highly value merchants for reconnecting manors and towns to the wider world. This is an important precursor to capitalism.
Conclusion (EVERYONE must complete this section)