What kinds of things mattered to people in the Middle Ages?
I suspect that KS3 students rarely answer explicit questions about what mattered to people in the past but it seems such an important question that I think it should be asked of all periods and societies and tackled early in the study of any period, hence this question is the focus of Section 3 of my on-line ‘textbook’ Medieval Lives.
Why is this question so important? Students need to understand what mattered to people if they’re to build effective explanations for the decisions and actions taken in the past. It helps students identify ideas and experiences that we have in common with people of the Middle Ages e.g. what they called being of ‘good worship’ we’d call ‘being respected’. Thirdly, discussing what mattered to people in the Middle Ages may also help students reflect on what matters to them in the present.
The ‘active’ part of this activity is based on a class set of role-cards, covering a range of individuals from kings and queens to beggars and villeins. This activity can be used in conjunction with Section 3 of Medieval Lives which provides text which will help students consolidate the ideas and knowledge developed by the activity.
Section 3 and the Teachers’ Notes providing discussion of using the Student Text are available HERE …
Participating in this activity and reading the associated text will enable students to:
a) develop their knowledge of many of the things that mattered to people in the Middle Ages (such as the importance of the harvest for providing enough food, the centrality of religion, of their families and of their desire to be respected by others)
b) identify some of the similarities and differences of what mattered across society
c) gain a sense of some common strands of human experience linking people in the Middle Ages and ourselves – they weren’t that different as people back then!
d) reflect on what matters to themselves and their own families
[If your school insists that all work must relate to GCSE objectives this can be used to explore similarity and difference but I do hope that’s not the case! So many good history questions don’t fall within the limitations of GCSE assessment objectives.]
Teachers need a clear picture of the content of Section 3 and which parts of it they will use with the role cards (see The Activity below for ideas) and of the details on the role cards.
Do amend the cards in whatever ways will help your class. I’ve erred on the side of including a lot of information – you may not want it all.
Print the role cards and have them ready to hand out for use after you have introduced the issues.
Decide how you will organise the activity – students could remain seated, in which case you need to have the king and queen in one corner of the room and a clear sequence through society to those at the foot of society in the opposite corner! Alternatively give students the space to stand in social groups so the range of medieval society is visible.
Props – if you’re feeling adventurous a couple of crown, a handful of bibles, a sheep or two or whatever else you can think of to identify the different roles and especially the 3 groups - those who defended, those who prayed people and those who worked and fed the people.
Think carefully about which students play each role – try to challenge students’ 21st C persona so a quiet student could be king or queen etc. (My apologies if that’s obvious but I always assume this is being read by trainees).
Notes on Detail in the Role Cards
The cards are set c.1330-1345 and some of the cards are based on real individuals. The king and queen are based on Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault who did send letters and gifts to each other when apart, including horses to symbolise how they would meet again. They did play games with their children and were a close family. Philippa was very popular but was criticised for her expenditure on clothes. The nobles they were closest to were the Earl and Countess of Salisbury, William and Catherine Montagu.
The roles pf Sir Geoffrey and Agnes are based on the Luttrells – see the final pages in Section 3 for details from Geoffrey’s will as well as his famous Psalter.
The other character who was ‘real’ is Hamekin the weaver who came from Brabant to York and is found in royal records along with his brother. For Hamekin see the England's Immigrants Database website HERE …
The other roles have been invented but the details attributed to individuals reflect contemporary concerns with details taken from wills and other evidence.
1. Introduce the enquiry – you can use pages 1-3 of the text of Section 3, either through the pages provided or the associated PowerPoint sides. These pages/slides ask students to think about:
- what matters to them (partly as a launchpad for the next question)
- their ideas about what mattered to people in the Middle Ages. Students identifying their preconceptions and later comparing them with their ideas at the end of the enquiry is central to effective learning.
2. Give out the role cards – if you’re giving students the chance to move around the room their task is to sort themselves out into a hierarchy from king and queen at the top to whoever they think is at the bottom. Having done this, you can then use the roles to discuss the idea of there being three groups in society - those who defended, those who prayed people and those who worked and fed the people. As the hierarchy shows the three groups aren’t linked entirely to wealth.
3. Set students to discuss what they learn from their cards about what matters to them – they could do this in groups – the landowners, the church people, the merchants and townspeople, the villagers. They could, for example, identify two things the people in their groups have in common and two things that are different.
Alternatively you could use a more directed and clear-cut approach with the whole class in their roles by asking questions such as:
Which of you have your soul going to heaven on your card? (all of them) – Why do you think that matters to all of you – plus follow-ups to build on that start.
Which of you have growing as much food as you can on your card? Why do you have this on your card but others don’t? – then develop the point as needed.
Can you pick out anything on your cards that also matters to you today? (e.g. opportunity to discuss respect/good worship?)
There’s obviously lots of other questions you could ask in this style.
It’s always important to have a specific debriefing ‘moment’ when students are clear that they are identifying and reflecting on what they have learned. For what you might discuss see the Objectives set out above and p.16 of Section 3 which sets out conclusions.
Explore issues such as:
What mattered to people that’s surprised you? Why did it surprise you?
What’s been predictable and why?
What do you think are the two most important things you have learned from this activity?
Did any of the things that matter to people in the Middle Ages also matter to you?
Has this activity made you think about what really matters to you today?
After this you can use Section 3 to consolidate students’ knowledge. Having done this activity you may not want to spend time on the case study of what mattered to Margaret Paston (pp.4-7) or the extra material on what mattered to Geoffrey Luttrell (added after the end of the chapter) but these pages will help consolidate the work in the activity:
pp.8-13 summarise what mattered to kings and queens, to wealthy families and to the commons.
pp.14-15 sum up why religion mattered so much and how it affected everyday life
pp.16-17 provide an overall conclusion.
Linked activities on This Website
How can you spend less time in purgatory? HERE …
Why was the harvest so important? HERE …
Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.