Exploring and Teaching Medieval History
A Subjective Introduction by Ian Dawson
Exploring and Teaching Medieval History was published by the Historical Association in January 2018. A copy of the shorter, 96 pages edition was sent to every secondary school in England and Wales.
The extended 140 pages edition is available open-access on the HA website HERE …
Ian writes …
It’s hard to be objective when you’ve just spent fifteen months on a project so I’m not going to try. For objectivity see the brief intro on the HA website or the publication itself. What I’m going to attempt here is to explain the ideas behind the choice of articles and arguments in the publication.
How did it begin? In summer 2017 the Agincourt600 organisation gave the HA a sum of money to pay for the printing and postage of a publication on medieval history for schools. I was nearing the end of running the HA’s Teacher Fellowship on teaching about the later middle ages and had started thinking about a follow-on project on teaching about the Middle Ages so, when I heard about this new publication, I said I’d be interested in editing it. Well, how else would I fill the first year of retirement?
There were no guidelines for the publication from Agincourt600, which was both a boon and a problem. The central issue was whether to be conservative (focussing articles on new GCSE topics and teaching material on the much-taught KS3 ‘classics’) or radical (publishing articles on topics teachers aren’t used to teaching and asking questions which challenge some or many of the assumptions about our approaches at KS3).
One important context was teacher’s knowledge – as planning began, I asked a hundred teachers about the extent to which medieval history was part of their university degree. Half said they’d studied no meaningful quantity of medieval history, another 30% said it played only a minor role. Clearly new teachers have a lot to learn about medieval history to teach at KS3, let alone with older students. They build confidence quickly but only have time to do so within limited areas, especially those time-hallowed KS3 topics we’ve all taught multiple times.
In the end I decided to take the more radical route. There’s plenty of material available in schoolbooks and online on the standard topics, even if some could do with significant up-dating. In contrast this publication is a one-off opportunity to give non-medievalists a broader base of knowledge and to ask ‘bigger’ questions which challenge what is taught about the period, rather than working within the same content framework that has existed at KS3 more or less unchanged since I was at school in the 60s. The trouble was that the list of ideas kept growing and what was originally discussed as maybe a 64 page publication has ended up at 140 pages!
So far, so normal as projects go but this hasn’t just been ‘another project’, a retirement time-filler. If I’d been given a wish and able to choose any project as my last, then this is the one I’d have chosen. For reasons I only vaguely understand no project has ever felt so important because, strange though it sounds, I’ve felt a great sense of responsibility to the people of the Middle Ages – to argue that our coverage of their lives, dilemmas and decisions should present a much more rounded and respectful picture of their society than is often the case. Hence the themes that dominate the publication (explained in its Introduction on pages 4-5) – sophistication, respect and representation. Above all I wanted to challenge the use of ’medieval’ as a synonym for bigotry, violence and ignorance when such facets of life have been as present or more so in the last 120 years of ‘modernity’.
Identifying the types of article I wanted from historians was quickly done i.e. providing core context for teachers new to the period through articles on sources, on some major themes and in the 300 word items by historians on what they see as most significant about the period. Alongside are articles on some GCSE topics and the adventurous choice of two articles on topics I suspect nobody teaches but which illustrate the sophistication of society. Then came the anxiety of approaching some of the most eminent medievalists in the country to write the articles – happily most said yes and, after a little juggling we also achieved a reasonable balance of male and female contributors. I sent each historian a set of notes, outlining questions I hoped they’d answer. That felt really presumptuous when what I really wanted to do was ask them for their autographs!
In contrast, the number and content of the teaching articles changed a good deal as new ideas arose. Even so, I think we’ve kept those overall themes of sophistication, respect and representation visible. The desire for continuity of argument is why there’s so much of me – that plus bossiness and enthusiasm. My approach to editing was, in contrast, best described as laissez-faire. As this is a one-off publication there was no pattern to set or fit into so I largely worked with authors’ preferences, hence some articles have endnotes and others don’t.
We ended up with a much longer publication than originally anticipated but I’m aware that there is much else that could have been discussed about teaching about the Middle Ages. There needs to be far more discussion in depth about the detail of content of even (particularly?), the most familiar topics, from the small-scale (e.g. what do we really want KS3 students to understand about the Norman Conquest?) to how we can provide useful overviews of many topics (both for students and for teachers whose knowledge is limited) to asking big, exciting questions about the periodisation we use at KS3. What, for example, do we lose by starting with the Norman Conquest rather than earlier? At the other end of medieval schemes of work, I would really have liked to have a longer ‘go’ at the sanctity of the Renaissance and Reformation as a dividing line in periodisation – I have touched on it but there’s much more to be said that’s of practical value for schemes of work. But that’s what websites are for!
One wider objective has been to use this publication to suggest a model for future re-evaluations of what we teach about topics and periods. I think we’ve made a decent stab at that, not necessarily a model to be followed but one to learn from, especially as the questions explored in the teaching articles apply to other periods as much as to the Middle Ages. This is certainly true of what may be this publication’s most valuable contribution, the article on identifying students’ preconceptions, especially as Jason Todd has taken this up so speedily, in terms of research with students and working with teachers to try out ideas. As research goes we’ve kept it simple and free of jargon so individual teachers can explore their students’ ideas themselves through the questionnaire available HERE …
So while this individual publication is complete, it actually feels much more like a beginning, as if we’ve just laid the first course of bricks of a high wall that represents all the work that could be done to re-think and resource the teaching of medieval history, especially at KS3.
The close-up view of the work of historians has also underlined for me – though I was, I hope, already aware of it – just how much I don’t know about the Middle Ages. The depth and breadth of research being undertaken nowadays is phenomenal and the gap between what we cover in schools and the depth of research is growing ever wider ever very rapidly. I may appear quite knowledgeable compared with new teachers who did little or no medieval history at university but compared with research historians I’m only just putting my ‘L’ plates on. Reading recent monographs and journal articles I really do feel in awe of the knowledge historians possess.
The most enjoyable parts to write have been the stories that illustrate or introduce ideas and there’s another thousand stories I’d like to tell you. For example, I learned a great deal from Michael Jones’s excellent recent book on Edward, the Black Prince - about Crecy, Poitiers, the depth of religious belief possessed by Edward and his father Edward III, about his government of Aquitaine, but the image that stays in my mind is of Edward and his wife, Joan of Kent, ‘happily holding hands together, lost in a world of their own’.
Why does that image feel so important? As Shakespeare has Henry V say after the battle of Agincourt ‘We are but warriors for the working day’. Students deserve to understand that there is more to history than what people did in their working days, that the people we study were real individuals who both worked and played, loved as well as hated, did good as well as harm. By identifying similarities as well as differences students can hopefully build respect for the people of the past and the good that they did - and if students can respect people of a time as different from our own as the Middle Ages, then perhaps there is more chance of them respecting people from different cultures today rather than instinctively interpreting difference as being inferior or a threat.
That said, now that the whole thing has gone to print and I can’t change anything, I worry whether I have got the balances right – have I been too lyrical in identifying generosity, kindness and love and similarities between then and now and underplayed differences, ambition and hatred? In emphasising the study of people as individuals do I seem to undervalue the importance of the political and military when my argument is simply that they should not dominate as much as they do. Maybe, but there is a need for this counter-balance, given the frequent use of ’medieval’ as the ultimate insult.
And finally …
… there’s an old saying that if we don’t share our passions with our children then how can they learn to be passionate? That, at its simplest, is what this publication is about – the authors sharing their passion for the Middle Ages in all its facets.
I do hope we have succeeded in conveying that passion.