Saturday, December 28, 2013

MEDIEVAL MYTHBUSTING: Were chamber pots present at Anglo-Saxon feasts?

Scene from 11th c. English calendar
Courtesy National Education Network, UK
Note no chamber pots on the floor.
A couple of weeks ago my husband asked me about some medieval trivia he’d found online while researching Anglo-Saxon feasts.  The essay he found claimed that amongst the Anglo-Saxons it was an insult to a lord to leave a feast early, and therefore chamber-pots were kept under the tables for the guests’ use.  My husband asked if I’d ever run across such a thing.

No, I replied, and I’ve read quite a few primary sources.  Did the essay have any references for this?

None at all, he said.  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  I can’t imagine a lord being ok with the idea of the guy sitting next to him using a chamber pot while the lord is eating. 

It didn’t make any sense to me, either, and so we both dismissed it as nonsense.  As I thought about it over the next few days, though, it bothered me that I couldn’t back up my belief that it was nonsense.  It isn’t much better to dismiss an idea offhand than it is to accept the idea offhand.  So I decided to check into the myth.

It seemed to me that the myth had two parts:  first, that a guest could not leave a feast early without offending the host, and second, the presence of chamber pots.  To investigate both parts, I re-read feast scenes from three Old English sources.  I read the account of Caedmon from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the beginning of the poem Judith, and the feast scenes from the epic Beowulf.

From Bede’s retelling of Caedmon (Book IV chapter XXIV) I learned that there was probably not any stigma attached to leaving a feast early.  Caedmon could neither sing nor play an instrument, so he routinely went home when the guests brought out the harp and started passing it around.  Caedmon had left one such feast on the night an angel appeared to him and granted him the ability to compose and perform hymns.  Had there existed a taboo against leaving a feast in progress, I think Caedmon would not have been able to take off early.
Banquet scene from the Bayeux tapestry
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Again, no chamber pots in the picture.

From the feast scene in Judith (sections IX and X) I learned little, unfortunately.  The only information I gathered was that the Anglo-Saxons consumed copious amounts of drink.   The poem described how Holofernes and his thanes drank until the men started to pass out.

Finally, Beowulf contained three feast scenes.  The first, found in lines 491-661, contained depictions of boasting and the queen acting as cupbearer.  The second, celebrating Grendel’s death (lines 990-1237), also contained a description of preparing for the feast by repairing the hall and hanging tapestries.  The victory celebration after Beowulf slew Grendel’s mother was found in lines 1785-1790.  In all three accounts, the feasting lasted just one evening, ending when King Hrothgar retired for bed.  No account referred to anyone leaving early or to the presence of chamber pots.

So where does this bring me?  Well, the fact that Caedmon habitually skipped out early disproves the first part of the myth, that lords were offended and insulted if anyone left before the feast officially ended.  The second question is harder to answer.  I found no mention of chamber pots, though it’s possible they were present in actual feasts, just not in the accounts I read.  Personally, though, I would assume that if nobody would question Caedmon going out to check on the cattle or go to bed, nobody would question someone going out to use the privy, either.

STATUS:  Busted.

Sources cited:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Playing with blocks to learn gothic art & archetecture

I love it when, while teaching, I don't need to tell the students the information because they figure it out themselves.  That is what happened last week during my third grade art history lesson.  The topic was Gothic architecture and I had given groups of students toy building sets (Tinkertoys, alphabet blocks, etc.)  I told each group to build a church as tall as they could without the walls falling over.  At first, a couple of the buildings collapsed.  Pretty quickly, however, the kids figured out ways to add height while strengthening the walls, and without any prompting from me I saw buildings constructed with nine-year-olds' block versions of pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and buttresses.  It was perfect.

Before we started playing with the blocks, the class discussed some historical context.  I introduced the high middle ages by explaining that the culture at this time was kind of like what people imagine when they think of fairy tales.  The students told me what they thought it would be like to live in a fairy tale, and I had some pictures from manuscripts and museums that illustrated a few of their ideas (e.g. they said, "princesses wore fancy dresses and hats" and I showed them a manuscript image of noblewomen).

Next, we discussed the Black Death.  I didn't go into much detail, because the point of the discussion wasn't to explain the illness itself, but to give one reason why religious imagery was so prevalent in Gothic art and architecture.  I used the Black Death as a tool to explore the emotions of medieval people during the Gothic period.  We thought about how the students would feel if they lost up to 30% of their loved ones in a short period of time, then proposed that medieval people may have felt similarly.  I pointed out that, during times of fear and sorrow, people sometimes turn to God as a way to deal with their emotions.

I realize that the plague was certainly not the only factor influencing the religious nature of high medieval culture and Gothic architecture.  I chose not to mention others due to time constraints.  I had only about an hour available:  simply not enough time to delve into the political environment or international relations of the age.  The most important part of the lesson was to let the children play with the building sets, so I wanted to get the lecture out of the way.

When playtime was over, we discussed the churches built by the students.

Me:  How did you build your church?
Group 1:  We made it with arches.
Me:  Good!  How might you change the shape of your arch to make your church taller?
(Group 1 wasn't sure)
Group 2:  They could make a pointy roof like we did!
Me:  That's exactly how the people 800 years ago made their churches taller.

Ambulatory of the Church of St.-Denis
Generally recognized as the earliest Gothic church built 1135-
From Wikimedia Commons

Me:  What made you (Group 2) decide to make a roof that pointed in middle, like an X?
Group 2:  At first we didn't, but then our building kept collapsing and we thought that if we could have some of the Tinkertoys going diagonally then the walls would be stronger.
Me:  And now your building stays up.  People in the high middle ages figured this out, too.  It's called ribbed vaulting.
A ribbed vault in Reims Cathedral, probably 13th cent.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Me:  What about the group that used the Lego blocks?  You built one really tall wall. How did you keep it from falling over?
Group 3:  We built a small wall on each side of the tall one to hold the tall one up.
Me:  Wow, you built buttresses!  Here's a picture of flying buttresses outside a cathedral.  Do you see how they're holding the other wall up?
Flying buttresses outside Notre Dame de Paris, 1160-1345
From Wikimedia Commons
Me:  Group 4 used alphabet blocks.  If you wanted to put big windows in your building, how would you do it?
(Group 4 didn't know)
Me:  People in the high middle ages didn't know how to do it, either.  They could only make small panes of glass.  Let me show you a picture of the solution they came up with.
Group 4:  Hey!  We could put a ton of little windows together to make one great big window!
Me:  That's exactly what medieval people did.
Windows of Toledo Cathedral, 13th cent.
From Wikimedia Commons
By the end of the lesson the students could look at pictures of Romanesque and Gothic style churches and name four characteristics of Gothic churches not present in the Romanesque style:  pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and tracery supported windows.  I was very impressed with the students.

Adapting for younger students.  A couple of days later I taught the same lesson to a class of first-graders. The first grade teacher gave me less time to teach; I needed to reduce my lesson accordingly.  Therefore, I skipped the discussion on the plague entirely, simply saying, "during this time there were a lot of churches," and the young kids accepted this information at face value.  I also altered the way I taught with the building sets.  Instead, I brought just one box of Tinkertoys to the classroom and called on individual students to help me build a church while the others watched.  I showed the students how the initial wobbly church we built became more stable as the children added pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and buttresses.  I then showed them the pictures.  I am much less satisfied with this technique, but fortunately the art history curriculum repeats itself every three years so I will hopefully be able to teach the better lesson to these children when they reach fourth grade.

Adapting for older students.  The sixth grade class I taught was able to handle deeper information.  I supplemented what I taught the third grade class with the story of Abbot Sugar introducing the Gothic style as he rebuilt the abbey church of Saint-Denis about 1140.  I also told the class about the construction, collapse, and rebuilding of Beauvais Cathedral as the 13th century architects pushed the boundaries of Gothic architecture to their limits.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

He seemed to kindle with fervor: A window into the Second Great Awakening via Washington Irving

I teach Relief Society.  It’s fun.  More fun than teaching Primary, anyway.  Grown-ups don’t test the limits by trying to jump out the window or build forts out of chairs during the lesson.

Teaching from the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series 1 led me to research a time period I knew almost nothing about:  the time period often called Jacksonian America (roughly 1815-1848).   The lesson manual contains only direct quotes from President Lorenzo Snow.  This is enough to tell me what President Snow thought about, for example, grace.  If I want to know why he believed what he thought about grace, or even why he was concerned about grace to begin with, it helps to understand what Americans in general thought about grace at the time President Snow lived.  I’ve come to a deeper understanding about my church’s theology as I have studied how it fits into the bigger picture of American Christianity.
Lithograph by H. Bridport, ca. 1830
From Wikimedia Commons
Note the women overcome by the Spirit upon conversion

Which brings me to America's Second Great Awakening.    The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited establishment of religion, but this applied only to the federal, not the state governments.  In the early 1800s, many states disestablished churches, resulting in more of an open marketplace of religious ideas.  People began comparing churches, looking for one they believed taught true Christian doctrine.   This increase in religious fervor is called the Second Great Awakening. 

 One thing I find really interesting about the Second Great Awakening was the expected conversion experience.  Churches at this time typically proselyted to religious seekers using revivals.  People attended revival meetings hoping to have a conversion experience, in which they would be called by Jesus Christ and saved by his grace.  Rather than looking for a church that answered specific theological questions or a church that makes them feel welcome, as many who look for truth do today, 2 seekers then were looking for a sudden, overwhelming supernatural manifestation of God’s love and forgiveness.  And they expected to get it.
Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside
1864 Painting by Cristian Schussele (from Wikimedia Commons)
Irving is seated, center, facing the viewer

As I learned more about Jacksonian America, I wanted to get a feel for what the Americans who lived then were concerned about.   I decided to read some of the things they read.  In the middle of a collection of short stories written by Washington Irving (originally published between 1819 and 1855), I ran across a description of a character’s conversion experience.  I enjoyed it so much I thought I would share it:

The carnival passed away; the time of Lent succeeded; passion-week arrived; we attended one evening a solemn service in one of the churches, in the course of which a grand piece of vocal and instrumental music was performed relating to the death of our Saviour.
I had remarked that he was always powerfully affected by music; on this occasion he was so in an extraordinary degree.  As the pealing notes swelled through the lofty aisles, he seemed to kindle with fervor; his eyes rolled upwards, until nothing but the whites were visible; his hands were clasped together, until the fingers were deeply imprinted in the flesh.  When the music expressed the dying agony, his face gradually sank upon his knees; and at the touching words resounding through the church, “Jesu mori,” sobs burst from him uncontrolled—I had never seen him weep before.  His had always been agony rather than sorrow.  I augered well from the circumstance, and let him weep on uninterrupted.  When the service was ended we left the church.  He hung on my arm as we walked homewards with something of a softer and more subdued manner, instead of that nervous agitation I had been accustomed to witness.  He alluded to the service we had heard.  “Music,” said he, “is indeed the voice of heaven; never before have I felt more impressed by the story of the atonement of our Saviour.—Yes, my friend,” said he, clasping his hands with a kind of transport, “I know that my Redeemer liveth!”
From Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger
Published 1824, in Tales of a Traveler

1. Ebooks of the series can be found here (scroll down).
2. See CNN opinion piece here

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Teaching elementary students about early medieval art

A week after introducing elementary school students to the early middle ages I returned to the school to lead the students in an art project inspired by the time period.  The curriculum recommended teaching the students to make a mosaic inspired by those found in Byzantium.   I disliked the idea for two reasons:  first, I thought that supervising 30 kids with cement was, frankly, frightening; and second, there was once again a mismatch between the era covered during the history portion of the unit and the era covered during the art portion of the unit (this entry covers more detail on this, and also gives two possible reasons for the shortcomings in elementary level art-history curriculums).  The history portion of the Dark Ages unit had emphasized the history of England during the Anglo-Saxon period (see herehere for my lesson plan), but mosaics were unknown anywhere in either northern or western Europe during this time period.  Mosaics existed in Byzantium at this time, but the cultures of Germanic Europe and the Byzantine Empire were completely different.  When planning the lesson, I needed to either ignore the discrepancy or to choose which lesson to throw out and rewrite. 

An example of Anglo-Saxon cloisonne
Hilt fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Resolving these two issues ended up being easier than I had feared.  While looking at pictures of early medieval Germanic art I realized that the Anglo-Saxon cloisonné actually looked quite a bit like mosaic, set in gold rather than cement.  I also found the website of an artist who routinely teaches mosaic-making in classrooms, and she mentioned that aquarium gravel will stick to heavy paper with mod podge.  These discoveries gave me the basis of a plan.  I ditched the mosaic patterns based on Byzantine art, substituting my own (very basic) pattern of a Germanic brooch.  Then, instead of mixing cement or plaster of paris for the kids to use with their colored aquarium gravel, I supplied the kids with enough mod podge to decorate their brooches however they wanted. 

What went well.  The older students (fifth graders), particularly, appreciated the creativity of being able to decorate the brooches however they wanted.  The aquarium gravel did stick to the construction paper just fine as long as the students applied the mod podge liberally, and since I also had them glue the construction paper to a paper plate, the finished art project was not so heavy as to bend the paper (cardstock or cardboard would be a good alternative).

What didn’t go so well.  The younger students (second graders) did an easier version of the project, using scraps of paper and school glue instead of gravel and mod podge.  Even so, they needed more structure than I initially gave them.  Next time I will give them a more detailed pattern that they will simply fill in rather than expecting them to choose how to decorate the brooches themselves.  I will also bring fewer examples and fewer paper colors, because the younger students found the number of choices overwhelming.  Finally, following the curriculum, I taught the students about the color wheel and high- and low-contrast colors.  Both sets of students grasped the concept quickly, but neither group understood how to apply their new knowledge to the art project they made, even with my examples.  I’m not sure how to fix this problem short of giving the kids the specific instruction, “use high-contrast colors in your project.”  I don’t like this approach, though, because while the kids would make better art, they still won’t have learned why their art was better.

Final thoughts.  After the fun of teaching the history portion, teaching this portion was much more humbling.  I should have been more prepared for the second grade class, and anticipated their need for structure.  First graders (six- and seven-year-olds), I have learned, are very creative and need almost no structure at all.  I’ve also noticed that about the time a child turns eight, they become very aware of rules and are afraid to break them, so a third-grade class needs a lot of structure.  A Second-grade class is difficult to teach because some of the students have made the transition to an eight-year-old mindset, but the younger students still want the freedom of a first grader.  Since I taught this lesson in May, however, I should have realized that nearly all the class would want rules and I should have planned my lesson accordingly.  I will remember this the next time I teach this age group.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Teaching elementary school students about early Medieval culture

Lady Grammatica teaches Latin on a 10th c. Carolingian manuscript
Image Source:  wikimedia commons
 During April 2013 I taught art history to fifth- and second-grade classrooms.  The unit was the Dark Ages.  What follows is the lesson plan I created and used to teach the history/culture of the time period.  A later post will contain the lesson plan I created and used to teach the art of the time period.

Teacher:  I ask you all, why are you so eager to learn?
Students:  Because we would not be foolish, as cattle, knowing nothing but grass and water.
Teacher:  And what would you be instead?
Students:  We would be wise.
Taken from OE version of Aelfric’s Colloquy; translation mine.

Objective:  To introduce elementary school students to the culture of Early Medieval Europe, specifically that of Anglo-Saxon England.

Preparation:  Before class begins, divide the class into 3 groups by placing one of 3 colored sticky notes underneath each desk/chair. 

Attention activity:  Introduce the time period with a quiz.  For the younger grades, use this worksheet from BBC Primary History.  For the older grades, use a true/false/trick question quiz:
1.       During the middle ages, people ate rotten meat because they had no refrigeration.  They heavily spiced their food to hide the rotten flavor.  (False)
2.       During the middle ages, both boys and girls could learn to read and write. (True)
3.       During the early middle ages, houses did not have fireplaces or chimneys.  Instead, they had a hearth in the middle of the room and a hole in the roof for smoke to escape.   (True)
4.       Before Columbus, Europeans believed the world was flat and if a ship sailed too far it would fall off the edge.  (False)
5.       The Roman Empire fell ca. 500 AD.  (Trick question:  Only the Western half of the Roman Empire fell then.  The Eastern Roman Empire continued intact until the fall of Constantinople in 1453)

Discussion:  Northern Europe experienced a power vacuum with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  Ask: if the government of your hometown was suddenly gone, and you could set up any kind of society you wanted, how would you do it?  Introduce King Aelfred.  He described the Anglo-Saxon society as made up of 3 groups:  Those who fight, those who pray, and those who work.  Tell the students to find their sticky note to learn which group they are in today.
My second grader as aetheling.

Those who fight.  Ask one group of kids to stand up.  They represent the thanes, or the nobility.  When the king dies, the thanes elected a new king.  Pick one student from the group to be the tribe’s king (the “thanes” in the older grades can do this themselves).  Give the “king” the mail shirt.  The job of the king was to protect the people.  The thanes gave fealty to the king, which meant they promised to fight for him and, if he were killed in battle, they promised that they would die alongside their king.  In exchange, the king gave the thanes land, food, and arm rings. 

My fifth grade daughter posing as abbess.
Those who pray.  Tell the students in this group that they belong to a double monastery (this means both men and women lived there), and Anglo-Saxon double monasteries were always ruled by an abbess, elected by the monks and nuns.  Choose a girl to be the abbess (again, the older kids can do this themselves).  Dress the “abbess” in a cloak and hood.  Explain to the students in this group that their job is to pray, sing hymns, and perform masses on behalf of their tribe.  This way, the tribe will be in God’s favor.

Teacher:  Wise man, which craft among these seems to be the greatest?
Wise man:  It seems to me God’s service is sovereign of these crafts, just as one reads in the Gospel,  “First seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Teacher:  Which seems to you sovereign of the worldly crafts?
Wise man:  Farming, for the plowman feeds us all.
Taken from the OE version of Aelfric’s Colloquy; translation mine.

Those who work.  Tell the third group of students that they represent everybody else.  Some are slaves, some freemen.    Choose one of the students to wear a peplos style overdress.  Use Aelfric’s colloquy to introduce Anglo-Saxon occupations. 
My fifth grader, again, this time modeling an overdress.

Aelfric’s Colloquy.  Aelfric was a monk who taught Latin classes about the year 1000.  He wrote his Colloquy in Latin to help his students practice, and also wrote a vernacular (Old English) translation.  The Colloquy presents life in an Anglo-Saxon village at Aelfric’s time.  The various parts of the Colloquy, presumably assigned to various students in his class, represent villagers who perform occupations that Aelfric’s students would have been familiar with.  A modern English translation of the Latin version can be found here.  

(An aside:  As written, the entire Colloquy takes about 30 minutes to read, far too long for most elementary age kids’ attention spans, so I recommend abridging it.  I cut more out of the version I read to the second graders, and I also reworded some of the passages.  For the fifth graders, I cut out only the redundant passages, and assigned parts like Aelfric probably did, so the fifth graders presented a readers’ theater with me reading the teacher’s parts.  During the presentation in both classes I showed pictures from an Anglo-Saxon calendar illustrating many of the occupations.  The pictures helped keep smaller attention spans from wandering too much. The calendar is in the collections of the British Library, and images can be viewed at the National Education Network,  Search for "Anglo-Saxon labours of the month." )

What I learned/what I would do differently:  I meant the quiz at the beginning of the lesson to be merely an introduction to the subject as well as a fun activity to catch the kids’ attention.  It ended  up being essential to my teaching, because I used it to gauge how much the students already knew about the time period.  Answer:  practically nothing, and what they thought they knew was wrong.  This showed me quickly that I could assume no prior knowledge and had to keep the entire presentation basic. 

I was surprised at how well the costumes worked as a teaching tool.  Even the older kids enjoyed dressing up, and the students who didn't get to dress up still wanted to check out the costumes. 

Next time I will change the way I teach the Colloquy to the younger students.  The fifth graders had a good time with the readers’ theater, but the eight-year-olds do not yet have the reading skills necessary for that, so I presented the entire Colloquy myself. Even heavily abridged, it was too much lecture.  I need to find a way to include more participation.  Perhaps I will just show the pictures from the calendar and ask questions about them:  What do you think this person is doing?  What could the farmer  be growing?  What other animals might the hunter want to catch?  Etc. 

Final thoughts.  I really enjoy this time period.  Vikings, knights, Beowulf—what’s not to enjoy?  For me, the most difficult part of preparing the lesson was narrowing down what I wanted to teach.  Six hundred years is tough to cram into sixty minutes, let alone six hundred years covering the withdrawal of Rome to the Germanic tribes’ invasions to the birth of England to the Norman Conquest, as well as the changes in national and religious identity that accompanied the political changes.  Complicating this is the fact that the modern view of the middle ages, a la Dungeons and Dragons, is fun but anachronistic.  I finally decided that the kids weren’t going to remember much of the history I taught them anyway, and so I concentrated on the culture.  I’m rather pleased with the way it turned out.  I got the students to think about different ways of setting up governments.  The older students even discussed, on their own, the ethics of a king expecting thanes to die for him.  And eight-year-olds in too-big chain mail shirts are dang cute.  

Update (6/5/13):  A week after this lesson I taught the classes again, leading the students in an art project inspired by early medieval art (see here for more information).  I was afraid that the second graders would finish early, so I had an additional activity for them to do before we began the art project.
This is what we did:  I set on the floor enough sheets of construction paper for each child to be able to turn one over.  About half of the papers had a picture of an Anglo-Saxon artifact paper-clipped to the back of the construction paper; the others had a blank white sheet paper-clipped to the back.  I showed the students an Indiana Jones hat and told the students that they were archaeologists and they were going to dig for objects by turning over pieces of construction paper.  One at a time, the students came to the front of the room,  put on the hat, and chose a place to “dig” by turning over a piece of paper.  If they found an artifact, the class guessed what the object might be.  The kids really got into it.  They called each other “Indiana (name)” and whenever a piece of paper was blank underneath they exclaimed, “Oh, no, you found a booby trap!” instead of being disappointed.
As it turned out, the students didn’t have enough time to finish their art, so next time I won’t add the activity to the second week.  However, the students had such a good time, and since the Colloquy didn’t work well for the younger kids, I think I would substitute this for reading the Colloquy in the younger classes.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why my kids' art history curriculum is so poor: Maybe I was wrong

I'm teaching early medieval art this month.
Here's a famous example from the Book of Kells.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

As I've mentioned here before, I love teaching the art history classes at my kids' elementary school.  I enjoy learning about periods of time I know nothing about; I like to notice connections between art movements and the time period when the art was made; and it flatters my ego because the kids are always happy to see me teach (Art through the ages is today!  What are we going to do?).  The downside to teaching is the curriculum.  I hate, hate, HATE it.  The history is poorly researched:  facts are frequently wrong, and the examples of art I am given to show the kids often don't match the time period of the history being covered.  I've been assuming that the problem lies with the author, that she really wasn't qualified to write an art history curriculum, or perhaps with the PTA, which didn't know enough about art history to choose a decent text.  I read a couple of essays this week, though, which suggest that my assumptions may be incorrect.

Before I explain, let me give some background.  My university degrees are not in history; they are in political science (BA) and public administration (MPA). All of the history I have learned I picked up while learning about political science (let's face it, one can't learn about government without also learning about the history of that government) or from research that I've done on my own.  Research is where I have a bit of an edge over other amateur historians:  the emphasis I chose to study while obtaining my MPA was research analysis, and I've worked as a research assistant.  What this means is that I can read nonfiction, such as an art history curriculum, and notice where the information doesn't seem quite right, and I know how to quickly do the research to figure out if the information is correct or not.  Then, if it isn't, (and it usually isn't correct if it caught my attention) I can quickly find out what the author should have written instead.  I'm good enough at this that I'm beginning to irritate the other art history volunteers who hadn't noticed that the curriculum was poorly written.

Back to the essays.  They were written by two people who, like me, teach art history in elementary schools, rotating to different classrooms.  Unlike me, I think they are paid by their school districts and, also unlike me, they have university degrees in history and art history.  From these two essays, I learned that elementary school curriculums used to teach art history are notoriously badly written.  There were two reasons given for this:  first, bad source material, and second, teacher bias against history.

Bad source material.  There are two parts to most elementary school art history programs:  the history half, and the art project half.  In my school, I teach each unit once during the month, but the unit is broken up across two days, so I teach the history the first day and  I lead the students in the art project on the second day.  According to the essays I read, the information given in the history portion of the elementary school curriculums is generally inadequate.  It makes sense, then, that the curriculum I've been given would also be inadequate--after all, elementary school textbooks are usually not written from primary source material, but  by rewriting or updating previously written schoolbooks.  I had assumed that the author of my curriculum was foolish, at best, because she couldn't find accurate information.  It may be, however, that she was given bad source material to begin with.

Teacher bias against history. I have never encountered this myself, but according to the essays' authors, some elementary school teachers do not like art history taught in their classrooms.  Learning history requires students are faced with tough topics like war, religion, slavery, etc.  Some teachers feel that these topics ought not to be discussed in a classroom of elementary age students.  These teachers have a particular distrust of certain time periods with a bad reputation, such as the middle ages (crusades, inquisition) , antebellum America (slavery, racism), and the age of imperialism (colonialism).  Sure enough, in the curriculum I was given to work with, these units are more watered-down and inaccurate than other units.  Again, author ignorance may not be as large a factor as I had assumed.

This begs the question, however, what is the frustrated art history teacher to do?  If the essays I read are any indication, most art history teachers do what I have been doing:  reading the curriculum, keeping what is accurate while throwing out the rest, and writing their own lesson plans.  Check out the entry I wrote about teaching the Q'in Dynasty, and notice that I did my own research instead of depending on the curriculum.  Similarly, this month I'm teaching the unit on the Early Middle Ages, and find that I am rewriting most of the lessons.  OK, all of the lessons, as Byzantine mosaics have NOTHING TO DO with early medieval insular art.  (honestly, even wikipedia knows this.)  I think I will also start posting more of my lesson plans on this blog, for the benefit of others who may be frustrated by the art history lesson plans they were given.  Meantime, I guess I will stop accusing the author of my curriculum of ignorance, and stop blaming my PTA for not realizing they were buying a stupid book.  Still, I wish I could sell them an art history book I wrote myself.  I'd write an accurate one.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Antebellum Protestantism and the Medieval: Church History Symposium

So what does religion in antebellum America have to do with the middle ages?
Juxtaposition of the 1800s and the Medieval:
William Morris' 1858 painting of Guinevere
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 I went to the 2013 Church History Symposium sponsored by BYU and the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 7-8.  Although the focus of the symposium was not a time period I was particularly interested in, I had the idea that perhaps spending time listening to historians whose specialty was early Mormon history would give me a better overall view of Christian history.  I figured the conference would give me a sort of wide lens through which I could later view the shorter time period called the middle ages.  I did not expect to learn anything particularly medieval, though.

I was wrong.  Turns out that because Christianity is not static, but has evolved throughout its roughly two-thousand year history, one cannot study what Christianity was at any one moment but must study what Christianity had been and was becoming at that moment.  So I did pick up some insights into medieval Christianity after all.

The classical model of education, based on the liberal arts, lasted well beyond the middle ages.  The keynote address, The Academic Study of Antiquity in Antebellum America, was given by Richard L. Bushman of Columbia University.  Unfortunately, the auditorium provided was about half the size needed; it was standing room only, and I couldn't take notes while standing in the doorway.  Mainly I remember that he said antebellum America was fascinated by antiquity, that education in this time period was still based on the classical liberal education model, and that Napoleon's journey to Egypt followed by Champollion's deciphering of the Rosetta Stone led to a craze of all things Egyptian.

 I thought it was interesting that the model of education based on the trivium and quadrivium lasted into the 19th century.The main difference between the classical education received by a nineteenth-century American scholar and a medieval or early modern scholar was, if I remember Bushman correctly, one of language:  American scholars, being in general Protestant, rejected learning Latin in favor of learning Greek.  This served two purposes:  first, it was a symbolic break with Catholicism, and second, it gave the American scholar the ability to better understand the Septuagint.

Evolution of the masonic order from a medieval guild into a gentlemen's fraternity. The next session at the conference thinned out enough that I was able to find a place to sit on the floor and take notes.  It was a panel with speakers Richard E. Bennett, Michael Hubbard MacKay, and Steven C. Harper. Harper's paper, Joseph Smith's Relationships to Hermeticism and Masonry, discussed the history of hermeticism and of the Masonic Order.  The Corpus Hermeticum, a compilation of ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophical (Neo-Platonic) and alchemical texts, was published by the Medici's in 1471.  The idea of a prisca theologica (see below) was popular at the time, and linked Hermeticism to Christianity.  The Masonic Order dates back to 1390, beginning as a guild, and evolving into a gentlemen's fraternity during the 1600s.  1737 was the first record of the genesis story of masonry:  i.e. that the order originated from Solomon and Hyrum of Tyre.  (The cynical side of me had wondered about the timeline here, and now I know).  The remainder of Dr. Harper's presentation was a rebuttal to a thesis presented by John Brooke in his book, Refiner's Fire.   I haven't read the book so I can't comment on the success/failure of Harper's rebuttal.

I was not able to attend the afternoon sessions for either day, so now I will skip to Friday morning. The second day commenced in Salt Lake City instead of BYU campus, and was in a much larger auditorium, to everyone's relief.  Nicholas J. Frederick opened with Joseph Smith and the Gospel of John

Time may only flow one way, but temporalities are not so limited. This paper did not teach me anything exclusively medieval, but it helped me to understand what medieval historians mean when they discuss temporality (here's an example of distemporality from the Medievalist blog In the Middle). Temporality, as historians use the term, refers (I think) to how our understanding of the past influences our understanding of the present, and how our existence in the present affects our understanding of the past.  Frederick's paper discussed intertemporality between the writings of Joseph Smith and the writings of St. John.  He explained that Joseph Smith's familiarity with the writings of St. John influenced Smith's language in the Doctrine and Covenants, and conversely the language of the Doctrine and Covenants influenced Joseph Smith's translations of the New Testament, especially the books written by St. John.  As I listened to this paper, something in my brain clicked, and I think I will be able to get more out of medievalists' blogs when the subject of temporality comes up.  I'm quite proud of myself for figuring this out.

Priesthood hierarchy was more important to the institutional medieval Church than to the Protestant congregations.  Next up was Justin R. Bray, discussing the role of the Seventy disciples in Christian thought. According to Bray, the church fathers (to ca. 750) wrote a lot about the Seventies, to the point of speculating on who they were.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, most theologians had dismissed them as a temporary band of disciples, unique to the ministry of Christ, and not part of the organization of the Christian church after Christ's death.  The idea of the Seventy disciples continued to evolve, however, so in 1835 Dr. John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopalian bishop, could argue that the seventies were a type of missionary, similar to the traveling bishops in American Protestantism.

Protestant congregations adapted the medieval Prisca Theology to explain how the Catholic church had fallen from pure Christianity.  After the break the symposium continued with papers given by Samuel Brown and Matthew B. Bowman.  Professor Brown discussed the Prisca Theology.  The prisca theology deals with the idea of lost past truths and ancient secrets:  the idea is that Old Testament patriarchs had the whole truth, which was gradually lost.    Clement of Alexandria, for example, taught that the pagan Greek philosophers held beliefs similar to Christians because these pagans had been taught by the Jews.  During the middle ages through to the early modern period, European Christians thought that other non-Christian cultures retained "fragments" or "distorted memories" of the original truth (quotes taken from Brown's slides).  The prisca theology remained popular into the nineteenth century.  Dr. Bowman discussed nineteenth century biblical commentaries, with particular emphasis on how much early Mormons sounded like Protestants:  how much anti-Catholic sentiment was expressed in the tracts of the various sects?  Attempts to reconcile a tension between institutional Christianity and personal spirituality led some commentaries to look for the moment when the Catholic church had fallen away from the truths held by the original Christian church:  the Council of Nicaea and the creation of monasticism were mentioned.

Medieval to Antebellum to me.  Now that I've covered what religion in antebellum America has to do with the middle ages, what does religion in antebellum America have to do with me, today?  Dr. Bushman, in his response to Thursday morning's session, asked, How does God communicate with us, mortals?  God must use the language and culture of mortality.  His statement has really stuck with me.  He was talking about Harper's paper, but I think the meaning of his statement is wider than that.  I think that what he said means that the divine and the human are intertwined.  It means that humans are not only social animals or political animals but are also ethical animals.  There's a reason that the news right now contains stories about defining families and civil rights, about working toward peace through international diplomacy, about fighting glass ceilings, and so on. Examining questions of morality is part of what makes us human.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to elect a medieval Pope

Pope Francis at his first public appearance after the conclave
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis to be the 266th Bishop of Rome.  He was elected by secret ballot, each ballot containing the name of one candidate for whom the elector voted, and was elected by at least a two-thirds majority.  The process of papal election has changed repeatedly since Jesus appointed Saint Peter; the most recent change (removing the allowance for a simple majority win if 15 ballots fail to elect a pope) being made by Pope Benedict.  During the Middle Ages papal elections followed systems of unanimous vote, secular arbitration, weighted voting, or approval ballots.

The first thing to understand in a discussion of any medieval election is the difference between the modern concept of elections and the medieval idea of the process.  The election process today is to determine the will of the people.  Medieval elections, ideally, determined the will of God.  This was particularly true for ecclesiastical elections, such as elections for bishops, abbots/abbesses, and popes.  Early Christian philosophers taught, Vox Populi, vox Dei, or, "The will of the people is the will of God."  In practice, this meant that the people of the Roman Province nominated papal candidates, and then the bishops and archbishop of Rome picked the winner by unanimous vote. Similarly, the medieval policy of Sanior et maior pare,  meaning " the older and wiser part," created a system of weighted voting meant to bring election results in line with Divine will.  Basically, priority was given to cardinals with more seniority or who held higher priesthood office.  The thinking was that these older and wiser men were closer to God and more able to know God's will.

 Early medieval dependence on unanimity in papal elections often resulted in schism when a consensus could not be reached.  A schism was generally resolved by Imperial arbitration, meaning the winner was the papal candidate backed by the political authority.

Pope Symmachus
fresco at the Basillica of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, Rome
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons 
In 498/9, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Pope Symmachus decreed that if unanimity could not be reached, and if the previous pope had not nominated a successor, then the next pope could be elected by a simple majority. This did not solve the problem of undecided elections, however, and the emperor continued to choose the winner in these cases.  As time progressed, imperial power waned as the power of the cardinals grew, so that by 1059 the laity was officially excluded from the papal elections, and the Cardinals, not the emperor, were the final authority in choosing the pope.  In 1122 at the Concordat of Worms Emperor Henry III formally renounced his role as arbiter in papal elections.  From here forward, secular rulers would have to influence the elections only indirectly, by influencing groups of cardinals.

Pope Alexander III, center
14th c. manuscript
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Pope Alexander III's Licet de evitanda established the rule of two-thirds majority, and changed the way votes were counted to give all cardinals' votes equal weight.  This rule, established at the Third Lateran Council in 1179, successfully ended the need to defer to secular authority to choose the pope.  Later, Pope Pius wrote concerning the two-thirds rule, "What is done by two-thirds of the sacred college, that is surely of the Holy Ghost, which may not be resisted."

19th c. portrait of Pope Gregory X
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
While not as difficult as finding consensus, a two-thirds majority still sometimes took a long time to reach.  Pope Gregory X, at the Council of Lyon in 1274, addressed this problem by introducing the idea of a "conclave."  The first Pope elected by conclave was Innocent V in 1276.  After a temporary suspension, during which papal elections again took a long time to resolve, Pope Celestine V reinstated the procedure.

From 1305-1352 Cardinal-Deacon Jacobus Gaytanus attended five conclaves.  He then wrote Ordinarium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, containing suggestions for elections based on his experiences from the conclaves.  According to Gaytanus, the College of Cardinals used a system of voting similar to modern approval ballots.  That is, there was no limit to either the number of candidates a cardinal could nominate or a limit to the number candidates a cardinal could vote for.  Combining approval ballots with a two-thirds rule (as opposed to a simple majority) meant members of the College usually had to participate in several rounds of voting.  Beginning in 1455, multiple-round candidates needed at least one vote in the previous round of voting to continue to the next round.  This is called "access voting."  Access voting and approval ballots continued to be the way the College elected the pope until 1621, when the Church changed the procedure to categorical voting.

From Imperial appointment to approval ballots, the system of electing a pope underwent several changes during the thousand-year span of the Middle Ages.  The medieval Church was looking for a system that would ensure that the pope was the man God wanted for the job.  Modern Catholics tend to view a papal election in terms of who the cardinals thought would be best for the job.  I wonder which, or both, views the members of the College kept in mind as they cast their ballots for Pope Francis.


  • Uckelmen, Joel and Uckelman, Sara L. Strategy and manipulation in medieval elections. Paper given at the COMSOC seminar, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 28 Oct 2010. University of Amsterdam.(found here)
  • Colomer, Josep M. and McLean, Iain. Electing popes: Approval balloting and qualified-majority rule. Journal of interdisciplinary history, xxix:i (summer, 1998), 1-22. (found here)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Qin Dynasty: My introduction to the history of Asia

Our elementary school's PTA sponsors an art history program.  Parent volunteers come into their kids' classrooms about once a month to teach the units.  This is one of my favorite things to do.  I get to learn something new, and then share what I've learned (which, come to think about it, is a lot like this blog).

This month was my turn to teach. I taught 5th and the 2d graders about the Qin Dynasty of China.  I felt  intimidated because I knew practically nothing about Asian history. I spent about a week beforehand cramming like a college student before final exams, learning everything I could.  This is what I discovered:

Emperor Qin Shi Huang
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Me:  What do you know about China?
2d grader:  They used to have a ruler.
Me:  Yes, do you know what the ruler of China was called?
2d  grader in the back:  PHIL!

Qin (pronounced "chin") was one of several states that fought during the Chinese "warring states period" (ca. 475 BCE-221 BCE).  When the fighting was over, Qin had won, taking over the other warring states.  This was the beginning of what would eventually become the modern Chinese State.  In fact, the western name for the country, "China," probably comes from the name "Qin."

5th grader (musing):  Hey . . . Qin . . . Quin-ah . . . China.

The ruler of Qin State, Qin Shi Huang, declared himself the first emperor of China.  He had the task of uniting the various Chinese states into one Chinese Empire.  He accomplished this by dismantling the smaller walls between the states and replacing them with one Great Wall; by altering the promotion systems in the army and the bureaucracy from one based on noble status to one based on merit; and by uniting the various systems of writing, measurement, and money into one empire-wide system.

Our country is made up of lots of states, too.  Why is it that we all see ourselves as Americans instead of citizens of Utah, Wisconsin, South Carolina, etc.?
5th grader:  Well, we don't fight wars with people of other states.
Me:  Why not, do you think?
5th grade consensus:  Because we all work together to do things and we all have the same enemies.  

Emperor Qin's reforms made a lot of people happy, but they also made a lot of enemies.  The old aristocracy was not pleased that bureaucratic and military promotions were now based on merit.  He also angered a lot of people through his book-burning program:  Emperor Qin did not approve of the teachings of  Confucius.  After 3 assassination attempts, Emperor Qin grew paranoid.  He hired alchemists to search for the philosopher's stone and create an elixir of life.  He did escape assassination, however, eventually dying of old age.
Several of Emperor Qin's terracotta warriors on display in the Xian Terracotta Warriors Museum.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Disappointed 5th grader:  What, nobody successfully killed him?

Emperor Qin had built himself an elaborate tomb just in case he didn't make it to immortality.  He was buried under a man-made hill, inside a necropolis which supposedly contains palaces, towers, rivers of mercury, and replicas of constellations.  Chinese archaeologists have found the burial site, but have not excavated due to concerns about preservation of the relics.  Tantalizingly, the earth making up the burial site does contain higher levels of mercury than the surrounding earth, suggesting the tomb's description may be based on truth.  Archaeologists have dug trenches in the area around the tomb, finding an estimated 8,000 terracotta warriors guarding the entrance.  The warriors are life-size and individual--they have different faces and hairstyles, and different uniforms based on the warrior's rank.  Originally, they held bronze weapons.  Some had terracotta horses, others chariots.

2d grader: That is kind of like the elaborate tombs in Egypt!  I know a lot about Egypt and a lot about China because my dad and I watch the history channel.

Links I found helpful:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This website has a timeline of art history which includes a discussion of the Qin Dynasty.
  • The Asian Art Museum (San Francisco).  The museum's website is targeted toward teachers.  Visitors can download information packets containing lesson materials.  I used the packets with information about ancient China.
  • Asia for Educators (Columbia University).  The week after teaching about the history of the time period, volunteers return to the classroom to lead the students in an art project.  I used this website as the basis for the 2d week's introduction of Chinese calligraphy in the 5th grade class (it was too complicated for the 2d graders).
  •  This website, intended for students of Mandarin Chinese at schools and universities in the United States, has animated stroke orders for 7,000 Chinese characters.  

Finally, Japanese mahjong.  There is an episode of Star Trek:  The Original Series in which Kirk teaches a gambling game (Fizzbin) to mobsters in order to distract them.  He makes up the rules on the fly, and they are enormously complicated.  This game reminds me of Fizzbin.  The flash game is the Japanese variant of the four-player game, and I still can't remember all the hands or understand the point system, but I've had a lot of fun trying to figure it out.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thoughts on national identity

Last week Katy Meyers over at Bones Don't Lie posted an entry I found thought-provoking.  It was excellent.  Go read it.  In her article she discussed the difficulties involved in identifying the ethnicity of an excavated skeleton. Archaeologists can examine ethnicity by studying cranial features, isotope ratios, and grave goods.  However, these are all imprecise.  Katy concluded by writing, "Perhaps the more important question isn't trying to identify barbarian groups, but rather to look at the integral change in cemeteries and how individuals expressed identity on a more local scale."
An English child celebrates St. George's Day 2010.
From Wikimedia Commons.

Katy's post interested me because I have been thinking lately about something similar.  I have been wondering about how individual early medieval people formed their national identities.  I originally got to thinking about national identity while watching the Olympic Games in London.  What makes an athlete or a spectator identify themselves as, for example, British?  I then started thinking about people who lived in England during the medieval period.  When did these people start seeing themselves as primarily English instead of as primarily members of their Germanic or Celtic tribe, and why did this happen?  Further, when medieval people established a consistent national identity from Scotland to Wales and Cornwall, why did they see themselves as "English" instead of "Saxon" or "Mercian" or even "Viking?"

The Olympics were several months ago, and I haven't yet found an answer to these questions that I find satisfying.  I begin to suspect that my lack of good answers is partially because there aren't any good answers to be had.  This may be one of those instances where our modern ways of thinking are sufficiently different from how people thought 1000 years ago; that we're not going to be able to understand exactly what was going through their minds unless we can borrow the TARDIS and ask them.

That said, I have found a couple of hints.

I've learned that the Anglo-Saxon legal system sometimes favored people of an English nationality.  For example, Ine's law established a higher weregild and lower burden of proof for Anglo-Saxons then for Britons (see Ward-Perkins).  People who lived under a tiered legal system that favored the English would have had an incentive to label themselves as English.

I've also come to the conclusion that religion played a role.  An obvious difference between the English and the Norse was their different religions.  There must have been something about Christianity that medieval people found compelling:  the pagan Vikings converted to Christianity within one or two generations of settling in Northumbria (see citation).  If Northumbrians saw the term "English" as being synonymous with "Christian" than calling themselves English would have followed conversion.

A person's national identity is influenced by a number of things.  This is true today, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it is equally difficult to understand the national identity of medieval people.  I will continue to learn about and think about this, but I will probably stop looking for an easy, direct answer.

Works cited:
Ward-Perkins, Bryan.  Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British?  English Historical Review (Oxford University Press), June 2000.