As part of the University of Manchester’s Widening Participation Programme, I was asked to put together a workshop covering some area of my research, pitching it for schoolchildren in years 8 or 9 (ages 12-14). Medieval literature may seem irrelevant to a modern society, but there are important challenges that we face today on global levels that have precedent in medieval society. Negotiating borders and boundaries; tensions inherent in religious beliefs and differences; the global economic and environmental challenges we face today: all of these were of concern to medieval people, who imagined the consequences of these challenges in ways which could appeal to an everyday, non-academic audience today.
As my research is on the medieval (I use this term loosely here!) plays of York, Chester, and the Towneley manuscript, one of my primary concerns was to gauge what, if anything, the term ‘medieval’ meant to these age groups. Secondly, I was aware that the students might not be familiar with the biblical narratives that the plays are based on, and interested to see whether the Christian context might, to some students, seem at best irrelevant or, even worse, offensive.
Thirdly, I had to decide which pieces to present – I really wanted them to engage with the original language of the plays, without dis-engaging them with an overload of unfamiliar words, sounds, and concepts. I think this is particularly important because these are regional texts written with a preferred audience in mind, and part of the humour which (perhaps surprisingly) runs through these plays depends upon local dialects. They promote regionalism as a mode of belonging just as much as any religious persuasion – a great item for discussion in the classes.
Finally, my aim was to encourage them to think about the trans-temporal nature of the texts – how they can form attachments to what might be considered ‘modern’ concerns such as climate change, the refugee crisis, the idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, etc.
Method: Getting Medieval
I began by giving each group post-it notes, and asked them to write whatever popped up into their heads when I asked what the word ‘medieval’ meant to them. The groups then stuck these on the wall, and we read through them together as we moved from group to group – the mobility of the students was important to me as it fostered both informality and an atmosphere of engagement which we could then build upon while reading the texts. I have done this workshop three times now, and on each occasion the majority of these initial thoughts from the students refer to the plague, dirt, rats, poverty, misery, etc., and general concepts of how utterly awful it must have been to live during this time, without actually questioning when that time was. No student made any positive points, and every student seemed to take the experience of a medieval ‘peasant’ as their standard – no mention of knights, princes, kings, and not one dragon reference!
We then moved onto drama, and I began with the opening of ‘The Killing of Abel’ from the Towneley Manuscript, showing them a power point slide with just these few lines:
All hayll, all hayll, both blithe and glad,
For here com I, a mery lad!
Be peasse youre dyn, my master bad,
Or els the dwill you spede.
Wote ye not I com before?
Bot who that ianglis any more,
He must blaw my blak hoill bore,
Both behynd and before,
Till his tethe blede.
The only explanation I gave was that this was the start of the play in which Cain kills his brother Abel, and that this speech was by Garcio, Cain’s servant. I asked for volunteers to read it out loud, and on each occasion the students were quite happy to oblige and they all stumbled on the same two words – ‘blithe’, and ‘ianglis’. After a brief clarification of these obstacles, I read the lines out myself, adding tempo, emphasis, gestures etc., and then we got stuck into a group discussion of features of the text which the students found interesting. I was amazed at the level with which they engaged, a few of which were:
- Alliteration: they picked up on the ‘b’ sound and remarked that it sounded ‘fierce’ and threatening.
- Content: one student noted that the ‘jolliness’ of the first two lines of the text contrasted sharply with the title and subsequent content of the play.
- Tempo: after my (deliberately over-the-top) delivery, the students noticed the change in tempo from the ‘bounciness’ of ‘For here com I, a mery lad!’, to the slow, ‘snarliness’ of ‘Till his tethe blede’.
After this we moved on to the perennial favourite which is the ‘Second Shepherd’s Play’, where much hilarity was caused by them actually being able to say the word ‘torde’ in a classroom environment. Again, I kept it brief, and gave them only the three lines spoken by the first shepherd where this word occurs. I also kept context very brief, and it didn’t really seem to be important to them – they did seem happy to engage with the words and sounds without demanding a fuller understanding of the entire play.
Next up was the Chester Noah play, but before I gave them the text, which consisted only of the exchange between Noah and his wife as she refuses to leave her companions behind, I gave them some images to look at and got them to think about the following questions:
- The first image is from a manuscript housed in the John Rylands library – look at all the fantastical beasts, and then see how the raven pecks at the eye of the corpse not among the chosen few on Noah’s ark. Were Noah and his family the first boat people, early refugees?
- There are twelve people in the image below, but only eight made it onto the ark – go figure! How do the texts respond to/replicate/question these contemporary images?
With these images in front of them, we looked at a short extract from the play and discussed the imaginative ways in which medieval people engaged with the biblical story of the flood, and then moved on to discuss how these could have impacted upon the real experiences of medieval people living with the very real threat of disastrous flooding. After a quick internet search, we found many other artistic impressions of the Noah’s Ark story, which then opened up our discussion to areas such as interfaith representations, the local and global interpretations of the flood narrative, and how a modern re-working of the medieval drama might connect successfully with some of these ideas.
Despite not having sufficient time to actually put together a piece of drama, the students did offer some imaginative suggestions about how they would re-work some elements of the play. Some suggestions were:
- Taking the perspective of the people/animals that were left behind.
- Staging the drama with background footage of recent news items showing the horrors of boat refugees today.
- Using a modern musical score (e.g. Rihanna’s song Umbrella and, of course, anything by Beyoncé!) to accompany the medieval text.
There were many more than this, showing the drama’s capacity to spark imagination and innovation, even when studied by absolute novices in Middle English. To close the workshop, I asked the students to re-visit the question I opened with – what does the word medieval mean to you? – to see whether, after our activities, their thoughts had changed. The consensus was that their original thoughts still held, but the workshop had made them consider that medieval people had a sense of humour, they thought creatively and imaginatively about received biblical narratives, and that they could show a compassion for humanity which we might learn from and engage with in ‘modern’ ways.
For those considering teaching early drama in the classroom I would recommend picking short extracts, especially for younger students, who seem open to engaging imaginatively with one theme at a time which they can clearly understand from a shorter piece of text. Getting them actively involved in the workshop, such as by using the post-it notes, keeps them motivated and attentive. For older age groups, perhaps potential undergraduates, I tend to extend the extracts and, once it is clear that they have understood the text, we work in groups to think about how some of the themes apparent blur the temporal divide between the medieval and the modern world. For these students, group discussion, with feedback to the class, works better than ‘activities’, and discussions of time-traveling texts and themes seems to pique their interest in early drama.
Not all of the students engaged as enthusiastically as others, but the important thing that I took away was that some did. And not a single student had any problem mixing the medieval with the modern, or worrying about when the medieval was – to them it was just a long time ‘ago’, and the majority certainly were prepared to give it a go.
 ‘Mactatio Abel’, in The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. by A. C. Cawley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), pp. 1-13, ll. 1-9.
 ‘Secunda Pastorum’, in The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. by A. C. Cawley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), pp. 43-63, ll. 214-16.
 ‘Noyes Fludd’, in The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. by R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Early English Text Society, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), i, pp. 42-56, ll. 192-204.
University of Manchester