The Magister's Tale: Encouraging Students to Consider Their Place in the World

Spring 2019

By Michael McCartney

The General Prologue

On a gorgeous summer day many years ago, my friends and I decided to take a walk along the Thames to the village of Abingdon. Over the course of the day, I picked their brains about teaching The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s glorious collection of stories told by a virtually complete socioeconomic cross-section of medieval English folk. I was about to launch into teaching Early British Literature at a school in northern Maine where such a focused class had never been offered. I was eager to come up with a rigorous look at medieval England but one that would ask my students to think about their place in our own strange and wonderful society. Fortunately, unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims, my quest reached its destination.

The Tale of the Tales

So how in the world would my project take shape, and what in the world does 14th-century literary history have to do with culturally responsive pedagogy? And how would it fit into the world of the public boarding science and math magnet school at which I worked in Maine?

The project I designed asked my students to imagine themselves in a different socioeconomic placement in a totally different time and place. This required a great deal of research and writing. More important, though, it also demanded a great deal of reflection. Yes, they may have needed to research what a manciple is and does or uncover the truths about the life of a friar. This type of research helps them in all kinds of obvious academic ways. The more exciting part was when they had to ask themselves which parts of who they are may have been formed by the place and time in which they found themselves. Or how people who looked like them and spoke a shared (though different) language were different or the same. These questions naturally led to confrontations with historical bias, privilege, culture, familial realities, and all kinds of relationships that they may have simply accepted throughout their lives.

In designing my Early British Literature course, I made the choice to go with depth over breadth. Over the semester we focused on three works: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Canterbury Tales.1 I gave myself a very generous amount of time for Chaucer. What follows are the essentials of that assignment:

We began by reading “The General Prologue,” which introduces the framing narrative of the pilgrims and their storytelling contest, and “The Miller’s Tale,” “The Reeve’s Tale,” and “The Cook’s Tale,” the last of which is a fragment. This trio, which is outrageous and outrageously funny, was a great way to get students to see the humor and humanity of the stories. It also introduced them to the concept of quiting, the idea that certain pilgrims tell specific tales in such a way as to insult or requite another pilgrim who may have previously offended them, either on purpose or not. This showed the students how the pilgrims directly interacted and established relationships. It was meant to get them thinking about how deeply relational roles composed the foundation of the work.

We leavened this by studying some of Chaucer’s more serious poetry and some of the darker or more confusing Tales.2 I did this to demonstrate to them the variety of possible topics and themes—in short, to show them that Chaucer isn’t simply “in it for the lulz (i.e. for the heck of it)”, as my students might say.

After my students read the prologue and the first trio of Tales but before they read the other works, we had what I called “The Grand Drawing.” For the purposes of the project, our class assumed that we were all going on a trip to a destination and by a means, usually silly, that we decided on together. I served as our guide, a Magister (or teacher) in the vein of the Host from Chaucer’s work. Then, in more or less randomly determined order, students chose a career or station they thought they would have had in the Middle Ages from an ever-dwindling list based on the professions of Chaucer’s pilgrims. The goal was to have my students become realistic versions of themselves if they were living in the Middle Ages—a place where one doesn’t often get to choose a profession.

In the first portion of the project, students needed to research their character’s job and then write a three- to four-page, first-person, fictional autobiography that included correct historical citations and a half-page description of their character’s attire and general physical appearance. The paper needed to contain no fewer than five good historical sources, one of which could be Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, which we read throughout the course,3 and one of which had to be a primary source from the medieval period. As a capstone to this section of the project, we did a quick heraldry unit, and the students crafted their own coats of arms, which decorated an entire wall of my classroom.

The second section of the project, which was by far the most work for me and the most fun for the students, was “The Medieval Feast.” Over the course of several months’ gradual preparation followed by a few too-short hours of frantic and anxiety-drenched work, my colleagues and I went about transforming our school cafeteria into a medieval feasting hall. We added cloths to each table, tapestries to every wall; we festooned, we draped, and we illuminated hundreds of real and LED candles. I even terrified myself by hanging a massive candelabra from the ceiling. The kitchen staff and I coordinated a medieval menu; the parents association and I worked out the serving; and I worked with the local community to enlist minstrels and fools and to schedule feats of strength and riddle contests. Finally, when the community was welcomed in and seated, my colleagues, my class, and I would process to the high table (or not), led by our science department chair, a mercifully gifted bagpiper.

My students were expected to attend the Feast in costume and remain in character (more or less) throughout the entire day. Their job was to have fun, set the tone, and demonstrate their character knowledge. The event was a blast, and it gave my students an opportunity to develop a bit of muscle memory as well as visual understanding of the time. A Clerk might not seem that different from an Abbot to a neophyte medievalist, but when you see one sitting to the right of the Lady and the other at a table far below, certain realities begin to crystalize.

After all the research and all the play-acting, my students were finally required to produce a piece of creative fiction. This was the most impactful part of the whole project, and it was made up of three subsections: A short work, between one and three pages, of original fiction, like the links in Chaucer’s original, introduced their Tale and linked it to either the preceding or the following pilgrim’s story. It could include an interaction between their character and the characters created by other students, as long as that conversation helped express the main point of each student’s story. As a group, they got together to determine the order and linkage of the various Tales, sometimes creating hilarious, grim, nuanced, or romantic subsections depending on their interests.

The second section was the Tale itself told by their character. It could be a romance, an epic, a history, a fabliau, a fable, a sermon, a fairy tale—whichever seemed most appropriate coming from the character. It could be a retelling of a favorite story of their own, as such reinterpretation was commonly and creatively done by Chaucer, or it could be an original work. This section needed to be at least five pages but could be as long as 10. In some circumstances, students chose to write their Tale in rhyme royal (Chaucer’s meter)—in those cases, I let them stretch the page limit quite far.

Finally, they wrote a one- to two-page analysis of their own Tale in which they explained the story and justified the choices they made while crafting it. This was short, succinct, and supremely important as it galvanized the reflection, both individually and with the group, as they shared it.

Canterbury

So what did this project achieve? Most of my students had the intended experience of any traditionally well-executed English or history project: they had fun, they learned, and they connected with their passion. For some, however, the experience was much more meaningful. One of my students, now an engineer at Boeing, noted how, even 10 years later, the research he did for the project stuck with him. Referring to Elimer, the so-called flying monk, whose nearly deadly 11th-century attempts to achieve manned flight formed the basis for his Tale, he wrote to me about how disappointed he was that “people [at Boeing] remain convinced that we should test airplanes on ‘runways’ rather than ‘abbey towers.’” It’s a silly comment and precisely what I’d expect from my students, but, as I would also expect, it’s remarkably insightful and telling. A decade later, the project remains with him because it connected to his loves and allowed him to focus on things that were relevant to him while learning about another time and place.

A more recent student mentioned that this project allowed for “a more intuitive understanding of the period” than what was achieved in a traditional study of the era. He felt that it allowed him to begin to understand the people, rather than just know about them. A third talked about the empathy that forms the core of the project. He reflected that he was “deeply engaged in the aspect of the project which had us adopt a role” while also requiring him to “perform a scholastic deep dive into the various realities of that position” in order to be authentic. He told me that his story, which he described as an “endeavor to embody [fictional] ‘Sir Fingen Cuinn’” gave him “a far greater sense of how the society functioned [and forced him] to confront the social arms race of medieval aristocracy” as a fundamental part of being a knight.

Ultimately, though, that research became secondary to what the project did for that student in the long term. He felt that the Canterbury Tale assignment led “to reflection on [his] own place in society, and the quirks which color our own society function.” Perhaps most crucially of all, he commented on the segment of the project in which each student read their Tale to their classmates. “Our exposure to one another’s stories,” he wrote, “helped to grant an understanding of the massive disconnects between social strata and how those divides created different spheres of existence, that color today’s world as well.”

To my way of thinking, any project that helps students learn more about themselves, their friends, other cultures, and how their own society works while simultaneously making them better writers, analysts, and researchers is pretty good.4
 
In his not-famous-enough The Parlement of Foules, Chaucer paraphrases Hippocrates when he says, The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.5

And of course, darn him, he’s right. It’s impossible for my students to master medieval Europe in a semester. But they don’t have to. When learning profoundly connects them, both intellectually and personally, to another time and place, whether that is England 1399 or Maine 2018, something more important than simple subject mastery seems to happen. They begin to reflect, to think of themselves as part of something much bigger than a class, or even a country, or a time. And when an assignment encourages students to consider their place in the world, both past and present, then we’re not limited to a term. We have the future.

Notes

  1. For those of you who are curious, I use the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, the Simon Armitage version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Nevill Coghill’s incomparable The Canterbury Tales.
  2. “Truth,” “Chaucer’s Complaint,” “The Prioress’s Tale,” “The Tale of Sir Topaz,” “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” (and Prologue), “The Pardoner’s Tale,” “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” and “The Parson’s Tale.”
  3. Terry Jones, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London, UK: BBC Books, 2004).
  4. Special thanks to Kristen Kelley, 2016 Waldo County Teacher of the Year, for casting her eyes over this!
  5. “The Parliament of Fowls,” in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edition, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), pp. 385-394.
Michael McCartney

Michael McCartney (mcartneym@mssm.org) has taught English and history at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, Maine, for the past 13 years.