Western Civ Lesson Plans: Diversity in the Middle Ages

As the semester comes to an end, I’m finally able to start blogging a bit more. Well, not really, but the blog is becoming a useful tool to think about teaching and especially revision, which is so easy to approach in a less-than-systematic manner.

There has been a growing call in medieval studies to change what and how we teach, prioritizing the presence and stories of “nonwhite” people in our course narratives (there’s also been some pressure to change what we study as scholars, but that’s a different topic). There are several reasons for this, ranging from the practical (students think the Middle Ages is white people history, when there’s more to it than that), to the ideological (neonazis dream of a white Middle Ages), to the methodological (northern Europeans were mostly pale, but weren’t “white” in the modern construction, unless they actually were).

While I have some disagreements with my colleagues on priorities, I do agree that having students explore the diversity of life in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic can only be valuable. In particular, for me the practical issue is the most important issue, because not only does it pique students’ interest but it lets us get at some basic questions of how medieval people thought of themselves–and hopefully it nudges people toward a more accurate understanding of what medieval society looked like.

This semester, I used the following simple homework exercise that yielded some pretty great results. I’ll be tinkering with it in spring, but it may be useful to people looking to expand their repertoire. To show how I was thinking of this, the placement of the exercise came as we looked at the 11th century (bear in mind all of this will be revised come spring):

Lesson 19 Moving Peoples, Changing Ideologies

Reading Notes:

The 1000s and 1100s were centuries of demographic change, cultural exchange, political and religious innovation, and architectural marvels, in both Muslim and Christian worlds. In this lesson we want to look at three interlocking aspects of this time: how medieval people viewed those who looked different; the contest between popes and kings over whether church or state would be the supreme authority; and the emergence of the Normans and Turks in the Mediterranean basin.

Lesson Objectives:

1. Understand the main issues behind the Investiture Controversy and the Reform Papacy.

2. Explore the presence of non-“white” people in medieval European art and how to interpret that presence.

3. To understand how the Normans and Turks changed the cultural, social, and political calculations of their worlds.

Readings/Videos/Maps to be completed BEFORE class:

–Atlas, pages 40-51

–The Investiture Controversy:  Henry IV, letter to Gregory VII (Links to an external site.), January 1076; and Gregory’s response, deposing Henry, February 1076 (Links to an external site.).  Dictatus Papae, c.1090 (Links to an external site.), perhaps from the 1070s. Claims of the pope’s supremacy over all kings and emperors.

People of Color in European Art History 

Terms and Concepts:

Gregory VII          Henry IV of Germany              Investiture Controversy    Reform Papacy        Hohenstaufen Dynasty          Seljuk Turks         Normans in Sicily

The exercise itself provoked a lot of discussion and interest:

Homework, History 101 Western Civilization to 1715

The Multi-Racial Middle Ages

Homework: 10 points            DUE: In class

Directions: Go to the site Medieval People of Color, http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/. On the right-hand side, you will see options for different time periods: the pre-1000s, the 1000s, the 1100s, the 1200s, and so on. Choose one image from each of the periods just listed, and answer the following questions.

  1. When you think of the Middle Ages, how do you think of race and racial identity? [3 points]
  2. Which images did you choose and why? [2 points]
  3. Why do you think people of different races were included in these images? What does their presence tell us about the Middle Ages, and how medieval people thought about race and identity? [Note: there can be more than one answer to that!] [5 points]