Extra-curricular learning about medieval times
As I have mentioned a fair few times on this blog, last half-term my elder daughter studied the medieval period at school and, having been given a heads up on this before the summer holidays, we got started on our own medieval experience in July. This post is a summary of the main ways we have enjoyed exploring the medieval period outside the classroom.
Learn about Julian of Norwich and other anchoresses: I wrote a previous post about how we found out about Julian of Norwich by watching the recent BBC4 documentary about her and then went to visit the site of a local anchoress’ anchorage.
St. James’ Day Grotto: From medieval times until about the Victorian period children in London would make little street shrines to commemorate St. James’ Day in July. James is the Saint honoured at Santiago de Compostela and many pilgrims would travel the Camino to worship there; originally the children would put out collecting pots to raise donations for pilgrims. The symbol of St. James is a shell so we made our own little shrine in the front garden, decorated with shells, pebbles, flowers and candles.
Make a stained glass window: Having looked at some beautiful stained glass windows featuring Julian of Norwich we had a go making our own, much more simple, designs. We cut the design out in black sugar paper, placed this onto sticky-backed plastic and then used Quality Street wrappers to add the colour to the windows.
Celebrate Lammas Day: Lammas Day was the first harvest festival of the year and was often celebrated on 1st August although the actual date would vary from year to year. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas or loaf mass and on that day bread-making would begin because the wheat harvest had been gathered in. Lammas bread was taken to church to be blessed. We went to Bodiam Castle in Sussex to join in their Lammas Day celebrations and were able to try some Lammas Bread made to a recipe taken from a fifteenth century cookery book. If you want to try making it the recipe is as follows:
- 1/8 tsp dried saffron strands
- 1 tbsp boiling water
- 100g plain flour
- pinch of salt
- knob of butter
- 1 egg
- oil for frying
Take wheat flour, egg and mix them, and colour the paste with saffron; roll it on a board as thin as parchment, like a wafer; fry them and serve them. And in Lent do away with the egg and use almond milk and fry them in oil and serve.
They taste a little like thick pancakes! We joined in a Lammas sheep chase, a customary way to repay those who had helped gather in the harvest. A sheep was released into the now-empty field and the workers chased it. The lucky man who caught it got to keep it! At Bodiam the ‘sheep’ was an unlucky staff member who dressed up as a sheep and allowed small children to chase her and try to grab her tail. All the participants were rewarded with generously-sized but unseasonal chocolate rabbits.
Try medieval archery: Many historic sites such as Bodiam and Hever Castle offer the opportunity to have a go at medieval-style archery for an additional fee. It’s really good fun and the children loved it! An interesting fact we learned from medieval weaponry experts at Cilgerran Castle in Wales was that the story about sticking up two fingers originating from English archers showing the enemy that they still had them because captured archers would have them cut off is actually nonsense; apparently a captured archer was a dead archer – none were released minus a couple of digits!
Visit somewhere medieval!: Depending where you are in the country (or world!), your options will differ, but in the UK there is usually somewhere medieval you can visit in a day. Apart from Bodiam Castle and St. James’ Church, Shere (as mentioned above) we found a few other fantastic places to visit…
We enjoyed a day out in Canterbury. Sadly the Heritage Museum was closed when we visited (especially sad as we also wanted to see the original Bagpuss, who resides there!) but it is apparently excellent and has a Medieval Discover Gallery. We spent a very long time at the Cathedral which had special free children’s activities in the education centre including trying on pilgrims’ hats, learning about medieval coins and what a pilgrim might have bought with them and minting your own coin. We borrowed Children’s Explorer Backpacks and did the trail around the Cathedral. Afterwards we walked around the town and soaked in more medieval atmosphere (and visited The Chaucer Bookshop!).
We visited St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire where children had the chance to dress up as a pilgrim and do an I-Spy challenge trail around the Cathedral. We also went to the ruined Bishop’s Palace which has an interactive trail for children and some detailed models of what the palace might have been like in medieval times.
We went to a Medieval Day at Cilgerran Castle in Pembrokeshire where we watched some weaponry displays and got the chance to handle come replica weapons and armour and also see some medieval cookery in action. We also visited a few medieval churches that we came upon during the school holidays. Everywhere had something different to see and learn about from a lepers’ squint to a piece of local history.
Make Medieval ‘Gingerbrede’: This is not at all like modern gingerbread and my children didn’t actually like it very much at all – it’s very sweet and squidgy – but it was fun to make and shape. You need:
- 300g honey
- 200g breadcrumbs
- 1 1/2 tsp ginger
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
- pinch of saffron
Heat the honey in a saucepan until it boils. Turn the heat down very low and stir in the breadcrumbs, spices and saffron. Mix until it is thick and sticks together well, adding more breadcrumbs if necessary. Take off the heat and leave until cool enough to handle. Break into small pieces and press firmly until about 0.5cm thick. Mould or cut them into shapes if you wish then decorate with small pieces of fruit leather or pine nuts.
Find out about medieval manuscripts: We watched another Dr Janina Ramirez documentary on BBC4: Illumination: The Private Life of Kings which was brilliant for showing how illumination was done in medieval times and even how vellum was made and prepared. We also read Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson, a beautifully illustrated book about the daughter of a French medieval bookmaker who is commissioned to make a very special book of hours. At the Medieval Day at the National Archives, which I wrote about in more detail in a previous post, we got the chance to look closely at some real medieval manuscripts and seals, examine different types of vellum under a microscope, watch seal-making and illumination and try a little basic illumination. It also inspired us to make our own medieval seal.
Read a lot of books: We got a big stack of books from our local library about life in medieval times, medieval Fashion, buildings, and so on. Hopefully, your library will have at least a few books to give children some background to the period and get a feel for how life was then. We also got hold of some fiction books. Some books we particularly enjoy are listed below but once you start searching the internet you are just spoiled for choice and I could have gone really mad and bought dozens of books given half a chance and a few hundred pounds!
- Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson – see above.
- The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli. A noble boy loses the use of his legs and, with that, loses the future he expected. Sheltered and taught by monks he discovers new talents and powers and eventually comes to save the castle and its people.
- Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. A collection of verses introducing different characters from a Medieval village with additional snippets of background information. Meet Petronella the Merchant’s Daughter; Jacob Ben Salomon the Moneylender’s Son; Alice the Shepherdess; Otho the Miller’s Son; Taggot the Blacksmith’s Daughter; Nelly the Sniggler and many others. Any book that teaches you what a sniggler is must have something going for it but this is a genuinely fascinating book. My daughter loves it!
- Usborne History of Britain: The Middle Ages by Abigail Wheatley. This is one my daughter returns to again and again.
- The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell. This is an adult book but very accessible with lots of clear photographs and illustrations.
- The Luttrell Village: Country Life in the Early Fourteenth Century by Sheila Sancha. This follows a year in the life of a country village and is carefully illustrated in great detail. It is based on a real village and its inhabitants, the author using the condition of the present-day village, archeological evidence and information gleaned from the Luttrell Psalter, a prayer-book commissioned by the owner of the village and now in the British Library.
- The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places, and King of the Middle March by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Also, the sister book, Gatty’s Tale. The first book in the Arthur trilogy is written in a hundred mini-chapters which tell an atmospheric tale about a boy living in the Marches in 1199 and who comes to understand more about himself through a magical stone in which he can see the legendary King Arthur. Gradually his own life becomes entwined with that of the legendary King. The two subsequent books go on to tell the tale of Arthur’s life as a squire and his role in the Crusades which reveal the true horrors of war and the tragedy of religious discord. Gatty’s Tale is a reworking of The Canterbury Tales‘ idea of a pilgrim’s story but in this book Gatty, the betrothed of the Arthur of the previous three books, travels on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with her Lady. It is a vivid story of travel and travail and Gatty comes to learn a great deal about forgiveness and religious tolerance before she returns home to a changed fortune.
- Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Marcia Williams. A comic-strip style retelling of nine Canterbury tales, this is a funny introduction to Chaucer’s masterpiece.
- The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz. Only published this September, this is a very recent addition to any medieval reading list but an unmissable one for older children. See my fuller review for more details.