Teaching With Chivalry Part I: Lessons of Medieval History

Scott Farrell Comments:

More and more teachers today are realizing the value of bringing chivalry into the classroom as part of their units on medieval history and Arthurian literature. Images of knights in armor and tales of heroic adventure are ideal methods of getting students interested in learning and reading (especially kids who don’t respond to traditional assignments). In an outstanding article published in the August, 1995 edition of The History Teacher magazine, Christopher M. Bellitto offered teachers some advice on teaching with the Code of Chivalry.

In the first part of his article, Professor Bellitto explains that:

  • Studying the Middle Ages helps students understand the continuum of history, seeing the Age of Chivalry as the launching point for modern politics, art and philosophy.
  • Medieval studies allow teachers to reach students through colorful imagery and interesting personalities, and provide material for non-traditional, active lesson plans.
  • Examining the social, political, artistic and religious exchanges of the Middle Ages provides a means of introducing multicultural and interdisciplinary studies.


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An era of history sadly overlooked in high school and introductory college courses is the European Middle Ages. Despite a century of careful academic research and rising popular interest in the medieval period, the Middle Ages are still in the main lost between courses in ancient civilization and modern surveys which deal with the medieval period only as a dreary and mislabeled Dark Age rescued by the bright lights of the Renaissance. It is the intent of this paper to provide an apology for a syllabus unit on medieval chivalry to introduce survey courses in modern European history. Alternately, the ideas presented here could be used as a stand-alone section in a longer western civilization course or as an ending point for the first half of a two-part survey of world history. Some modest examples of classroom exercises and teaching resources are included but are meant only as suggestions neither authoritative nor exhaustive. The hope is that teachers will be able to use this case study of chivalry as a starting point to incorporating the Middle Ages into their curricula.

Mirandola_BookOverlooking the Middle Ages is particularly lamentable for several reasons. First, much recent research indicates the continuity of the Middle Ages with the Renaissance/Reformation period and the contributions in political, social and cultural spheres which medieval men and women made to the modern world ((Religious scholar Heiko Oberman, for instance, argues that the Protestant Reformation had deep roots in Catholic attempts to revitalize the institutional Church beset by greed and spiritual malaise: Masters of the Reformation: The Emergence of a New Intellectual Climate in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1981). Likewise, historian Charles Trinkaus has shown that Renaissance humanism did not repudiate medieval religious society and government but built a new alliance between humanity and divinity that empowered individuals to fulfill their missions in religious and civil affairs. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 2 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970).)). Study of the medieval/Renaissance/modern continuum would help students understand from whence their world came. A good way to begin a modern European survey might be to ask the questions, “What was medieval?” and “What is modern?” While students will probably draw stark contrasts between the eras from their textbooks, two readings may help them see a more evolutionary transformation. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s late 15th-century Oration on the Dignity of Man illustrates the empowered individuals of humanism while also dispelling the myth that the Renaissance was radically secular ((The best translation is available in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, eds. Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 223-54.)). For courses more focused on government than culture, particularly the modern battle between constitutional and absolutist forces, teachers may wish to assign Joseph R. Strayers’s On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. ((Joseph R. Strayer On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), especially pp. 3-12 and 89-111.)) In both cases, the links between the medieval and modern worlds can easily be stressed as teachers introduce the major themes of their individual courses.

Armored knights compete at a living history tournament - Photos © 2001 Ray Ford
Armored knights compete at a living history tournament – Photos © 2001 Ray Ford

Second, the medieval era abounded in rich visual symbolism, colorful personalities and vivid literature, all of which would surely capture students’ attention. Consequently, study of the Middle Ages provides much material for innovative projects that allow teachers to take advantage of currently-popular assessment techniques, such as portfolios and verbal demonstrations. These might include research for short and long papers, oral presentations, library exercises, museum visits and hunts (describing unicorns in tapestries, for instance, or comparing two representations of the same queen), copying of medieval artistic styles, touring a local Gothic-style church, viewing movies (serious or kitschy) with medieval themes, or attending nearby medieval/Renaissance fairs. The Middle Ages, therefore, represents an especially fertile opportunity to tap into students’ imaginations and creativity, turning them into active learners early in the semester and setting the tone for the rest of the term or year.
Third, the very nature of the Middle Ages demands multicultural and interdisciplinary study, approaches at the top of the agendas of educators, legislators and parents. Though many teachers are faced with the worry of “covering the material” in a modern survey, examining the Middle Ages will allow them to do this better by helping to introduce the study of history per se. Emphasizing the historical context for the end of antiquity or the beginning of modernity challenges students to try out historians’ tasks such as comparative analysis, periodization questions and dealing with primary source material. Using the Middle Ages with its crucible of Eastern and Western religion, culture, politics and the arts to accomplish this fundamental task is sure to engage students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and interests.
© 2003 Christopher Bellitto, Ph.D.
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About the author: Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and the Academic Editor at Large of Paulist Press. He is a church historian, teacher, and lecturer whose work is both academic and popular. His most recent books are Ten Ways the Church Has Changed (Pauline Books and Media, 2006), The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2002) and Renewing Christianity: A History of Church Reform from Day One to Vatican II (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2001). “Chivalry: A Door to Teaching the Middle Ages” originally appeared in the August 1995 edition of The History Teacher magazine.

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