Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teaching the 14th Century

This semester I taught a  "later" medieval history survey (1000-1500), which meant that the 14th century material was sandwiched between the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, and, well, the regular Renaissance. Judging from the final essays, what students remember about the 14th century is this:

  • the Black Death
  • famine
  • the Hundred Years' War
  • the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism

We did do some other things, I swear; we read some Boccaccio and Dante, we looked at Catherine of Siena, and I think there were a few other things in there. Yet clearly, for most of them, the takeaway from this century is death, corruption, and more death. 

The problem I have with this is not so much that their impression is incorrect as that it seems...incomplete. It leaves out a lot of interesting phenomena, such as lay literacy and devotion, and ignores that we can know a lot more about the lives of peasants and artisans from this period than about members of the same social groups in earlier centuries. One of the things I tried to do in this survey was show the complexities of events, and I think I succeeded with some portions of the course. We discussed problems with the idea of "renaissance," for example, and I think we managed a complex, multidimensional examination of the 12th and 15th centuries, and perhaps even the 13th.

Yet somehow, it seems very difficult to convey the complexity of the 14th century--or at least, very difficult to do so in the two or three weeks allocated to it in this survey. Any attempts I made to get beyond the Great Catastrophes of the 14th century just didn't sink in. Perhaps the spell of famine, plague, war, and death is just too difficult to break.

At present, I can easily imagine an upper-level seminar on the 14th century: that could be a great course, with the opportunity to really delve into some rich materials and explore the connections between everything that's going on in that period. But I'm still not sure how I would boil that century down into a concise unit without having the same results I saw this semester.


tenthmedieval said...

It strikes me that this is not just about what you've taught them, but also about what's easy to answer. From what you say they've picked on things with lots of people and hooks, big things about which broad questions can be asked that don't need too much subtlety to answer, and to which the historiography has some answers, even if they're debated. I think that compared to literary sources or the politicised (and, I might say, idealising, in as much as people wisely think she's fantastic but unlike in other areas say so in print) discourse about Catherine of Siena. It sounds as if a number of your students may have gone for things where they think there's an answer to give rather than things where they may have to make one up. Not so sure that's down to their interests, therefore...

Bavardess said...

I agree with tenthmedieval that they seem to have been drawn by topics that at least appear to be black and white and quite clearly bounded both temporally and geographically. I don't know how you'd get around this when you have to cover so much in such a short period. I have to say I would love to do an upper level 14thC course, but I tend to gravitate towards the complex/shades of grey.

clio's disciple said...

Good points; they do seem to have gravitated toward clear-cut responses. Hmm.