The Story of the Middle Ages

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Medieval Timeline, cultural notebooks, pencil, and a handout (included below). Blackboard, whiteboard, LCD or Smartboard to create a mind map of observations of the Medieval timeline.


Fundamental Needs of Humans, Great Civilizations


1. Observe the Medieval timeline. Ask students to note the beginning and end of the timeline (dates), events, and people. Note that there are three main periods, Dark Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages. Ask what interests them, what stands out? Create a mind map as students share comments, and have students copy out the items in their notebooks. (About 10 minutes)
2. The bulk of the presentation is to read, “The Story of the Middle Ages.” This story is challenging, but if you go slowly, the students will remain engaged.
3. The Story of the Middle Ages

Story of the Middle Ages (D. Bachhuber)
By the way, you might notice as I tell you the story of the Middle Ages that the Fundamental Human needs we just studied are very much a part of it? What are Fundamental Human Needs? Food, clothing, shelter, for sure. But also transportation, communication, physical health and defense. And what about the spiritual needs such as religion, art, and social acceptance? When this story is done I’m going to ask you to fill out a page writing down some of the fundamental needs you remember, and some of the ones you may already know.

Once upon a time people lived very differently than we do now. We think of the Middle Ages as the time when knights rode on horseback carrying heavy broadswords into battle, and beautiful princesses were the objects of romantic competition between handsome young men. But the middle ages were much more than that. Kings and Queens ruled the land under a strict system called Feudalism.

It was all about making agreements with your life, and getting something in return. If the knight pledged loyalty (and soldiers) to the king, the king gave him land in return, with his own castle. If the knight was very powerful and could bring with him a hundred soldiers or so, the king might make him an Earl. As Earl, he in turn made agreements with the peasants, or serfs. He gave them farms to grow enough food for themselves and their families, if they made periodic gifts of food to the Earl. That way the Earl could fight, if necessary, rather than farm. And if there was no war, he could partake of certain pleasures of the time, such as hunting, or chess.

Kings and knights and serfs weren’t the only members of the feudal hierarchy. There were also priests and bishops. The bishops were as powerful as the earls and the priests could sometimes be as powerful as the knights. (This is beginning to sound a little bit like a chessboard.) A lot of the religious person’s power came because people were afraid of going to hell for their sins, and if they didn’t have a priest near they could confess their sins to, why, they could end up burning in hellfire for all eternity! It made them want to be nice to the priests, if only to guarantee their own salvation.

But some of the priests misused their power by selling indulgences, which were like little tickets you could give to God when you died that would take time off you punishment in purgatory. The abuses of the clergy were so prevalent that artists and writers such as Boccaccio in the Decameron, and Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, made a laughingstock of corrupt priests who abused their power over people.

By the fifteen hundreds, some people were so fed up that the Reformation occurred, led by Martin Luther, which established Protestant religions, which were literally “protests” against the abuses of the Catholic church. But many priests and bishops were good and holy men, such as St. Francis, whose connection to God and to nature were so profound that it’s said that birds landed on his shoulders.

You may think you’ve heard all of the members of the Feudal hierarchy, but you haven’t. There were also the merchants. As soon as you have farmers who produce more than what they need to live, you begin to have people who buy their food from markets instead of farming it themselves. The first merchants, then, are the ones selling food. Once the market gets going, you also have the sheepherders bringing in their wool to sell. Who buys the wool? The people who take it to make clothing. Once the clothing is made, then what happens? Someone opens a shop to sell the shirt or tunic, or the fine pair of trousers.
How do the horses get their shoes? A blacksmith, of course. How do people get their shoes? The horse dies and someone decides he could make a living tanning hides. He sells the hides to another man who decides he’s got a talent for making shoes. Pretty soon you’ve got a whole thriving little village. It thrives so well that people start to worry. Maybe someone will want to come in and steal what we have. Let’s build a wall, and have a gatekeeper and some knights who can fight off the bad people.

If you think you have a complete picture of Medieval life by now, you might be wrong. Where do you think the priests and bishops lived? The Earls get a castle, but the Bishops get a cathedral, rising up into the sky as far as humans can make it go. And how did the cathedral get there? Masons, that’s how. Masons are people that know how to cut stone from quarries and lay it down and mortar it to build huge walls that don’t fall down. There were so many masons that they formed a guild, and were able to bargain with the Bishops for fair wages and working conditions. For the first time, common people weren’t completely at the mercy of their Lords. By standing together, and by possessing skills that others didn’t have, they had power for themselves. If someone tried to kill them for taking power then what? No castle, no cathedral. Hmm, better to give them what they want and leave them alone. Besides, I don’t like the look of those hammers they carry in their belts.

Now you’re thinking how much fun it would be to live in the Middle Ages, right? Well, you might want to think again. The Romans had created the first flush toilets, a nice invention when you’ve got a lot of people living close to one another. But lack of education has a price. It means that the wisdom of the passed doesn’t get passed down, because people can’t read. But people in the Middle Ages had to use trenches, or the forest, or sometimes the waste was tossed out the window in buckets to mix with the horse manure.

If you got sick, you might not be too happy about going to the doctor, and after what I tell you, you might have a different reaction to getting a shot. Many doctors tried to treat disease by bleeding people with leeches. They thought illness was caused by an imbalance in one of the four “humors” of the body. (Bile, blood, and phlegm) These form humors were thought to control not only disease but also personality. Someone who had more blood would be sanguine: bouncy and happy. Someone who had too much phlegm might be sluggish and slow. Someone who had too much black bile might be melancholic, or depressed; while someone who had too much yellow bile might be choleric, or quick-tempered. The only problem with these ideas is that they weren’t very scientific. In Persia, where present day Iran exists, they knew a lot more than they did in Europe because religious beliefs didn’t prevent them from opening cadavers to find out how the human body worked.

Still want to live in the Middle Ages?

It wasn’t all bad. But it was more than Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses and knights having adventures. The Middle Ages produced great poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer. They produced buildings so fine and so beautiful, castles and cathedrals that people still travel from all over the world just to see them. They produced ships of great beauty that were able to travel the seas and discover other lands. They produced saints whose words still exist to guide our lives today. They produced great leaders such as Elizabeth the first who fostered the arts and rule her country with wisdom and strength. It’s not fair to call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages, as some people used to. And as we study more about them, we’ll learn that there was as much light as darkness.

Suggestions for Student Work: Ask students, “Do you have any ideas about how you could practice what you’ve learned today?” One possibility is the study guide included below:

Control Of Error

Teacher has an answer key based on the study guide listed below under handouts/attachments

Points Of Interest

The story must be told dramatically. Some pausing for clarification, comment, audience participation is okay, but keep the flow and wait for questions at the end.


Direct Aim: To provide a vision of the whole of the Middle Ages
Indirect Aim: To introduce topics that, later, students will choose for independent research




Handouts/Attachments: Question Sheet