Hetta Howes

I'm a Lecturer in Medieval Literature at the School of English and Drama. My research explores the literary metaphor of water in late medieval devotional prose, from tears to streams, baptism to laundry.

Modern in the Medieval Classroom

Image: Tyrion in Game of Thrones Season 4 - Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Image: Tyrion in Game of Thrones Season 4 - Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

 

From 10th-15th July 2016 over 500 medievalists descended upon Queen Mary for the 20th biennial New Chaucer Society Congress – you can read more about the society and the congress here. This lively and engaging conference provided medievalists with the opportunity to hear hot-off-the-press research and working papers in a range of diverse fields – from manuscript studies to ecocriticism.

However, it was also a great forum for discussing pedagogy. Many researchers are dedicated to improving their teaching style and practice – and medievalists have the extra tricky task of convincing students unfamiliar with the time period that Chaucer and Marie de France are just as exciting as Shakespeare and Joyce.

 

Opportunities for forging international dialogues about pedagogy – and for discussing honestly and openly the successes and the unforeseen hiccups along the way – are relatively limited. With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts inspired by a roundtable I attended: ‘Medieval and Modern in the Classroom’, organised and chaired by Katharine Breen from Northwestern University in the States.

 

The panel was interested in considering how modern literature and media can be productively brought into dialogue with medieval literature and a number of scholars were invited to share their teaching models and practices. At her university, Stephanie Batkie tackles the inevitable ‘narrative of progression towards the modern’ which a survey paper can produce by inverting it – rather than beginning with Beowulf and ending with Paradise Lost she now begins with the Renaissance and works backwards. Kara Crawford regularly pairs Frankenstein with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, to help students engage with questions about multiplicity of voice and unreliable narrators.

 

Sarah Townsend urges her students to identify the parallels between medieval mystery plays (which focus on events from the Bible, particularly from the life and death of Christ) and modern retellings of the Passion of Christ, such as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Her students only start to perceive the energy and comedy of the mystery plays when she encourages them to verbalise the language and perform the plays with gesture and props. This year, her students performed ‘Joseph’s Troubles About Mary’ with some modern updates to help communicate the play’s message across time – Mary, it was decided, should be reading a bodice ripper when Joseph confronts her about her pregnancy.

 

Whilst all these ideas had me scribbling furiously, there is one common worry amongst teachers of medieval literature, particularly at undergraduate level: will the modern supersede the medieval in such models? If you teach Frankenstein alongside The Canterbury Tales then will students leave the seminar room believing that the medieval can only be interesting if read through the lens of the modern? Modern books, films and TV series are a tried-and-tested hook for getting students more interested in medieval modules but will it create the impression that the modern, in some sense, does the medieval better? A number of potential solutions became clear during the roundtable presentations and subsequent discussion.

 

First of all, transparency is key if the modern is going to be successfully brought into the medieval classroom. It is worth checking in regularly with students – to find out why they think you are asking them to look at the modern alongside the medieval and to get a litmus test of their attitude towards the older literature. This can help pinpoint any potential problems early on, so that the necessary tweaks can be made.

 

Secondly, the medieval should always be given room to breathe, even when the modern is an integral component of the course. This model is demonstrated effectively at Queen Mary by Alfred Hiatt and Jaclyn Rajsic with the module Arthurian Literature from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Game of Thrones. Whilst a number of post-medieval manifestations of Arthurian literature are considered on this module, the first chunk is dedicated to the medieval. This gives students a chance to fall in love with the original Arthurian legends – and maybe even to miss them when the course moves forward in time.

 

Finally, ‘relevance’ needn’t be overstressed. Whilst it is always worthwhile to consider the parallels between past societies and literatures and those of the present day, the weird and wonderful aspects of the Middle Ages can be just as engaging. Millions of viewers tune into Game of Thrones for the dragons and white walkers as much as for the human relationships and politics. Similarly, the werewolves, demons and superhuman saints in the Middle Ages are sure to make for exciting seminars.

 

Find out more about our English programmes (including the modules Hetta will be teaching)

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