Today’s guest post is an updated classic by Ruth Breindel, Latin teacher at Moses Brown School. We also have a giveaway; we will randomly choose one comment posted on this post before 10 March to receive a copy of CANEPress’s new download, a three pack of themed readings on Friendship, Riddles, and Serpents from the Gesta Romanorum.
The clever, the bizarre and the fanciful
What stories are these? They are Medieval tales, and the students really enjoy reading them. Medieval Latin is having a resurgence, and there are many reasons why:
1. The grammar is quite straightforward, and the sentences aren’t usually too long.
2. The stories are fascinating, both in themselves – folk tales, the early history of England – and as a window onto the medieval world-view. This is especially important, since many schools no longer teach medieval history.
3. There are parallels to modern and ancient stories – retellings of old myths, but with the medieval perspective; history which eulogizes people, giving you scope to discuss what is fact and what isn’t, just like today.
You can pick stories of varying lengths, and students don’t seem to have difficulty in going from one author to another, unlike classical authors, where Vergil is so different from Caesar (!).
It’s easy to do a unit on a specific event: e.g., in Jenney Latin 3, there is the Murder of Thomas Becket. After we read this, and have a quiz on it, we then read T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which is very difficult, but quite rewarding for the students to read and then feel that they understand. Then, while we watch (3/4) of the movie Becket, the students are writing a paper that compares the characters, personalities and motifs of the 3 versions. If you would like my notes on this, just email me. In addition, we discuss the concept of church vs. state, theocracy vs. aristocracy/monarchy, and look at modern examples. You could also do a debate where the students have to take either Henry’s or Becket’s side. This could also be a research paper. The possibilities are endless, and can be chosen based on who you have for students.
Another aspect that is great is to read the Carmina Burana. Here there are many other interesting points. First, there is a great deal of colloquial language – French and German are mixed in with the Latin. This leads to interesting discussions about moving from straight Latin into the Romance or Germanic languages. Next, you can choose poems based on themes (as they are listed: love, the tavern, etc.). Third, listen to the music in class; they will all recognize the first song, O Fortuna, which comes as a shock to them! Tell them about Carl Orff, and how he developed the musical instruments they might have used in elementary school. Another good song to play is The Big Rock Candy Mountain (easily available on the web), when reading the song about Cockaigne, the land of plenty. To round this out, I have the students write a poem, in English, in the style of the Carmina. You’d be amazed how many write about a piece of food being sentient and about to be eaten (the Roasted Swan)!
These are just some examples of easily available medieval literature. Dive in and have fun!
CANEPress makes a variety of Medieval literature available:
We have several more authors: Peter Alphonus’ Disciplina (already published), which has 33 really interesting stories, some of which also appear in the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of 223 stories, which we are making available in themed sections for download (Friendship, Riddles, and Serpents are currently available) not to mention the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, also published with beautiful illustrations.
All of these stories are geared for students who have finished the grammar and are ready for “real” Latin. To give you an idea of some of the topics:
Clever: in Peter Alphonsus, we meet clever women who help the hapless men figure out how to get their money back, or outwit evil strangers; in the Gesta, there are riddles to solve (especially in the story of the three caskets, known to students from Macbeth) and again, evil people to confound.
Bizarre: snakes and other animals who help, hurt and generally communicate with people in both Disciplina and Gesta; the medieval sensibility, which strikes us as quite bizarre (laws about how to eat and what happens if you transgress in the Gesta) but will bring about fascinating discussions of a different society.
Fanciful: the Navigatio Sancti Brendani is a great book, since the voyagers land on a giant turtle, go looking for the blessed land, meet the devil and have many other strange adventures that truly belong in science fiction or in fantasy. The Gesta has a version of Pliny’s discussion of strange people in far-away places, not to mention people finding cities underground with magic gems.
Students really enjoy these stories, because they are easy to read, different and a good segue to other texts.