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Posts Tagged ‘Medieval and Renaissance Literature for children’

I1413374964-8-origmagine each day wrapping your hair up in a lovely bun and then slipping a very tiny bible into your chignon?  Odd?  Well, there was a day when many young Christian women hid their bibles this way! In September 1685, in France, all Bible reading was forbidden and Christian homes were subject to search. French Protestants known as Huguenots were forced to keep their scriptures hidden and to worship in secret. I was privileged to get a little glimpse into the lives of this courageous minority on a recent visit to Provence, France while visiting with ICCP of Aix-en-Provence. While staying there with a gracious 93 year-old Huguenot gentleman, a Monsieur D’Cazenove, we were able to visit the Musée du Désert, where this fascinating and inspiring history is kept alive. And indeed it’s true that Huguenot women hid their very tiny bibles in their chignons!

This tiny bible measures just one inch high yet is very legible. Huguenot women hid them in their chignons.                                                                                   From Le Musée du Désert, Cevennes, France

The Huguenots were the fruit of the tide of the Reformation coming to France in the mid 16th century, and were devoted to reforming the church and the political institutions of their times.  Many noble and highly intellectual families joined this movement, but in a majority Catholic country where the Church was all powerful, persecution was inevitable. The most notorious incident occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were in Paris to celebrate the wedding of Henry of Navarre (a Huguenot) to Marguerite de Valois (a Catholic). The young King Charles IX, under the sway of his powerful mother, Catherine d’ Medici, ordered the massacre of all Huguenots.  Thousands died in Paris that day and tens of thousands all across France.

When Henry IV, a Huguenot known as Le Bon Roi–the Good King, came to the throne, he passed the Edict of Nantes (1598) granting religious freedom to Huguenots–one of Europe’s first IMG_2727documents to protect this fundamental right. However, 80 years later, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and Huguenots were harassed out of all educated professions, arrested, tortured and imprisoned, their lands and properties confiscated.  Louis XIV  issued countless warrants for the arrest of Huguenots who refused to convert to Catholicism.  At left are just a few of King Louis’s numerous warrants persecuting Huguenots.  In these samples, agents of the King are instructed to destroy all the Huguenot churches, extinguish and suppress  their colleges, arrest their midwives, and to obtain their declarations as to whether they will convert  or die as Protestants.

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This barrel converted into a pop-up pulpit, but looked like an ordinary barrel when not in use.

It was particularly during this period that Huguenots became very creative in finding ways to worship in secret.  As a large majority lived in the Provence region, where there are thick forested areas and many caves and grottoes, the Huguenots often met secretly in caves to worship.  A home church or a church meeting in a factory might have a convertible pulpit, that when not in use looked like an ordinary wooden barrel, but converted quite ingeniously into a pulpit by a clever system of levers.  Goblets for communion wine could be converted to appear as ordinary looking candlesticks, and picture frames were designed so that bibles could be hidden between the mirror and the back of the frame.

Despite these subterfuges, countless Huguenots were arrested, tortured and put to death.  Over 5000 men were forced to slave on the galleys of the King, choosing that grim fate over giving up their faith. Marie Durand was arrested at age 19 and spent 38 years imprisoned because she refused to violate her conscience.

Remarkably, despite these tremendous hardships, the Huguenot people were known as the “people who sing.”  Their secret IMG_2802worship services were marked by their joyful singing of the scriptures set to music, particularly the psalms.  When I question our host, Monsieur d’Casenove, about this fact, he slips quietly into his centuries-old chateau and reemerges quickly holding an ancient book in his hand.  It is a psalmer, a very old book of the psalms set to music.  When I ask him how old it is, he turns to the copyright page, and the book had been printed in the 1550s.

The history of the Huguenot people is a rich, varied, and inspiring history of a people who fought, suffered, and died for freedom of conscience.  It is a history that has some bearing on American history too.  In my next post I will explore what Huguenot history has to do with Paul Revere, George Washington, and the Marquis de Lafayette!

 

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The chateau of Monsieur d’Casanove in the Cevennes region of France, an area rich in Huguenot history.

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History is the essence of innumerable biographies. –Thomas Carlyle

Why Teach History through Literature? by Rea Berg

In our first installment of this series, we looked at the importance of the study of history. When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching  history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind: 1.  How has history been taught through the ages?  2. Why use literature to teach history?  3. Why is the use of literature the most effective way to learn history?

How has history been taught through the ages?

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

In the nineteenth century, with the dawn of compulsory education in America, schools were forced to begin to standardize what should be taught to all these children sitting eight hours a day at their obligatory desks. Because the dawn of compulsory education coincided with industrialization and with a massive influx of immigrants, educators felt motivated, from a sometimes elitist mindset, to educate the masses for the purposes of creating a literate work force.  Presented with the challenge of getting all these children from varying backgrounds on the same educational “page”, it is easy to see how the textbook naturally evolved.  Certain events, personages, significant battles and historical milestones were deemed essential knowledge for the creation of good citizens and a stable workforce.  These “facts” were compiled into disseminated formats stripped of the narrative elements of story, resulting in dry works of little human interest and no literary value.

Standardizing the teaching of history spelled the death knell for creating any love of history in that rising generation of new Americans. It alparisso flew in the face of how history was taught for centuries.  From ancient times forward students studied history by reading history.  In other words, if a student say, in the Middle Ages, was studying history he read the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Plutarch and Josephus. Of course, if you were a young French boy studying in a monastic school in Paris, reading these works meant learning Greek, Latin, and in some cases Hebrew, for ancient histories were not translated into vernacular languages until the late 1200s.  In some instances, it would be centuries before these ancient classic texts appeared in English.  An English schoolboy in London, would not have had Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in English until the late 1500s.   This is one reason why a classical education was always inextricably linked with the study of Latin and Greek.

Why use literature to teach history?

Our ancient young predecessors, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, reading history, actually read history through literature.  There simply was no other way to study history–which brings us to our second point. History has effectively been taught through literature since ancient times.  Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook.  As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116).  Exchanging literature–biographies, classical works, even historical fiction, for the history textbook not only restores this discipline to its historic roots, but also reinvigorates it with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder.  A middle-grade child reading Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.

Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?

Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature.  Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind.  David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”9780684813639_p0_v2_s260x420

That’s what history is: a story.  And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.  That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)

The notion of emotion and empathy as a critical component of history’s ability to speak to the human heart, was promoted by Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reformer. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”.  She taught that all, “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). It is the connection between the human heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those fortunate to study it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.

Works Cited:

“Knowing History and Who We Are.”  David McCullough.  Imprimis.  Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College. April 2005.

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Wheaton, IL: Crossway

           Books, 1984.

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Dear Readers,

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Honoré Daumier, 1855, bringing out the comic aspect of Cervantes's work

In Part II of my intro to Don Quixote, I will cover some of the themes and “illusions” that make the novel so unique.  The historical context within which the work takes place is significant in understanding that appearances cannot be trusted.  Even the novel itself suffers from an unreliable authorship as I will explain.  So, since things are not as they appear, the key is attempting to look beyond the surface to what is really happening.  For instance, the Edict of Exile of 1492 banished from Spain all Jews unwilling to convert to Catholicism and the Edict of 1499 effectually did the same to Muslims.  Thus, both Jews and Muslims who chose to remain in Spain, did so only as conversos or Morenos.  In reality, most of them kept faith with the religion of their fathers, but in public appeared as Catholics.  This made for confusing cultural dynamics which Cervantes alludes to in humorous ways.

In regards to the authorship of Don Quixote, (Part I, Chapters 8-9) Cervantes sets up a complex literary conceit by claiming that the story of DQ ends abruptly and that he is at a loss as to where to find the “rest of the story.”  But as he was walking one day “on the exchange of Toledo” he runs across a boy selling old papers with Arabic writing on them.  Now this is significant, since during the Inquisition of Ferdinand and Isabella, both Hebrew and Arabic were outlawed.  Books in these languages were burned (thus the scene of the book burning which opens the novel), and though Arabic had been the lingua franca during the Golden Age of Spain, it had now been outlawed for nearly a century and no one spoke it openly any longer.  So while Cervantes knows the Arabic script, he is unable to read it.  He therefore finds a “Moorish rabbi to read them” and low and behold, this is the very story of Don Quixote of La Mancha!

There are so many things going on in this scene that it is difficult to cover them all.  First of all, Toledo was the center of the intellectual renaissance in Spain.  It was there, that Brother Raymund de Sauvetot began his school of translation in the 12th century that brought together Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars to translate the classic works of Greek antiquity into Latin, Hebrew and Arabic from the original Greek.  The Arab scholars brought the works of Persian authors in mathematics, science and medicine to be translated from Arabic into Latin.  These three Abrahamic faiths worked side by side in tolerance and mutual respect. Now in the scene depicted by Cervantes,  Toledo is nearly bereft of anyone who even speaks Arabic and the Golden Era of Spain is at an end.  Not only that, but many of the texts painstakingly translated during this Golden Era were systematically burned on Inquisitional fires.

In the novel when the “Moorish rabbi” begins to read the text, he bursts out laughing because of notes written upon the margin.  Cervantes questions him and he says, “This Dulcinea del Toboso [DQ’s lady love], so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand at salting pork of any woman in La Mancha” (68).   The reason the Arab is laughing is because Dulcinea must have been a secret Jew, as Jews were forever trying to prove their authenticity as conversos by their willingness to handle pork, and become quite skilled at it.

Also, Cervantes ascribes authorship of Don Quixote of La Manchato an Arab historiographer–Cid Hamet Ben Engeli.  But

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Having a Rest under a Tree by Honoré Daumier

as Cervantes notes, “if any objection lies against the truth of this history, it can only be, that the author was an Arab, those of that nation being not a little addicted to lying” (69).  So even while he lays out the complex way in which the story of DQ comes to light, (by way of proving its veracity) at the same time he calls into question the reliability of the text by virtue of the fact that Arabs are somewhat known for their lack of honesty.

By using these complex conceits of reality vs. illusion, truth vs. honesty, and fact vs. fiction, Cervantes sets up a world where nothing is just as it seems. In this world, what DQ wants is the restoration of a better, more virtuous, kinder, and just world. Ironically, though, what Don Quixote imagines to be true he often inadvertently brings about.  As Harold Bloom notes in his Modern Critical Interpretations: Cervantes’s Don Quixote,

Miguel de Unamuno says of Don Quixote’s loss of his wits: “He lost them for our sake, for our benefit, so as to leave us an eternal example of spiritual generosity”.  That is to say, Don Quixote goes mad as a vicarious atonement for our drabness, our ungenerous dearth of imagination” (Bloom 150).

Enjoy this novel for the ways in which it can deliver us from our lack of imagination, our spiritual drabness and selfishness, and be inspired, like Don Quixote (as crazy as it may seem) to live life with joy, inspiration, imagination, and even a bit of foolishness.

Don’t forget to check out The Man of La Mancha with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren.  Please preview before watching as a family. A number of artists have depicted Cervantes’s work with beautiful imagination.  Don’t miss the woodcut etchings of Gustave Doré (featured in my last post) and also the oil paintings of Honoré Daumier.  Also check online for images of the memorial sculpture in Madrid that honors Cervantes and his immortal characters from Don Quixote.

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Dear Readers,

I have been thoroughly enjoying reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the first time.  I am fairly dismayed and shocked that while I was earning my degree in English I was never introduced to this amazing work since it is considered the very first modern novel.  Consider what a few of the brightest literary critics say about this remarkable work:

Don Quixote is to the Spanish language what Shakespeare is to English, Dante to Italian, and Goethe to German:  the glory of that particular vernacular.  Perhaps Cervantes’s masterwork is the central book of the last half-millennium, since all the greater novelists are as much Don Quixote’s children as they are Shakespeare’s. –Harold Bloom

Don Quixote in his library reading works of chivalry.–Gustave Doré

We state his achievement somewhat more concretely when we say that he created a new form by criticizing the old forms” (Harry Levin, Cervantes’s Don Quixote).

As much as we may mediate on Don Quixote, as the Greeks meditated on the Homeric poems, or the English on the dramas of Shakespeare, we cannot consume all the marrow of the wisdom that it contains.  –Miguel de Unamuno

In losing myself in this remarkable work, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the above sentiments.  Don Quixote is a treasure trove of wisdom on every aspect of life–so much so that while I am a habitual marker of texts (I highlight, post-it note, and underline continually), I have had to stop. The reason is that the text is so rich, so ironic, so satirical, so funny, so full of double-meanings and real-life wisdom that I would literally have the entire work underlined.  Now, in studying this with your student, here is the caveat.  Most translations for children are mainly plot driven.  They follow the humorous and hilarious antics of this crazy knight-errant and his loveable squire Sancho Panza, but with little of the philosophy included.  This diminishes the text considerably and can make the text somewhat frustrating as students will begin to wonder what the point of DQ’s and Sancho Panza’s continual beatings is anyway.  So here are a few suggestions to help make the text more meaningful when using an abridged and edited version:

Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

1.  Don Quixote turns the notion of the archetypal hero on its head.  In other words, the heroic figure we are used to is strong, handsome, young, brave, (think Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus) and has a beautiful maiden for whom he performs his deeds of honor, courage and valor. DQ is the antithesis is many ways because he is (like his horse Rosinante) rather broken-down, old, not much to look at, and crazy.  Despite all of this, he is determined to perform valorous deeds and all he does is basically wreak havoc wherever he goes.

2.  Due to DQ’s distorted perceptions of reality, he causes trouble in countless situations.  This results in continual beatings, deprivations, and humiliating calamities to himself and Sancho Panza. Ironically, the very fact that they are being continually beaten further verifies in DQ’s mind the intrinsic veracity of his knight-errantry. So, one way to make this clearer to your students is to read passages from the original that will particularly strike your funny bone and make sense of the text.  Free texts can be found online at a number of sites.

3.  Since the novel itself turns the notion of knighthood and chivalry on its head, it subtly exposes the fallacies of so much of what we take for granted regarding chivalry, knighthood, and medieval notions of virtue and honor. Don Quixote exposes the ways in which chivalrous works (think Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, El Cid etc.) neglects essential aspects of life in view of painting a picture of chivalry so ethereal and inspiring that it is virtually unattainable by mortals.  Here are a number of aspects inherent in the works of Medieval chivalry that Cervantes (through the character of DQ) exposes using satire and irony:

Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré

Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré

1.  Knights never carry money: “Don Quixote replied, he had not a farthing, having never read in the histories of knights-errant, that they carried any.
2.  Knights never complain of pain: “If I do not complain of pain, it is because knights-errant are not allowed to complain of any wound whatever, though their entrails come out of it.”
3. Knights are never accused of a crime or brought to justice, no matter how many people they kill: “Peace,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘for where have you ever seen or read of a knight-errant’s being brought before a court of justice, let him have committed ever so many homicides?”
4.  Knights never eat: “If you had read as many histories as I have, you would have known this; for though I have perused a great many, I never yet found any account given in them, that ever knights-errant did eat, unless it were by chance, and at certain sumptuous banquets made on purpose for them.”

Cervantes applies this same kind of irony and satire to not only chivalry, but also to the many foibles of life and human nature as well.  As you begin to recognize these, your appreciation for this marvelous work will only increase.  In the meantime, for those wishing to study this work with their youngest readers, Margaret Hodges work is probably the best.  For middle and upper readers the latest edition by Martin Jenkins, and illustrated by Chris Riddell will provide not only a well-written abridgement, but also a visual feast. Also, don’t miss the marvelous etchings of  Gustave Doré, a few of which I’ve included here and can also be found online.  Jennie Ruzicka also provides a book of them in her Gustave Doré Illustrations to Don Quixote.    



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My latest read is King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.  While I am enjoying Green’s work immensely, my favorite edition of this tale is actually The Boy’s King Arthur; but in the interest of accessibility for the modern reader, especially for children, the Green edition is by far the easier.  The Boy’s King Arthur is taken from the Sir Thomas Malory edition and was translated by Sidney Lanier.  The beauty of this gorgeous hardback that I’ve had for nearly 30 years is that the illustrations are done by N. C. Wyeth and in my humble opinion are incomparable.  I will share some here so that you can see what I mean!  But the Sidney Lanier translation is a bit more difficult and nothing too important is left out of the Green edition so it is a good place to start.  Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic characters, plot, and story line of these classic tales from the Green edition, the Boy’s edition will only increase your enjoyment and affection for them.

As in most of the literature from the Medieval era, these tales involve all the elements of the heroic quest, or hero’s journey.  King Arthur is, like many of our heroic figures (Moses, Oedipus, Theseus) taken from his real parents at birth and secreted away to preserve him for his future destiny.  The picture at left is Wyeth’s depiction of Merlin secreting Arthur away. Once his identity is revealed to be the long-awaited and only true King of England, Arthur is given a boon or gift.  This is the famous sword Excaliber that is a gift of the Lady of the LakeWith this sword Arthur will ever seek the cause of right and become the most noble knight in all the land!

As King Arthur’s fame grows he begins to gather around himself other like-minded knights who are interested in seeking justice and using their swords in the cause of the right. Sir Lancelot becomes Arthur’s most trusted, brave, and loyal companion.  As a Knight of the Round Table, Arthur trusts Lancelot implicitly; but sadly both men love the same woman–the noble and beautiful Guinevere.  Though Arthur and Guinevere are happily married, Lancelot will not take a wife out of his love and loyalty to Guinevere.  But on one of his quests, Lancelot visits the castle of Carbonek where the Holy Grail is secreted and meets one of the fairest damsels in the land, the Lady Elaine.  The Lady Elaine falls desperately in love with Lancelot, but alas, he only has eyes for Guinevere.  In desperation, Elaine resorts to enchantments to pose as Guinevere and win Lancelot’s love.  So strong is the magic that Lancelot forgets his oath, his honor and even that Guinevere is married.  The result is that Lady Elaine in the guise of Guinevere, conceives and bears Lancelot’s son–the future Galahad.  Lancelot, in his utter shame and despondency over his betrayal and violation of his oath, loses his sanity and wanders the forests as a wild animal.  For over two years Lancelot exists like this, knowing nothing any longer of the fellowship of men.  Eventually Lancelot is restored, but he is never again the spotless Knight that he had been.

And what of Lady Elaine?  She bears and raises Lancelot’s son, but lives with a heart broken by her unrequited love for the noble Lancelot.  Eventually she dies of that broken heart.  “And when she dies her attendants laid her, richly clad, in a barge on the broad river that flows down to Camelot, and they placed a letter in her hand and let the barge drift with the stream–for such had been her dying wish.”

If this seems slightly familiar, it is because Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) immortalized it in the film of the same name, when she acts out the poem “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.  In the film Anne is playing the part of Lady Elaine in her death barge as she floats to Camelot. Romantic–isn’t it?  Even in Anne Shirley’s edition it is romantic since her barge sinks and she must be rescued by Gilbert Blythe!  Even in the 20th century chivalry is not dead!

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Thank you to those of you that registered for the Literature Seminar last week.  Sadly, some folks that didn’t register showed up at the door.  Somehow they didn’t get the memo, and I apologize for that.  I had posted on Facebook, the BFB website and here that the seminar was postponed, so I do regret the inconvenience for any who may have traveled.

This literature training session will focus on the best children’s literature covering the historic period from the fall of Rome to the Early Renaissance.  Topics to be covered will include: what makes a good book, tools of literary analysis, knowing the best children’s authors, benefits of reading aloud and much more.  An hour of practicum will allow participants to get involved using the tools presented with some classic children’s picture books.  Wrap up will include how children’s books have inspired great men and women to do great things!  All in all, I expect it to be inspiring, challenging and lots of fun too!  Hope you can join me.  For more information call 800.889.1978 or you can register here.  Happy Reading!

Literature Training Seminar

Saturday, September 18, 2010

9 am to 3 pm (an hour break for lunch)

Location: San Luis Obispo Classical Academy

165 Grand Avenue

San Luis Obispo, CA 93405

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