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14th Century Prague: An Approach Using Literature in the Junior High Classroom

Produced by Tammy Socher, Madison Junior High School, 1994

Goals and Models

The unit will cover medieval Czechoslovakia and serve as a model for the feudal system. Areas covered will be the general hierarchy of feudal times, both secular and church, the position and importance of Jews in that world, including the ghetto, pogroms, money-lending and commerce, the daily lives of serfs, Jews and knights, and group study on the structure of a castle. Materials include David Macauley's Castle (the book and the video), and A Boy of Old Prague by Shulamith Ish-Kishor, as well as a standard history text.

Obviously, there is a great deal of specific factual knowledge to be covered in this unit. I would plan small quizzes, charts, diagrams and maps, essay questions, as well as a unit test as a means of evaluation. This will also mean the introduction of such topics as how to read and make a model, a political map, physical map, and so on, as well as how to write an essay on an historical question.

Some of the non-specific questions that I wish to cover are the differences between types of political organization--for instance between the city state of the middle ages and our own city. What rights did people have? Were these rights protected or ignored? Was there an appeal? To whom? Did it work, or get you in more trouble? We will also examine the role of minorities then and now. Where do we get the word ghetto? How is it used now? How is a modern ghetto different from a medieval ghetto? How is it similar? What were the stereotypes of Jews in the middle ages? In what ways do these stereotypes still operate to the disadvantage of Jews today? Which aspects of the medieval stereotypes have been reassigned to other groups in our own time? Are there groups other than Jews who serve the functions that the Jews served in this time? These questions, which most teachers seem to find impossible to discuss at any level, including college, are intensely interesting to pre-teens. (It will be necessary to give essential background information. Most students are unaware, for instance, that neither Jews nor Moslems accept Jesus as the messiah. Many Hispanic students have asked me, "Didn't the Jews kill G-d'?" which indicates a lack of understanding of the Trinity. Another common question is, "Jews don't believe in G-d, do they?" These questions must be taken seriously and objectively, for they are asked in innocent ignorance, and teachers who refuse to deal with these topics as too hot to handle condemn their students to a continuation of that ignorance.)

Other areas of comparison with our own time are labor/food production (serfs vs. "braceros"). Do the great farms of the Central Valley resemble the feudal system? How? How not? We will examine the role of the Catholic Church. We will discuss use of basic resources in daily life, in food production, and in production of consumer goods. It is also a good time to talk about concepts of age: by 12 or 13, boys and girls in that time were expected to launch their adult lives--boys to begin their life-work and girls to marry and begin to bear and care for children. It is interesting to present this as an ideal and discuss the many problems that our society faces as a consequence of extended childhood-adolescence that the Middle Ages never had to deal with.

A Boy of Old Prague is a short novel. It may easily be read aloud to the students, or if funds are available, it could be used as a class set. It is set in 12th century Czechoslovakia. The main character is a serf boy, Tomas. We first see Tomas in the traditional agricultural role of the serf. The family struggles to make a living from their "strip", and lives without what today's teens consider even the barest necessities. Tomas is drafted to work at the manor house, catches the attention of the lord, is kept on at the manor house, steals a chicken from the lord's kitchen and is sentenced to death. He gains a reprieve when the lord decides instead to give him to a Jewish moneylender in the ghetto of Prague to whom he is deeply indebted. At first Tomas is horrified as he thinks of the stories he has heard of Jewish witchcraft and evil, but as he gets to know the Jewish family, he gradually realizes that the Jews are people like himself and comes to love the family. The involvement of his former master with the moneylender continues, however, and the young lord wishes to renege on his debts. He accomplishes this by inciting a pogrom, accusing the Jews of sacrilegious acts against the church. The ghetto burns and Tomas escapes because he had been given the day off for a visit home to his family.

The second book to be used in this unity is David Macauley's The Castle. Macauley gives a detailed look at castle-building, from below the ground up, with wonderful pictures covering terms, building materials, methods, tools, labor supply, and so on. I have a large wall chart of a castle, which I would put on the bulletin board at this time. I would begin by showing the Macauley video to the whole class. I would then form cooperative learning groups. Each group would decide on a project from a group of suggestions. The Macauley book, as well as other resource books from the library would be passed between groups as supplemental resources. Once the projects and the groups were settled and working, we would continue the novel.

In the first few chapters, Tomas and his family live the impoverished life of agricultural serfs. At this time, the standard history text would be used to study the place of the serf in the feudal system. It would also be a good time to review the position of slaves in pre-Civil War America, and to discuss the differences between a slave and a serf. (My students always want to talk about live-in maids at this point, and whether a live-in maid is a slave. Until we go into it, most of them do believe that taking a live-in job, as many of their friends and family members do, is slavery.)

The system of the sharing of the crop with the lord should be explained here. There are many aspects of contrast between modern and medieval agriculture to be brought up at this time--the use of the fallow field, animals vs. machines, people vs. machines, the seasonal nature of agriculture, the relationship of man to nature--cultivator, custodian, exploiter, pesticide damage to the environment vs. the tremendous loss of crops to insects, fungus and animal damage with the attendant periodic famine: one must be careful not to get off the track here and lose the thread of the story in a blizzard of information.

Since the lord of the manor, Lord Ranier, is getting married, Tomas is drafted for temporary service in the castle, and the contrast between Tomas' family's life and life in the castle is sharply drawn. The wardrobes, the difference in diet, the miserable working conditions and long hours, all are brought out here. This is also the place to point out that though the working conditions of the castle are hard by today's standards (long hours, physical punishment, heat of the open cook fires), the life of the house servant is vastly superior to that of the farmer serf.

Another very interesting issue at this point is the role of animals and the value of life, human and animal. Lord Ranier's prize hunting dog is missing, and he is convinced that a serf has stolen her. He has several serfs tortured and threatens to hang the thief. Tomas gains favor and a semi-permanent place in the castle household by rescuing the dog, who is caught in a thicket of thorns.

Tomas gets a message that his family is starving, and steals a chicken from a platter of chickens ready to be carried into the castle dining room. The chicken is not missed from the platter in all the abundance of food for the nobles, but it slides out of Tomas' shirt when he slips in the courtyard and he is sentenced on the spot by Lord Ranier to hang for theft.

These two incidents bring up many ideas--why does a veterinarian study for years to save the lives of animals and yet also "put them to sleep?" (And why do we use that euphemism?) When is an animal's life worth more than a human's? Some early law codes punished animals for "crimes"; today we hold the owner responsible. We would all agree today that capital punishment is excessive for stealing a chicken. Is it ever justified? When?

Lord Ranier relents when he realizes that he can gain more advantage by trading Tomas as partial payment on a debt than by hanging him. To be traded to the Jew, to live in the ghetto--this punishment seems almost a fate worse than death to Tomas and to the other serfs, who are more horrified than if the lord had proceeded with the hanging. This is the time to go into the social structure of the medieval city, with its hierarchy of court and church, the guilds and the hereditary nature of crafts, the ghetto and the position of Jews, and interplay of city and rural life.

After the introduction to basic differences between Jews and Christians has been dealt with, it is time for a discussion of stereotypes. The Bureau of Jewish Education at 6505 Wilshire can be very helpful with films and filmstrips which deal with the stereotyping of many minorities, including the Jews. It is good to point out that for almost every stereotype, there is an opposite stereotype so that prejudice can suit every occasion: penny-pinching vs. nouveau riche, smother-mother vs. cold, manipulative JAP, etc.

Many of our immigrant students have changed cultures and gone through quite a traumatic time. This can readily be compared to Tomas' fear and his gradual adjustment and discovery that his apprehensions were ill-founded. What other fears do we have that are based on popular myth? What fears does he have that are based on real danger? What precautions do we or should we take against the real dangers? (For many of my students, these real dangers include gang warfare, drug dealers, family violence, even "La Migra.")

Pogroms should be explained. This will be a new and strange concept. The Atlas of Jewish History has maps of pogroms and expulsions that can be duplicated or made into transparencies.

Lord Ranier makes several trips into the city to see the moneylender, and incidentally, to try to seduce the moneylender's young granddaughter. When he can neither gain forgiveness for his debts nor seduce the girl, he turns his anger against Jews in general, and involves the church fathers in inciting a pogrom. At this point, one might go into the economics of the pogrom. When the moneylender is dead, and his house and records are destroyed, the debt will be gone. Lord Ranier is not the only nobleman who owes money; so do many others. It must be explained here that it is virtually impossible to conduct business without borrowing money and that money lending was one of the few jobs open to Jews by law, and it was forbidden to Christians. In addition, most of the property of the Jews will not be irreparably damaged. The stone houses of the ghetto can be confiscated, repaired and re-rented in a year or two when the Jews are invited to return and the whole cycle of pogrom and expulsion can begin again. When Tomas returns to the ghetto, finds it in flames and can find no trace of the family he has come to love, he returns to the manor, and Lord Ranier finds him a place in a monastery. This is perhaps an unlikely touch, but a good opportunity to discuss literacy in the Middle Ages and the importance of the Church in education.

Evaluation and Methodology:

Learning involves all the senses. This is something everyone knows, and yet somehow, it is also something easily forgotten. The kindergarten teacher knows it best--she involves her students in manipulatives, uses auditory cues such as repetitive songs, has a wide variety of visual aids, even lets her students eat candies after counting them, and what eager learners she has! As the students get older the sensory aids decrease. By junior high, an age where the children, although some are in adult bodies, most are confined to straight rows, expected to sit hour after hour on hard chairs, given inadequate bathroom opportunities, and often exposed, in lieu of real education, to that hour of the classroom, the Talking Head. The Talking Head proses on, often incomprehensibly, pausing occasionally to get mad and send someone out for disciplinary action. This is sometimes the only interesting thing in the period, and small wonder that bad boys become heroes. But even a Talking Head gets tired, so then we can do Read-the-chapter-do-the-questions. This activity requires no understanding. The students can write the answers by just looking in the text for the same words that are in the question, and copy a few sentences. The teacher will have 150 or more papers to grade, and they're all going to be the same, so a glance and a check at the top of the paper and in the roll book will be the extent of the interaction. For a real treat, Ms. T. Head will show a movie--without any interruption--except to tell the students that if they continue to throw spitwads across the room, there will be no more movies. (An empty threat--how can she find time to keep the grade book up to date without an occasional movie?) Unfortunately, this is the way history is taught in the majority of junior high classrooms. We may not like to admit it, but we all know it. We see it around us, we remember it from our own dismal junior high experience, and it is what makes history one of the most hated subjects at all levels.

We who wish to communicate a passion for and a fascination with history, and who try to fight against the deadly tide of ennui that spills like a low lying fog out of the classroom and over into the faculty lunchroom, where the Talking Heads gather for a friendly grumble about how unappreciated they are (they got that right!) are faced with a difficult task. Our students come in already bored, hostile and positive that they will learn nothing. I wish I could say it has to change. It doesn't. They can plod on toward retirement doing just what they have done for so long. Those who care cannot and will not change those who don't. I really wish I thought otherwise. But I believe, based on nearly thirty years in the classroom, that all I can do is shut my door and do my best to get across that history is life and love and betrayal and disaster. Often it works, and a boy or girl is history-struck and wants to know more about Charlemagne or Ivan the Terrible or why it's the pits to be a landlocked country or why geography isn't destiny for Japan. And sometimes it doesn't work and they stay so interested in the territorial wars of the neighborhood gangs that they cannot look up and catch the parallel between Sadaam Hussein and George Bush and the Crazy Boyz and the North Hollywood Boyz. You can't stick a Cadillac up your nose and you can't make everybody like what you like.

You can try though, and the education establishment has just endorsed what I've been sneaking and doing for years--the use of the historical novel in the classroom. It does work. I've been reading A Boy of Old Prague to classes since about 1973. In the past, several administrators have indicated that they thought literature in a history classroom was just a time filler. Having made their obligatory classroom visit and negative remark, they never came back to check, and I've had a wonderful time using novels and poetry over the years.

When I teach World War II, I read autobiographies and basedon-true-story novels from many points of view--a Polish girl deported to Siberia for being a capitalist, a Chinese boy caught up in the Japanese invasion of China, a Ukrainian boy who joined a partisan group, a Japanese girl experiencing Hiroshima. Of course, the curriculum must go on. Sometimes the connection between the work of the class and a particular piece of literature will not be evident for months, until several things have been read and comparisons can be drawn. It doesn't matter. If the students think that when you read to them, they are getting away with something, so much the better. You must stop frequently to ask questions, comment, seek opinions on the story. What might happen next?

While I do not believe that charisma can be imposed from above by changes in prescribed methodology, I do believe that good teachers can learn a great deal from each other. We need release time to observe each other, not in sample lessons, but in everyday situations. We need to spend our in-service time sharing our successes and talking honestly about our failures. I had this kind of experience as a new teacher in the UC Berkeley Teacher Internship Program in 1964-65, and it has sustained me and inspired me all these years.

Sloppy teaching is engendered by the isolation that is endemic in our system.

Sample Project Assignments (Cooperative learning groups):

1. Set of three maps:

  • Physical map of Europe and Central Europe, showing important rivers, mountain ranges, etc.
  • Political map of Europe during the time of the story, showing main cities and country boundaries
  • Political map of Europe today. (These maps should be done on poster sized paper, suitable for mounting on the bulletin board.

2. Model of castle, mounted on a large piece of cardboard. May not be made from a kit.

3. Poster diagram of a castle, with all parts labeled.

4. Posters showing hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and the social structure (secular) of the middle ages.

5. Map of medieval Prague, as detailed as possible.

6. Poster of manor and farmlands, with labels explaining crops, animals, fallow fields, etc.

7. Sample menu, with pictures, done on poster paper, for the serf family and the lord's table at the castle. Must reflect research.

8. Research paper on the education and life of a knight.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies