Learning from children: medieval history in the classroom

This is a guest post from my good friend, fellow Normannist and primary school teacher, Dr Ewan Johnson. In it he discusses the use of the term ‘dark ages’ as being generational and demonstrates how children learning under the new national curriculum engage with history and the early middle ages in the classroom and beyond. 

Recently, having followed #stopthedarkages and related argument, I asked the students I work with when and what the Dark Ages were. Their answers varied. Some thought they were before the invention of fire or electricity, others that they were when lots of people died, when there was lots of plague, or terrible war in the trenches. When we voted on whether to study them further nobody wanted to because it would be scary, or just about war, or in one case because he was afraid of the dark. My students are seven and eight, they don’t believe in the Dark Ages yet, or much want to.

What young children know or want rarely features in public debates, even about those things which directly concern them. That they should not so far have featured in a debate about historical periodisation is not surprising. Yet it is my experience of working with these young learners, their teachers and their families which moves me to write, and which I feel can contribute something further to the debate. Two things become clearer when examining their attitudes: first, that the historical use of the ‘dark ages’ has much less cultural presence than both sides of the debate imagine, and second that the next ten years represent a unique opportunity to change how the period is perceived.

The young people in my class aren’t uniformly ignorant about the past. They already have particular visions of the Second and First World Wars, the Tudors, knights and castles, Romans and Egyptians. Here they are useful cultural barometers about popular conceptions and misconceptions. The ‘Dark Ages’ though remain a blank. I suspect they are equally adequate barometers here. Their families no longer reproduce the Dark Age myth. Their parents went to school long after English history 500-1000 was routinely taught. Others come from places where there was never a Roman presence; or where dominant pre-modern empires ended due to the rise of now extinct European ones, which lends imperial collapse a very different moral tone. Their teachers are equally uninformed. Sixty-four were kind enough to answer my query about when they thought the Dark Ages were. Three periods came up: the Wars of the Roses, the plague and fire years of 1665-6, and the Viking incursions of the ninth century.

These responses aren’t entirely surprising when you briefly examine how the term is used generally. I can’t commission any polling, so I simply googled the term and followed the first 100 links I found. ‘Dark Ages’ cropped up in three main areas: as a term which needed definition (which often stressed they weren’t really dark); as a negative term to describe either a future fictional world where state monopolies on violence had broken down or a group operating in such areas today; and within wargaming circles to describe the period from about 500-900. Picking three search terms that I would consider ripe for description as ‘EH Dark Age’: Beowulf, Arthur and the Vikings produced largely similar blanks: Beowulf is either treated as serious ‘early medieval’ history or ahistorical myth, Arthur floats as ever in a chivalric later medieval reimagining. Only the Vikings routinely belonged to the ‘Dark Ages’. They were trumped as the most frequent related search term to Dark Ages by ‘Game of Thrones’, a fictional setting whose visual imagery and inspiration is late medieval. I found only 2 uses which uncritically used ‘Dark Ages’ to describe the period after 500, one definitely immediately post-Roman and the other a translation from Italian. Whether you bemoan this historiographical ignorance or rejoice in the end of a stereotype (or in my case both) popular uses of ‘Dark Ages’ seem to have twisted into a peculiarly atemporal term to use on a timeline on the grounds of simplicity.

How the term is currently understood by most people (and I don’t pretend to any scientific or rigorous analysis above, just an observation of a possibility) is not, of course, a reason to limit its future use, nor need English Heritage’s audience be ‘most people’. Yet the audience it intends to address does matter. My class may not be especially interested in the Dark Ages, yet adults do now think they should be. In 2014 the National Curriculum in England and Wales was changed so that the core of what Key Stage 2 children (aged 7-11) should study in History happened before 1066. For the first time in at least a generation every child will now encounter the full chronological range of ‘English’ history. How they experience it will play an important part in filling the present gap in the public’s imagination, forming the basis of their understanding as they age and of their parents’ as they learn with their children.

Three years ago I watched two eight-year-olds clambering over the ruins of a once prosperous Roman villa. A week before we had sat and told stories of Woden in a smoky longhouse, and formed a shield wall atop a hill whose name identified it in Old English as a strongpoint. We had been writing stories as a series of generations of Germanic immigrants, and the pair began imagining where to prop up walls and make a shelter for animals, acting from instinct exactly as we know immigrants to the villa site did. Over the next few weeks these children’s class used their understandings of friendship groups and moving house, and a developing sense of historical evidence, to think about which leader to follow on arrival, what features would mark their new group out, where to settle, what religion to follow and how. Over time different kids took different paths: some wrote as monks, excited by writing in acorn-black ink on parchment, others saw themselves as basket weavers or metal workers, one as a king who gave up royal status under threat from Offa, others were warriors or travellers. They wrote stories of people like them making choices in a very local world, aware that this world was (in their terms) more basic and primitive but also that it had beauty and artistry and was populated by thoughtful, fully human folk. They grasped, without being aware of it, supposedly complex ideas such as group formation and reformation (ethnogenesis), competition within groups, and spiritual and non-spiritual reasons for conversion. It was most definitely an early medieval ‘Saxon’ England not a ‘Dark Age’ one.

I’m not a great teacher yet, and I certainly wasn’t then. Neither, for all I loved them, were those kids a terribly sophisticated bunch. In some ways this helped since the localised nature of their world mapped well onto the past. Yet many of the obstacles to moving beyond the idea of a ‘Dark Age’ were there only in adult heads. The idea of a Dark Age is no simpler than the alternative if you are freed, as kids are, from the implied teleology of historiography. It was easy to get them thinking of people as fully human rather than lost souls and barbaric thugs because that made the people of the past more like people they knew and were. As a teacher, it was possible to use the chance to start afresh positively, to have a vision of a past world and find ways of communicating it, liberating not to have to spend time removing that which obscured that vision.

And that is why I really hope English Heritage reconsider. The curriculum change is our chance to present this period anew, and to refresh the diverse stories that collectively form our sense of our past. There is a new audience for those stories, which includes children and teachers forced to it, and others. The role of specialists is critical in shaping those stories because most of my colleagues are better teachers but poorer historians than me, and we all need guidance form better historians than us. There is a clear moral and practical choice about who we as educators (whether as academics, custodians of sites or classroom teachers) chose to focus on and how. Either we work together to produce and disseminate a vision of the period as we now understand it, and focus on communicating as simply as we can its complex brightnesses and darknesses. Or we speak to those who may already have misunderstood, focus on the genealogy of an idea rather than an idea itself, and confuse those without the misunderstanding. Whether English Heritage call the period the Dark Ages is only part of that, and they do much excellent work elsewhere. Yet it does represent a choice and a focus. There are only a few times when it is possible to shape a generation’s view of a period from an almost blank slate, to ignite their desire to investigate its complexity. It would be a great shame if we lost this one because we were too busy talking to their grandparents.

Ewan’s disclaimer: I am not unaware of the historiographical complexities of the term, nor do I believe that historians’ only duty is to the dead and the young. Rather, since so much has already been written on the historiography, I have tried to focus on the changed teaching environment in the hope of offering something new to the discussion. I would love to hear from anyone interested in helping primary teachers communicate their visions of the period, especially if they were in the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire area. Please leave a comment on the blog.















Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

3 thoughts on “Learning from children: medieval history in the classroom”

  1. Fascinating read – much to think on when it’s not early Friday evening! In the autumn I am starting a project for the Historical Association examining the teaching of ‘medieval’ history in schools from 11-18 – it’s emerged from running the HA’s Teacher Fellowship programme this year on teaching about c1350-c1530. As yet what I’ll do is relatively undefined because of being very busy (including writing a GCSE book on the N’n C’t) still but it will be my charity retirement ‘job’ – unpaid but a great excuse to read more history! I suppose my guiding aim is to help students have more respect for people of the Middle Ages – non-stop coverage of wars and plague can have a very negative effect whereas looking at how they recruited armies (and the records) and how they responded in terms of public health can create much more positive interpretations. It sounds as if there may be overlap between what we are doing and I’d like to get in touch later in the year if I may. My website is http://www.thinkinghistory.co.uk through which I can be contacted if this is of interest.
    Ian Dawson


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