Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Teaching Tips

Why is performance practice useful to teachers and students? A few thoughts:

  • Students who read with the prospect of performance in mind tend to do the assigned reading on time and to read it carefully. As a student in the course “Acting Medieval Literature” said, “I always read your assignments first because I know I’ll have to perform them!”
  • Students who perform medieval literature often come to a more intensely personal relationship with the works. As another student said, “I feel that in this course I have heard voices from the past.”
  • Works tend to become highly memorable by being performed. Many students and teachers will never forget performances they have seen. By contrast, it is rare that mere classroom discussion is so powerfully memorable.
  • Performance promotes a pleasurable atmosphere in the classroom since performances generally produce some laughter. Almost all works leave at least some opening for comedy—and even the most serious works can on occasion receive parodic send-ups.
  • Performance promotes bonding among the students in the class: they take turns serving as audience for each other and can collaborate on joint performances.

Why use this website in teaching? Some basic points:

  • Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase can serve as a basic introduction to medieval literature. Students at various levels have found it an informative and exciting way to make contact with a wide range of works from the Middle Ages. (Note also PMNT’s recently launched sister website devoted exclusively to Arthurian material, much of it performed in the original languages:  Arthurian Legend in Performance at https://vimeo.com/ArthurPerform.)
  • This website helps students and teachers alike come to a deeper appreciation of the basic “performed” character of medieval literature. Works were meant to be voiced, and to be accompanied with gestures and other physical movements. Many narrative works were intended for a strongly dramatic handling.

How to use this website? A few suggestions:

  • Ask the students in a class on Arthurian literature to view clips featuring Arthurian material and to consider what interpretation of the work (or scene, themes or characters) is implicit in the performance; whether they agree with this interpretation, and thus with the performance; whether the performance showed them things about the work or scene that they had not noticed before; whether the performer missed things that seem important to them; whether they find it useful to see a scene performed, or prefer to read it for themselves, aloud or silently.
  • Ask students to watch a variety of clips from one work (e.g. The Song of Roland) or on one subject (e.g. Arthurian legend), and to compare how characters (e.g. Roland or the famous and on-going Arthurian characters) are depicted in the work(s).
  • Ask the students in a class on medieval literature to view all the clips featuring a certain type of performance—for example, performances using puppets, or instruments, or recorded music. They can then discuss the use of this particular performance style: How is it attractive, effective? What are its limitations?
  • Ask students to examine the full range of performances styles and strategies, viewing an example of each of the available “performance descriptors.” They may then evaluate the appeal and usefulness of different performance strategies with regard to a particular work or set of works (which may or may not be represented on this site). What does each performance style bring to our appreciation of the work or works in question?
  • Ask students to explain why they like or dislike a particular clip. Explaining why a performance does, or does not, conform to their tastes often helps students articulate more clearly their own understanding and reading of the passage or work.
  • Ask students to describe “imaginary performances”: they are to specify a patron, the other members of the audience, the occasion, the performance style, the message they would like to impart—and to explain how they would use their voice and body in the performance. If circumstances permit, students can also carry out their ideas in actual performances, such as those found on this site.
  • Ask the students in a class on medieval literature to discuss the differences between reading a particular scene to themselves—privately, silently—and watching and hearing it performed. How much does the performance mode—reading vs. watching—change “audience” reaction to the scene? How much and in what ways does it modify the act of reception?

How to find the kinds of things you want on this site: 

This website contains many scenes from medieval narrative—so many that a new user may feel overwhelmed by its richness of content and wealth of options. Here are a few suggestions to help you find the kinds of clips you may want to show students in a course: 

Make real use of the drop-down boxes. Think about what they can give you and how they can help you find the material you need.

Look under performance descriptors. Might you want…

  • Scenes with medieval costumes? See costumes, under performance descriptors.
  • Scenes with medieval instrumental music? Again under performance descriptors, look under music, instrumental—and in particular perhaps chordophones.
  • ​​Scenes performed in the original language? Look under language of performance.
  • Comic scenes? Look under genres such as fabliaux, and under titles such as the Roman de Renart. Look also under “comic reworking” under performance descriptors.

​For other kinds of searches, try doing key word searches:​

  • ​For scenes of warfare, ​​do a search for “battle,” “war,” “sword,” or the like. You can search for “death,” “tragic,” and so on.
  • For “romantic” scenes, do a search for “love.” (You will have many hits!) You can also search for “marriage” and for “wedding.”
  • The word “friend” will take you to some interesting clips.
  • The word “dramatic” will take you to scenes high in drama.

“Authentic” is not a category for which we have a drop-down box. It is impossible to know exactly how things were performed in the medieval period; moreover, works would typically have been performed in many different ways for different audiences in different settings. There is therefore not a single “authentic” performance mode for any work or scene. For those seeking performances with a relatively high level of medieval plausibility, clips produced by professional performers are apt to be of particular interest since professionals have generally done research on the issues involved.

We invite you to think further about how keyword searches can lead you to what you want—and perhaps to some surprises as well.

For more ideas, see the article by Evelyn Birge Vitz, “Teaching Arthur through Performance” (reprinted with permission from Arthuriana 15.4 [2005]: 31-36), and the articles in the fall 2012 issue of The Once and Future Classroom: Resources for Teaching the Middle Ages in Grades K-12, a special issue about using this website in teaching, edited by Evelyn Birge Vitz and Marilyn Lawrence and published by TEAMS: The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages.