Thanksgiving Chivalry

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My classroom white board

It was the last period of the day when it happened. Tales of conquering knights, castle life or the grossness of the fuller’s job makes teaching the  Middle Ages to 8th graders easier. The kids have played Clash of Clans or Magic, they know the story of Cinderella, Rapunzel and the Hobbit, they wear Underarmor  and maybe even sneaked a peek at Game of Thrones… so many misconceptions, but it’s a place to start.

It also helps that middle schoolers want to fit in – the oratores, bellatores, laborares of the middle ages make sense to them (those who pray, fight, work). I use the opening scene of Divergent to introduce these interdependent class systems that maintain social order. The kids learn a lot of vocabulary and research many aspects the middle ages – knights and the code of chivalry, the duties of lords and vassals, the everyday life of serfs and freemen. They have to put in a lot of time reading. This unit lands just before the Thanksgiving break so I hold out the promise of a tournament day to keep their attention on their school work.

After all that reading it’s time to put the newly acquired knowledge to work. I have invested a full set of chainmail, arming coat, helmet, sword and buckler along with a 12th century noble lady’s outfit (complete with wimple, stylish long belt and purse) for two lucky kids to put on with the help of their squires and handmaidens. We have some crazy masks to perform a mummers play, some mock robes for our clergy, and pool noodles, foam shields and inflatable horses for the joust. It is a very active day.

In the middle of this we have a dubbing ceremony, the elevation of a squire to the order of knights who must follow the code of chivalry. For the dubbing ceremony I use a translation of Tirant Lo Blanc – a story favored by Cervantes published in 1490. This year the script hit home in light of the recent ISIS attacks:

King (to squire): Squire, bring your master forward and present him to me.(Candidate kneels before the King) Squire, do you vouch the candidate is deemed worthy of elevation to the order of chivalry?

Squire: Yes, Sire.

King (to candidate): This sword’s significance lies in the fact that it slays and wounds with both edges and its point also stabs. The sword is the knight’s noblest weapon, and he too should serve in three ways. He should defend the church, killing and wounding those who oppose it as do the two edges of a sword. He should also defend the poor and weak against the powerful influence of the rich. And just as a sword pierces whatever it touches, likewise a knight should pierce all heretics and villains, attacking them mercilessly wherever he may find them. The pommel symbolizes the world, for a knight is obliged to defend his king. The guard symbolizes the cross, on which Our Redeemer died to preserve mankind, and every true knight should do likewise, braving death to preserve his brethren. Should he perish in the attempt, his soul will surely go to heaven.

Would the kids hear the parallel in these words? Would they hear danger in promises of heaven to defend earthly interests? Maybe if they were in high school or college… What lesson would be learned from this class? That people are horrible to each other?

The script requires the knight candidate have a squire present him to the king for the dubbing. I let the student wearing the chain mail choose who will be his squire. Everyone has fun watching this poor kid struggle to move around wearing about fifty pounds of kit and he always picks a buddy to join him in the spotlight.

And then it happened. When I asked the knight-to-be to name his squire he asked if he could pick anyone. He has some football friends that weren’t amongst the nobles he should pick from, but it was the last period of the day and I was too tired to push that point. “Yeah, anyone – Who will it be?” Still unsure he double checked his choice – “Could it be —–?”

His choice of squire was a young man in class who is intellectually impaired. He attends school with the help of his one on one aid. It’s important to his parents that he knows the great variety of people in this world, not just those he would meet in the shelter of a “special” school, even though he is not able to do what the other kids do.

This day I was taught a lesson by an 8th grade boy. Don’t believe the Lord of the Flies mentality attributed to middle school kids. This day I saw a squire beaming with pride presenting his knight before the king and laughing as he joined in the joust. After class his joy was heard down the hallway telling everyone what he did. What did he do? He fit in, thanks to the invitation of a classmate.

What I learned in school this day was that to defeat the inevitability of despair caused by terrorism it takes just one truly noble, chivalrous act – sometimes delivered by a thirteen year old. I learned people can be awesome to each other.

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One Response to “Thanksgiving Chivalry”

  1. cyndi Says:

    first smile of the day. And yes, a hopeful future

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