This is a revised version of a paper I delivered at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.
I was sitting in an undergraduate survey class of early British literature. The reading for that day had been a mystery play – I forget which one exactly it was. I had enjoyed the play – I knew then already that I’d be focusing on medieval literature – but I hadn’t thought much more about this play than any other texts we had read.
As the class session went on and we discussed how these plays were performed, I started reading the whole play with a slightly different view, more attentive, as it became more real to me. It wasn’t that I was gaining tools to imagine real actors performing these lines – I was, of course. But I actually did see a complete image in my mind of the performance – not of the play as it was meant to be experienced by an audience, but as if I had a birds-eye view of the staging, the behind-the-scenes. I felt the excitement of watching a play and the thrill of seeing the inner workings which I wasn’t supposed to see.
And it wasn’t only that I was hearing these details in class. I realized that the image I had in my mind was of Adam Quartermayne, sitting on a wall and watching a mystery play.
He had attempted to watch the play as a regular audience member but was too far back and too short to see anything, so he had raced around the churchyard wall and perched himself on top of the wall. From there, he could see not only the play as it was meant to be seen but also things like Adam and Eve changing from their elegant pre-Fall clothing to rough green clothes. These details were hidden from the audience on the proper level by a curtain but visible to Adam from his perch on the wall.
The details of that vivid scene from the historical novel all matched up with what was being described in an academic context.
The same thing happened again in a Spring 2014 graduate class as we discussed medieval hunting laws and I saw very clearly Adam running from the authorities during a hue and cry after he’d inadvertently gotten himself mixed up with poachers. I felt like I knew the facts being talked about, and I felt excited about the new details as they took up their places within the personal story of the adolescent Adam.
The excitement I felt when these memories were stirred during academic discussions didn’t cause me to study these things. I was already studying medieval literature and I don’t specialize in mystery plays or medieval law. But the recognition I felt did bring the Middle Ages to life for me in specific ways.
I felt like I knew a person who experienced these things. They weren’t random facts but were attached to a character whose personality and individual reactions to these situations I already knew. The new facts I learned clarified some points that my adolescent reading mind hadn’t necessarily thought to question, and the details I’d read about in the book gave me a framework within which to place the new facts.
Since I’m going to return to Adam of the Road a few times now, I’ll provide a brief summary here:
Adam Quartermayne is a young boy in 1294 whose father is a minstrel. The book opens with Adam at an Abbey school waiting for his father to return from a year in France learning new songs and music. When he does return, Adam leaves his friend Perkins, who comforts Adam about their parting by saying they’re sure to see each other again because “minstrels get about and so do students.” Adam accompanies his father to his lord’s household and on the lord’s travels, and then on personal travels from town to town without the lord. Eventually, Adam’s dog Nick is stolen, and when he tries to find Nick, he is separated from his father. The rest of the book is Adam chasing clues about Nick as the dog’s abductor rides across England. By the end, Adam finds his dog and returns to the Abbey to wait for his father again. Adam has grown tremendously in maturity by that point, and his father recognizes and honors that by giving him a new set of minstrel clothes and inviting him along as a minstrel in his own right, not just as his son.
It’s not exactly a new idea to say that historical fiction is more useful than history textbooks in engaging young readers in a specific historical period or moment. I want to address how educators talk about the mechanics of this utility and about harnessing that utility in the classroom.
One idea I came across was that textbooks provide knowledge of the history while fiction provides understanding. Textbooks can give the facts and details of what exactly happened, but fiction uses a more easily understood and subjective narrative to demonstrate the consequences and implications of human behavior on an individual decision-making level.
But the assumption that the child reader may forget the details but will retain general knowledge of life in that historical period is the opposite of what actually happens. The reader, especially the child or adolescent reader, is identifying with the characters in the text and will therefore remember the details specific to that character. A casual reader will not be analyzing the details she reads about in order to see the broader picture of “life in that period.”
When I read Adam of the Road, all I knew was a story about a boy in 1294 who suffered many catastrophes and had to have many adventures, both good and bad, in order to make everything right again. Of course those catastrophes and adventures were contingent upon the time period in which Adam lived, and of course as a child reader I knew that, but I wasn’t consciously making connections and piecing together a picture to say “oh, that’s what the Middle Ages looks like.”
A child reading for pleasure will not actually retain knowledge of life in that period and forget the details, and therefore have a schema that can be applied to factual information. Rather, he will remember the details, and the schema that will be applied is from the narrow and specific experience to the broader experience, not vice versa.
Part of the explanation for this is a concept in psychology of reading called “experience-taking.” The authors of the initial study of experience-taking found that this mode of reading has more effect on the reader than a similar mode. In vicarious self-perception, the reader identifies with characters because she recognizes bits of herself in the fictional characters.
In experience-taking, the reader leaves the self behind and does not identify with the character so much as become the character. The effect of this is that the reader’s behaviors after reading the book change for a short time. Those books were about contemporary life, so it’s easier to see how experience-taking transfers specific details from the books to real life.
Even with historical fiction, though, those details which affect the reader so intensely stay with the reader long after the general setup of the scenes is forgotten. When the reader loses himself and becomes the character, the details which are important to the character become important to the reader.
I remembered the details of Adam and Eve changing clothes behind the curtain because it was a detail important to Adam Quartermayne. That was the schema I had, and I could fit that vivid almost-memory into what I was learning about mystery plays performances in the Middle Ages in a more general way.
So imagine what would have happened if in that undergraduate class I had gotten excited over remembering this scene in relation to the texts we read and then learned that this was an invention of the author in order to make the book more exciting – that this could never have happened because plays were performed inside and not where a boy could sit on a wall, or that actors exited the stage and had changing rooms where no one could possibly see them.
No real damage would have been done. I’d say – oh, ok, the author made up those details. I would adjust my understanding of the reality of history. But then I’d have lost the vivid image of an individual person I had been able to apply to a broader and possibly harder to grasp idea of how this functioned in society.
The thing is, this thought experiment counts on the rest of the book being fairly accurate. Most historical fiction of this kind is usually accurate, and the detail I used here is mostly inconsequential (and actually accurate in the book).
But there is damage that can be done when an author portrays parts of the historical picture inaccurately, either due to lack of knowledge or due to a desire to make the story more exciting and engaging. Sometimes the purpose of the book isn’t even to write about history at all. And that is perhaps the most dangerous in this regard.
James Harold discusses the moral philosophy of trying to write a narrative from the perspective of someone entirely different from yourself. He is concerned mostly with writers in the position of oppressors claiming an intention of understanding the oppressed and therefore writing in their voice, an oppression of its own kind. Harold is not talking about the kind of historical otherness I am addressing here. His discussion is more high-stakes with regard to contemporary and real oppression, but his ideas can be applied here as well.
He writes that “the idea is that failure to show the right kind of respect for historical or fictional figures violates an indirect duty – it undermines the agent’s own moral development, and her propensities to treat people respectfully” (252). Books that play fast and loose with medieval-ish material show disrespect. That might be a strong word to use here, but as almost everyone who studies the Middle Ages knows, the effects of this kind of misrepresentation are not insignificant. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to call it disrespect for the people of the Middle Ages and for others today, both scholars of the Middle Ages who know what it actually looked like, and the less-informed readers of these novels who don’t know that they’re gaining misinformation as factual.
In attempting to find specific examples to use for this paper, I became very discouraged by the books being categorized as medieval, whether in the “best” lists or “worst” lists on Goodreads. The reviews and comments are highly amusing and really useful, but they’re also very frustrating.
Every so often, a reviewer (most of whom are teens) will scoff at the inaccuracies of a warrior princess in thirteenth-century England or something like that, but more often teens rave about the heroine’s courage and say things like “I really got a sense of what life was like for a girl in the Middle Ages” (though they’re more likely to use the term Dark Ages here…) The term medieval is used in a pejorative sense by these readers and reviewers.
The effect when a reader of these books is sitting in an undergraduate survey class is more likely a disinterested, possibly disgusted, “this ‘real’ Middle Ages isn’t as exciting as the Middle Ages my favorite characters experienced.”
When the book in question is obviously using popular concepts of the Middle Ages in order to write a story that has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, it’s frustrating enough. But when authors whose intention is actually to portray the Middle Ages feel the need to invent more exciting details, they do more harm than good. And when those invented details are written well and seem real, it’s really bad.
Katherine Paterson has been asked many times about the real-world inspiration for the woods in Bridge to Terabithia. Or rather, as she says, the question is phrased “where is Terabithia?” She gives various answers, but in a 1984 lecture, she explained that although it is a mixture of a few different places she remembered from childhood, she panicked when she realized that she wanted to include a grove of trees which may not be able to grow in the area where the rest of the story was set. She could not possibly excuse using those trees there, even though it was a minute detail which likely no one would pick up on.
In order to create strong affective connections, the imagined place needs to be real. Making up details or tweaking things to fit the plot or character might seem innocent but will actually influence the emotional connection the reader can form with the characters, and therefore the affective and subjective understanding the reader has of that historical time period.
One of the brilliant things Elizabeth Janet Gray does in Adam of the Road is provide a richly detailed and real imagined place for the story. Since Adam’s father is a minstrel, Adam gets to travel, and when he gets separated from his father and has to try to meet up with him, he gets to travel into more and wildly different parts of England. As Adam’s father says, “A road’s a kind of holy thing…It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together” (52). That echoes Chaucer in some ways. Whether the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales would have been traveling together in reality or not, the idea of a road as connecting people from various backgrounds works.
In this historical novel, this characteristic provides an opportunity for Adam, and thus the reader, to experience many different aspects of medieval England. Adam visits a fair, a forest, a churchyard play, an Abbey, a lord’s household, and many other places – all richly and accurately described and used in the story. This level of detail and accuracy is what allows the reader to connect with the character, and then later to retain those connections and memories when discovering factual details, and to supplement fact with fiction – or fiction with fact, perhaps a better way to put it.
Again, discussions of the benefits of children’s historical fiction focus on this aspect – the elements of good historical fiction are an exciting story, memorable characters, and a historical backdrop. Having a character to relate to, seeing those minute daily-life details and emotions of a child “just like me” makes history come alive.
But these discussions center around books that portray huge historical moments from a child’s perspective, not a child living a normal life with no great social and historical upheavals.
The reason Adam of the Road was a perfect central text for this paper is that it does not focus on any big event. The big event is Adam losing his dog and his father, and having to travel all over England – an England in which nothing out of the ordinary is happening – in order to be reunited.
In terms of experience-taking, books focusing on huge historical moments can have significant effects on children’s moral development as they watch other children solve problems on such large scales. But for the purposes of gaining a schema for understanding an entire historical period, approaches like the one in Adam of the Road are more effective, showing an ordinary boy and his ordinary troubles – very different from the ordinary troubles of today’s child, but dealing with similar issues of arrogance, abandonment, passion, etc.
Another issue I take with the pedagogical discussion of historical fiction is in regard to the suggestions for study guide questions. These are again mostly focused on books dealing with important historical moments, but they tend to ask questions about the child protagonist’s motivations or emotions at any given point.
However, if the benefit of fiction over textbook is the affective versus objective reading, this analysis detracts from the affective response. Had I stopped to think about the role of minstrelsy and music or the effect of the vibrant descriptions, as some study guides do in fact suggest, my enthusiastic “oh I recognize that!” as an undergraduate would likely not have happened, and I would not have felt that emotional connection to the facts I was learning then.
A few pedagogical discussions mentioned that reading fiction about interesting historical figures could cause children to research that historical time period further. Children don’t always wait until they’re in college to find out more about the lives of characters that interest them.
But the main benefits of this phenomenon come from its completely organic nature. When a child is captivated by a book and independently seeks more information, that’s affective engagement at its best. When it’s initiated, prompted, and guided by a teacher, it’s of course still better than a textbook because the children are definitely more engaged with the characters of the book. But it’s missing the spontaneous excitement which generates genuine interest and long-lasting understanding of and connection to that history.
What’s the alternative, though? To provide the books and hope kids get interested enough to follow up on at least some of them? That’s completely unrealistic for so many reasons. Teachers can make sure students have access to books which are rich in accurate historical detail and feature strong engaging characters, and students might love those books, but they won’t necessarily follow up on any of them. Guided questions seem to be the only answer, but that defeats the purpose of immersion in history in order to understand it properly. By stepping back to analyze it, they lose that immersion.
As I was puzzling over this, I didn’t come up with any realistic options, but I did remember a moment when I was teaching eighth grade English. The students had each chosen a book from a selection I’d provided, and they were then split into groups to read, discuss, and write about the books. Four students had chosen The Phantom Tollbooth. I was excited, because these were the four brightest students, and this is one of my favorite books.
They hated it.
They read it, though, all the way to the end, and with such great attention to detail – because they wanted to have ammunition to argue against me with.
This is not historical fiction, of course – it’s about a boy who enters another world where reality is shaped by grammatical and mathematical concepts. But all the guided study questions I had prepared for them had been completely forgotten as they picked apart the book on their own terms.
Their arguments about why the book is not as great as I think it is were thoughtful, text-based, and broad. They didn’t convince me – I still love the book. But their arguments were good. Their engagement with the book was not what I had hoped it would be, but they did engage with it.
Again, this won’t happen for every student. But in some way, allowing students to engage with the books on their own terms can accomplish more than prodding them along to see what teachers want them to see.
Students may or may not “get about” as Perkins says (though of course he means physically and I mean intellectually), but at least the possibility for that is there when teachers provide the historical accuracy and the potential for emotional attachment.