Saturday, September 7, 2013

Resources to better understand the Middle Ages: the prose

Continuing the showcase of Middle Ages resources,  I´d like to introduce some works in prose.
El Conde Lucanor by Don Juan Manuel is one of the first works in Spanish in prose. The author was a nobleman involved in the political intrigues of his time. He fought in different campaigns and gained territory for his king, to whom he was directly related.

The book is a series of 50 short stories that follow the same pattern. A young nobleman, count Lucanor, introduces a problem or worry to his servant Patronio. Patronio, who is a man of his time, apologizes humbly to his master because he is just a poor servant but tells him a story that is related to the proposed problem and offers a solution to it. Lucanor, of course, ends up following the "advice" from these stories. The morals of the stories also appear in a short verse at the end of the story.

Most of the stories come from known sources: classic or Arabic authors, folktales, fables etc. Our students are familiar with some of them and this can also give us the opportunity to discuss different literary traditions and how they have are always connected. On the website of the Instituto Cervantes there is an updated version of El Conde Lucanor available.

My choice to work with students in a bilingual or IB program would be either tales 2 or 5 on this website. Tale number 2 tells us the story of a father and his son who travel to the market with a donkey. They get criticized by the people they meet on the road when both of them walk, when only one of them travels on the donkey and also when the two of them are on the donkey's back. A very old tale that still today is alive in the oral tradition. The moral is simple: everyone have their own opinions and we should not let others change our minds. 

Tale number five tells us the fable of the fox and the crow. It is one of the fables attributed to classical Greek writer, Aesop. However versions of it are known to be much older and were popular in ancient cultures such as the Sumers, almost 3 thousand years BC. The moral behind the fable is well known, we have to be aware of empty flattery.

The second suggestion would be a graded version of  La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas. There are numerous adapted versions at different levels (B1, B2 or C1) available. In a previous entries I posted links to several publishers that offer updated versions of La Celestina.

Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, better known as La Celestina, is considered one of the best works in Spanish literature. The plot is quite simple: Calisto, a young nobleman, falls in love at first sight with Melibea who rejects him. He asks Celestina,  an old woman who runs a brothel, for help, taking his servants Sempronio's advice. His second servant, Parmeno, warns him about Celestina's bad reputation but Calisto is blind. Soon, also Parmeno also joins the gang to get as much money as possible from Calisto who is blinded by love and lust. Meanwhile, Celestina meets with Melibea and finally Melibea agrees to meet Calisto on her balcony. Parmeno and Sempronio kill Celestina when they find out that she doesn't want to share her payment and are convicted. Calisto goes to Melibea's place with two young servants. He uses a ladder to climb up to Melibea's balcony. When the servants are attacked by thugs sent by Parmeno and Sempronio, Calisto tries to help them, falls down the ladder and dies. Melibea, locks herself in the higher tower of the house, confesses her affair to her parents and kills herself.

La Celestina was written in a time of great changes in society: Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic kings, unified the Spanish kingdoms and the last Muslim kingdom, Granada was conquered. The same year, Columbus embarked on his first journey to the new world. Other very important historical facts took place at the time: the Jewish population had to convert to Catholicism or go on exile and the first grammar of Spanish was published by Antonio Nebrija.
Fernando de Rojas was a converso, that is, his family were Jews who had to convert to Catholicism in order to remain in Spain. However, there are references that the author and other members of his family were convicted for continuing practising their faith in secret. It is no wonder that the author depicts a corrupted society full of hypocrisy and moved by lust and greed in La Celestina.
La Celestina has great influence in Spanish literature. Cervantes "criticized" it for showing human passions in such an open way: "libro, a mi entender divino, si encubriera más lo humano". On the other hand, the similarities with Romeo and Juliet are evident and although the tone of both works is different, this could take us to interesting discussions.

Another good possibility could be to use recent books set in the Middle Ages and show a thorough documented portrait of this period.
El señor del Cero, by María Isable Molina, is set in the X century in times of the Caliphate of Cordoba. José, a young Christian living in Cordoba, is a master of mathematics. He is entrusted with a difficult mission to travel to the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll and Catalonia and copy some precious manuscripts kept in their library. In return, he will translate 3 math Arabic books and he will explain to the monks how to use the Arabic numeration and especially "sifr", number zero. During his stay in the monastery he meets Emma, they fall in love with each other and decide to settle in Castille.  The book shows a very accurate image of the times in Spain, divided in Christian and Muslim states.
There are quite a lot of activities for the book available online. The novel can be a good choice for grades 9/10 in the bilingual program.
  • Alfaguara, the publisher.
  • Wikispace specialized in literature for children and young adults.
The second novel is Cordeluna by Elia Barceló. Set in the 11th century and nowadays there are two parallel love stories, which are actually the same. A warrior and a young lady in the 11th century, two young actors in a theater company now. The love story is under a curse that has to be broken. The book is very well documented and  very entertaining. A good choice for good readers in grades 11-12 or IB programs.

We also have activities provided by the publisher: Cordeluna. To learn more about the author we can visit her blog or read this interview in English.
The Middle Ages can be a very interesting working and research topic. There are plenty of materials and resources available  and these are just examples that we can use with our students.