The Middle Ages can be an engaging topic to talk about with our high school students. Although there is not a specific unit about the Middle Ages in the Social Studies curriculum, students have learned about the Renaissance in grade 8 and explored nationalism and the foundations of some European nations in grade 11. By high school, students also become acquainted with Shakespearean plays such as Romeo and Juliet, set in medieval Italy and they also get to know some Middle Age English classics. Along with cultural and historical elements students will be able to learn about the origin of Spanish language and literature,.
I will be discussing some related resources and literary works that can be used with our students to get a deeper insight of the Middle Ages. I have four poems for your consideration:
- A poem by Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita, from the school Mester de Clerecía
- A jarcha, kharja in English - a short poem written in the Islamic kingdoms in Spain
- A villancico or a lyric poem related to the troubadour tradition
- A romance, a narrative poem related to the tradition of the epic poems
If there is a writer from the Middle Ages in Spain I keep on reading and revisiting, this is Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita. The first half of the 14th century when he lived was extremely complex and Spanish society was changing rapidly. I find every aspect of Ruiz's life interesting, especially since little is known about him though many new facts are being discovered.
El Arcipreste just wrote one book called El Libro de Buen Amor. The book is a heterogeneous collection of stories in verse, each of them telling a comical tale with a moral. The stories are the pseudo-biographical romantic adventures of the writer, a priest. At the time the policy of celibacy for priests was initially implemented in Spain. The Spanish kingdoms, in particular Castille, had been isolated from the rest of Christianity because of the Muslim invasion and not all the policies dictated by the Vatican were enforced.
The book is humorous, witty, and often critical of the different institutions. There are many interesting sections that we could use with our students, for example, the encounters of el Arcipreste with the mountain women, las serranas. My suggestion would be to use the poem Lo que puede el dinero, where the author criticizes in an almost cynical way about the negative influence of money in the society including the Catholic Church.
Jarcha means "final" in Arabic. They are the final refrain to a larger poem written in Arabic, the muwashshah. Most of the jarchas were written in classical or Andalusi Arabic, the variety spoken in the Islamic kingdoms in southern Spain. About 70 of them were written in the Mozarabic language spoken by the Christian minority at the time in the same region of southern Spain . The language is mainly Romanic with many Arabic and Jewish elements. The jarchas were written in Arabic characters, which makes them unique in the European tradition. The jarchas are the oldest poems written in a Romanic language in Europe because most were written in the 10th or 11th centuries.
Most of the jarchas are recited by females and they speak of love, especially unrequited love or impossible love. Some of the protagonists are married women (probably in arranged marriages), who are unhappy and pine for their true love. In the Language Arts blog of IES Casas Nuevas high school in Spain, we can find a very good selection of Middle Age Spanish poems. There are four jarchas in this selection and number 4 is a beautiful sample to work with our students.If we want to give our students a deeper insight about the jarchas and the time and area where they were produced, this short clip is very informative.
The jarchas are undoubtedly related to the popular poems of the rest of Spain. They were the traditional songs sung by everyone and they are also related to the troubadours style from southern France. They are short, with a simple in structure and most of the times portray an impossible relation between two young lovers. There are more examples in this website. Poems number 3 or 30 can be a good example to work with our students.
The last suggestion is to work with a "romance". Romances are narrative poems, of variable length, which became very popular in Spain in the 14th century. They were sung or recited by professional juglares, a kind of popular troubadours. Their themes are war, chivalry, impossible or unrequited love. Many are based on historical events although some are not very historically accurate.
La voz de los romances is a collaborative project by a group of schools in Cordoba, Spain. Their goal is to build awareness about the value of reading aloud and oral tradition. Schools select romances and students recite them. The mp3 files are available online along with the poems organized by styles. We can use this website to select the romances we want to work with. Two suggestions:
- Romance del Prisonero is a short romance with just 16 verses. It is a monologue by a prisoner who tells how he feels about his lack of freedom in spring when everything is in bloom.
- The second romance is La doncella guerrera. In a period when human rights, especially the rights of women, were not considered a priority, several romances portray women that disguise as men in search of their own destiny. This is one example of them.
These are my suggestions to work with our students in a bilingual or IB program. They can help our students to better understand the Middle Ages in Spain and the origins of Spanish. These works of art can also be related to what they read in ELA and to some of the topics they work with in Social Studies. I´ll speak about medieval prose in my next entry.