Homeschooling question one million: medieval edition
April 18, 2020 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Our ten year old son has been deeply into what he describes as “medieval” things: sword fighting videos on YouTube, making his own shield and sword (out of sticks and tinfoil), books like Taran Wonderer, etc. Give me your best learning-ish ideas with this general theme, please!

He’s asked to do things like cook a medieval dinner, learn about heraldry and castle defense. We’ve watched some videos about siege warfare and castle life and then he’s drawn his own and built things out of legos. We are really flexible about what learning looks like right now, but would prefer he doesn’t just spend his whole day watching videos-a little math and science thrown in would be great. He’s a good reader. We have access to big outdoor space, tools, lots of cooking supplies, and are willing to order more. Help!
posted by purenitrous to Education (37 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For books, I've been reading "Life in a Medieval City" by Frances and Joseph Gies, which is pretty good.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:27 AM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oooh, and if he's into podcasts, In Our Time has quite a few good ones about the medieval period.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:28 AM on April 18, 2020

A miniature trebuchet, A boy's tunic. And have you seen Ruth Goodman's series about building a new medieval castle (first episode)?
This sounds like great fun. Be sure to make a book about the project with menus and pictures, an illuminated manuscript.
posted by Botanizer at 10:36 AM on April 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Met has this big PDF of images from their medieval collection with suggestions for activities and questions for students. Might be worth browsing through.

Also seconding that Ruth Goodman documentary. It's fascinating.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:49 AM on April 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Do you have David Macaulay’s book Castle? I spent many many hours looking at that book as a kid.
posted by mskyle at 10:54 AM on April 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

I'd lean heavily into how people did astronomy and navigation in the middle ages and earlier. In addition to building a trebuchet, think about creating a simple sundial, astrolabe, quadrant, or sextant (you can Google how to build any of those from household objects) and figure out how to use it.
posted by potrzebie at 10:55 AM on April 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

The SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) has a cosplay-y side, but also specializes in well-researched period activities. It would be worth checking out whether there's a chapter in your area with a website.

By the late Middle Ages, abacus arithmetic was moving into urban centers. It's fun to learn/ practice, and really builds one's intuitive sense of what's going on "inside" a calculation.

On the science front, learning about edible local plants/ herbs, and possibly integrating them into cooking, is a great way to indirectly learn about taxonomy, empirical observation, botany, etc.
posted by Bardolph at 10:56 AM on April 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

There is a 1% chance he will respond positively to this but you could always play him medieval music. Like here's a weird video of Polish people in costume in some sort of castle performing the lovely Cantigas de Amigo from the 13th c. but there's a very good chance your kid is going to find this dorky and ask you to turn it off!
posted by less of course at 10:59 AM on April 18, 2020

(The offscreen continuation could be learning to play recorder. You could order one online for ten bucks. This might make your life unlivable, however.)
posted by less of course at 11:02 AM on April 18, 2020

David McCauley's Castle is still just so cool. It doesn't matter that it's old; the illustrations are amazing and detailed and so vivid, and entirely educational. But also fun; everyone wants to know who pooped where in a castle, and how that worked. And that wile it was being built, dung was used as insulation to keep mortar from freezing! And how fortifications were planned. And and and!

You can get the books used on Ebay; new on Amazon and Book Depository; and from the publisher directly.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:04 AM on April 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

Ruth Goodman and friends do great reconstruction stuff! Their Tudor Monastic Farm tv series is an informative and fascinating look at everyday life in the late middle ages.

But you've also asked for non-video: in additon to the Castle book recommended above, at his age, I loved the DK cutaway books like this one (also about a castle). I was somewhat medievally obsessed, and built a diorama of a medieval great hall when I was ten, with a dias and long tables - with the salt placed just so.

I love faux-medieval fantasy like Llyod Alexander, but the historian in me (ABD looking just post-medieval) thinks that historical novels are probably a bit better for learning about the period - two classics that I look back at fondly are Ransom for a Knight (1956) and The Door in the Wall (1949).

For more mathematically oriented learning, he could learn his Roman numerals (still in use by some people in the 16th century), or how to use an abacus - and making a trubuchet or studying the difference between long bows and crossbows would be fascinating! He could also do some science history by learning about the Galenic humours or the geocentric model of the solar system (which worked surprisingly well for predicting the locations of the planets).
posted by jb at 11:18 AM on April 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Sorry, there's a broken link in my comment: Tudor Monastic Farm should go to the wikipedia page.
posted by jb at 11:24 AM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Learning to make chainmail is a lot of fun, and engrossing, but super time consuming. There are a ton of tutorials online. A good starter project would be a chainmail pot scrubber that's just a square a couple inches wide.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:31 AM on April 18, 2020

Terry Jones did a BBC series called Medieval Lives that I adore. The humor is gentle Monty Python-esque, so a decent amount of fart jokes and some vaguely racy ones but otherwise suitable for TV (I remember a joke about a woman's jugs, for example). Not all of my high school seniors catch the humor because it's fast and British, so your son might not get it.

Episode 1 is about the lives of peasants (with the jug joke), and it's probably the best for him. There's another episode about knights that talks about how violent and limited the code of chivalry was, but also covers heraldry, fighting styles and technology, and the Hundred Years' War. The episode on monks is my favorite, but gets a little highbrow with its critiques of the medieval church. He'll probably love the episode (monks skirting the rules with sign language!) but the stuff about Avignon will go over his head. I've shown the alchemist episode before and the kids liked the ancient medicine and science theories. But I would definitely steer away from the princess one -- my memory of that one was that it had an extended sequence on highborn women's sexual desires that was interesting but was detailed enough that I didn't want to show it in a high school classroom without prepping the kids adequately.
posted by lilac girl at 11:39 AM on April 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

OMIGOSH. You know whats fun? Eating with no utensils and no plate. You could make trenchers and serve your meal on it!

Also, my kid has loved to read about plagues. It could be interesting learning about it, especially now.
posted by ReluctantViking at 11:39 AM on April 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Please consider some kind of activity or lesson that conveys how people at the bottom end of the economic ladder lived. Romanticizing olden times is a problem in some ways, and being able to push back against that romanticism is a valuable skill that I hope more people develop.
posted by amtho at 11:41 AM on April 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

First thought: natural dyes!

You've got infinite medieval holidays to work with. These have traditional foods, games, and crafts and tie into the agricultural year, traditional calendars, and the history of folk religion in Europe. Holidays coming up include Beltane/May Day/Walpurgis Night and Midsummer/St. John's Night/Kupala Night.

(Note that online searches for these holidays will include neopagan content, which is fine and all but not the best source for traditional folk practices.)

I've got a great little book called A Medieval Book of Seasons that is organized around the agricultural calendar and has neato contemporary illustrations of village life. I like it because it focuses on everyday people rather than nobility.

Readings for capturing the ethnic diversity of the medieval world: here's a book about everyday life in the medieval Muslim world that looks solid. I've also heard good things about The Inquisitor's Tale, which has a diverse cast of characters.
posted by toastedcheese at 12:19 PM on April 18, 2020

I can't say enough good things about Ruth Goodman and the rest of the [insert time period] Farm crew here. They're absolutely brilliant, and it definitely isn't just the glorious and rich people, but how people at various points along the socioeconomic spectrum lived. (I really want to second amtho's point. Ordinary people are so, so important too! I hate that I've worked on so many historical projects that no one seems to care about because they aren't attached to a famous name.)

I used to to work for an archaeological project centered around a medieval ship that had been excavated in Wales -- we did a lot of activities with kids around building little paper boats, or constructing them out of something waterproof and seeing how well they sailed. Trade is, I will admit, not the most thrilling of topics, but there was an awful lot of it going on in Europe and Asia at this time period, and the technology was racing to catch up. This is when you start to see fore-and-aft sails that take advantage of wind coming from more/different directions, and the shape of ships begins to change, gaining flat sterns rather than pointed ones. There's also a change from clinker-built to carvel-built, and all the trade-offs that happen around that. If you want to bring in physics and mathematics, it could be pretty easy to explore how building a ship changed, how different shapes of boat can be loaded differently (testing with models in the sink?), or how wind direction interacts with sails. And of course all the amazing stuff around the trade networks. People have never, ever been as isolated as we like to think.

Please do reach out if any of this seems like it would spark something, and you want some guidance. It's been a few years, but I still have most of my books and things!
posted by kalimac at 12:21 PM on April 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Make icon panels or illuminated manuscript pages. Mixing your own egg tempera is fun, and if you can get your hands on some gold leafing, it really looks cool. Painstakingly hand copy out a page of his favorite book and make sure to include some weird/goofy doodles of strange animals or fellow monks in the margins (bonus if you have a cat that can walk through the ink and leave a paw print right in the middle of the work...).
posted by lovecrafty at 1:01 PM on April 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you make a little catapult or trebuchet, have him estimate how far it will throw, then explain parabolas to him. (Optional to do the math; hand-waving is sufficient.)

A family coats of arms contains specific elements that relate to family history. Let him interview you, then design something. (Bonus points if you can produce it on a Cricut machine or something!)

On a piece of cardboard, make a simple loom and weave with yarn.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:51 PM on April 18, 2020

Watch the James Burke "Connections" episode (series 1, episode 3?) that covers knights and their relevance to modern world:
For example, episode 3 of the first series, "Distant Voices," starts with Enrico Fermi (and others) developing atomic fusion as a source of power and then as a source of destruction. Burke makes a connection to back in 1066 and examines one "secret weapon" that helped William the Conqueror conquer: the stirrup. This allowed the Norman horseman to hold a lance in one hand and not fall off when it made contact with a Saxon body. When the back of the saddle was raised, the knight could take more of the shock. But the smaller horses couldn’t, especially when armor became heavier; so larger horses were needed.

Now something was needed to stop the armored knight. By the time of Edward III, the English longbow could pierce any suit of armor. And anyone who saw either film version of "Henry V" knows how arrows won the Battle of Agincourt.

Burke then backsteps to connect all of this with improvements in the plough, which led to more food for a greater population -- and an actual surplus of crops, which could be sold at market. Another back-connection brings in gunpowder ... And one can follow the sequence of inventions that brings one back to the beginning of the cycle and the atom bomb.’
posted by wenestvedt at 1:51 PM on April 18, 2020

My son is still in this phase, and he's 16. One project he enjoyed was making his own wooden shield ( a step up from cardboard or whatever he has done so far, likely), there are lots of videos online showing how to use scrap wood you've got laying around. If you've got dogs and have rawhide around (or can get some at a pet store, considering your stance on going out shopping these days) it works really well for lining the out edge, but you will have to help lash it on.

Then he can go nuts painting a coat of arms of his own on it, and it will hold up really well for pretend battles. For those use a swimming noodle over your wooden sword (SCA fighters use this kind of padding for their simulated fighting.

You can make chainmail out of pop tabs

Lots of costume elements can be found around the house. a tunic (really big shirt or an old dress), a cloak (old table cloth), some rugged boots and all of a sudden he's robin hood. get creative, have fun.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:54 PM on April 18, 2020

I don't know if it's appropriate for a 10-year-old child, as I don't have kids, but lately I've been watching Forged in Fire. I never intended to, but it seems to be on when nothing else is.

It's a reality show where smiths make weapons: knives and swords and axes, etc. It's an elimination style competition where in one episode they go from four competitors to three to two to one winner.

On the stuff that might not be okay for a younger child, they test the weapons in various ways, including cutting through animal carcasses (I've seen goats and pigs) and attacking ballistics dummies that are filled with blue liquid blood. One of the judges often proclaims "it will kill."

On the plus side they talk briefly about the weapon of the main challenge, how it was used, who used it, etc. The smiths are given guidelines about the weapon's dimensions, and there are lots of explanations about how the forging process works.
posted by sardonyx at 1:57 PM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Modern History TV YouTube channel sounds like it's what you're looking for. From the channel description:
Jason Kingsley OBE, the Modern Knight, investigates the medieval world. We aim to test out what it was actually like. Books are great but getting out and trying things is even better. Jason owns and trains his own horses, fights in medieval armour and tests people's theories to destruction
posted by Lexica at 5:55 PM on April 18, 2020

nthing Macaulay.

It's more reading and less crafting, but that was maybe the age I first browsed The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History which is a map of Europe at thirty different dates ~500 - 1500 AD, each with a single page of text describing the changes.

The way this highlights of states and dynasty has limitations as history, but I will say paging through that and watching kingdoms appear and disappear really captivated me. (Reading might be a bit advanced but the maps were cool anyway.)
posted by mark k at 6:50 PM on April 18, 2020

Siege weapons from American Science & Surplus.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:07 PM on April 18, 2020

It's often considered a "girl book," but Catherine Called Birdy is a fantastic diary of a 12 year old circa 1100 who is trying to resist being married off to her father's rich friend. There are non-graphic references to Crusades and periods; for the most part it's a good look at life among the gentry or lower nobility of the era.

Macaulay and Ruth Goodman are also excellent.
posted by basalganglia at 7:14 PM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Two more quick recommendations:

If you could swing a subtitled film, “The Return of Martin Guerrero” is based on an academic history book by Natalie Zemon Davis, who’s a Princeton historian and served as president of the AHA. She also worked as a consultant on the film, and as a result its widely praised for its historical accuracy.

This might be a little more controversial depending on your beliefs and the extent of his interest, but considering that one of the defining features of medieval life was the Catholic Church, you might consider watching a live-streamed Mass. There are plenty of parishes out there who still celebrate the Tridentine Mass, and while it’s not the Mass that was celebrated in the medieval period, the Latin might be enough to bridge the gap and interest him more than an English-language Mass would.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:33 PM on April 18, 2020

We have access to big outdoor space, tools

At some point, make small tools and ornaments from masonry nails, either at home or at some history center where there's a blacksmith?

You can also use this to motivate discussion of materials, chemistry, even physics.

Also, jewelry wax and sculpture wax is dead easy to work with, as are metal clays and bronze clays, so you could do up a wax study of a medieval artifact or ornament and take that/mail that to a jewelry casting shop or art bronze foundry. Metal clays and bronze clays you can sinter (fuse solid) at home.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:25 PM on April 18, 2020

My 9 year old is also this kid. Seconding Castle, DK books(all the ones I’ve seen are cool) and Forged In Fire for an interesting view of toolmaking.

My kid enjoys relevant episodes of Secrets of the Dead, a PBS show (though a warning, they show skeletons a lot, and I imagine some kids might get squicked.) The one on Richard III is really interesting; they do a lot of modern reconstructions, and even work with someone with a similar degree of scoliosis and a background in history to figure out some details about how he could have ridden a horse comfortably. Also the time frame is earlier but there is a NOVA episode about Chinese chariots that also hits all those historical recreation sweet spots for my kid. If yours is also one for whom it’s not so much medieval times as “cool old weapons” that gets them excited, it may fit the bill, and you’ll get to hear all about the relative merits of an 18 vs a 28-spoked wheel.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:47 AM on April 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

well obviously he should be building his own siege weaponry and then yard forts to destroy with it
posted by Jacqueline at 6:53 AM on April 19, 2020

Thirding Historian Ruth Goodman's Secrets of the Medieval Castle youtube documentary series is AMAZING. And Jason Kingsley has a bunch of youtube documentary series about how medieval weapons, knight horses, and other warfare elements worked.

There's a great book series called Horrible Histories that's also got a BBC tv show (watchable on Youtube)

Heraldry project? Learn about heraldry + own family and come up with coat of arms?

Catherine Called Birdy is flipping fantastic.
posted by Geameade at 8:17 AM on April 19, 2020

This cooking site is fascinating,
I’m sorry I can’t make the link work.
Too antiquated!
posted by antiquated at 8:20 PM on April 19, 2020

And this video, inspired by the Lutrell Psalter, is wonderful, gently passing through the seasons with activities, songs and celebrations.
Again, sorry to be link challenged.
posted by antiquated at 8:26 PM on April 19, 2020

I taught this a few times, and these videos/games were very popular with my students:
Worst Job in History (Medieval, Dark Ages)
Medieval Lives
Castles II
Conquest of Camelot & Conquest of the Longbow (both Sierra games from the 1990's, co-written by a historian and with TONS of great history alongside some gold old fashioned violence and fun puzzles)

I know I used more than that, but those are the ones that occur to me as the most interesting, especially to my 7th grade boys.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:25 AM on April 24, 2020

I was this kid!

This book was great for creating medieval costumes that were more authentic than what you'd find in most pattern books. Sewing is a great way to work on math and visual/spatial skills.

Also get him a book on heraldry, obviously.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:30 AM on September 15, 2020

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