Module 4: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

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Good Masters, Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village is a book that I didn’t know we needed, but we did! Author and librarian Laura Amy Schlitz was working with her students who were studying the medieval time period and wanted to perform monologues. “Nobody wanted a small part,” said Ms. Schlitz, so she came up with a group of 17 monologues told from vastly different points of view. In the books, we hear from Giles, the beggar, Alice, the shepherdhess, Isobel, the lord’s daughter, Pask, the runaway, and others who serve to give the reader a good idea of medieval village life.

Each character has a two to three page monologue and several illustrations. Jacob, the moneylender and son of a Jew, tells his tale of persecution while Petronella, the Gentile daughter of a merchant, comes in and out of his story, each interested and repulsed by one another. Constance the hunchbacked pilgrim takes us with her on a journey to a saint’s well fully believing that the water will make her walk upright and take her away from a ‘hunchback’s life of scorn’. Hugo, the lord’s nephew, shares his his tale of hunting his first boar, petrified of seeming unmanly or afraid while in the company of his male relatives.

The author weaves these deceptively simple tales with an extensive knowledge of life during this time period. Throughout the stories are history lessons, giving the readers the facts regarding such topics as farming, the Crusades and pilgrimages, which give weight and greater understanding of these personal vignettes. Reading this book gives one a good idea of what life may have been like for a wide variety of people from many social groups. The stories are told primarily from the point of view of a child, which makes it easily relatable for children of ages 8-10. I would use this book during a reading time for elementary aged children and would have the book passed around a circle and whomever wanted to read aloud would be able to do so. I think there could be group discussion about the various characters.

The illustrations by Robert Byrd are charming. With great detail, yet without being intimidating, these drawings show the minutae of every day life during the medieval times.

Schlitz, Laura Amy; Byrd, Robert Ill. (2007) Good masters! sweet ladies! Voices from a medieval village. Cambridge, Candlewick Press.

Review One

Camelot, it’s not. Lowdy, for example, hates the fleas. The girl is not troubled by the lice “raising families in my hair” and doesn’t really mind having to scrape the maggots off the cheese. But she helps her father, a varlet, tend the lord’s dogs, and fleas are one of the occupational hazards. So she prays for relief:

God, You saved us from damnation;

Now save us from the fleas!

For the young people of Laura Amy Schlitz’s new book, “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village,” life tends to be nasty, brutish and short. But young readers are also likely to find it engaging, affecting and occasionally giggle-worthy.

Schlitz, whose first novel, “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair,” was warmly received last year, wrote “Good Masters” for her students at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is a librarian. They were studying the Middle Ages, with catapult experiments, herbology and manuscript illustration. In an introduction, she says she wrote the book because “I wanted them to have something to perform.” In 19 monologues and two dialogues from youngsters of the village, set off by woodcuttish illustrations by Robert Byrd, the book serves up the year 1255 — lice, maggots and all. It’s easy to imagine youngsters, especially those of a mordant stripe, taking these dark verses to heart and preparing their own classroom presentations.

Schlitz is a talented storyteller. Her language is forceful, and learning slips in on the sly. She explains crop rotation through a boy who must plow the family fields after his father’s death and who confesses puzzlement over the concept of a field laying fallow. “I don’t know why the fields have the right to rest when people don’t.”

The village is a fascinating place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. “Ale-drunk” fathers beat their families, and children beat each other. The lord controls the local economy so utterly that his subjects must grind their grain at the local miller, who takes the lord’s cut and then subtracts his own, blending in chalk dust to make up the weight of the stolen flour. Otho, the miller’s son, learns his father’s ways, and his attitude as well. “It’s hunger, want and wickedness /that makes the world go ’round,” he says. His ambition is to grow up to be as wicked as dear old Dad, because that is the way of the world, a circle, like the miller’s wheel, “and the wheel goes on forever.” Another rogue’s son plays his part in his father’s holy-cures scams, tricking people into giving alms. He, too, asks God for aid: “Send us more fools,” he asks, and “look after your foxes / as well as your sheep.”

It is bracing to see the Middle Ages without the rosy gloss many historical novels insist on bringing to the period. (Brief, easy-to-read footnotes and a bibliography give us some of Schlitz’s sources for her gritty portrait of daily medieval life.) This village stinks of dung and is sharp with the bitterness of poverty, wickedness and loss. But there are flashes of goodness and warmth as well. The mother of a girl named Mogg saves the family’s beloved cow from the clutches of a lord through cleverness born of desperation. Jack, Mogg’s half-wit brother, shows kindness to the hated Otho after the miller’s son takes a beating, and they cry together. The pathetic scene, and Jack’s belief that Otho shows his friendship by no longer joining in the other boys’ taunts of “Lack-a-wit / Numbskull / Mooncalf / Fool,” could even bring a lump to a grown-up’s throat.

Schwartz, John. New York Times Book Review [Review of the book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/16/books/review/Schwartz-t.html

Review Two

This 2008 Newbery Medal winner features 21 dramatic narratives that introduce characters living in and near a medieval manor. This outstanding audio production combines a cast of expert narrators with interludes of sprightly period music. As reader of the introduction and occasional snippets of historical background information, Christina Moore’s confiding and authorial voice is both brisk and inviting. The meticulously assembled cast is breathtakingly perfect. Firdous Bamji plays various roles, including that of Hugo, the lord’s nephew, who quakes while approaching a boar on his first hunt; Simon, the angry knight’s son on his way to becoming a monk; and Drogo, who celebrates the pleasure of earthy (and somewhat smelly) work. Taggot, the blacksmith’s daughter, is voiced by the extraordinarily skilled Katherine Kellgren, who also portrays crafty survivor Mogg and slightly bawdy “sniggler” (one who catches eels by dangling bait) Nelly. Bianca Amato blends a beautiful but suitably untrained singing voice into Alice’s sorrowful speech and reveals Barbary as the angry but rueful mudslinger. Thomas, as played by John Keating, is a sly master of duplicity. Keating also voices a “moon-calf” half-wit, a hopeful but hungry runaway, and an artful beggar. Greg Steinbruner’s lightly pitched tones are ideal for such rough and tumble characters as a cynical miller’s son, a desperate falconer, and an impatient glassblower’s apprentice. Charlotte Parry moves with ease from pilgrim Constance to the lord’s daughter. Parry also reads a humorous dissertation on fleas. A near-perfect audio experience. Let the applause begin: Bravo! Bravo! Well done!

Jemtegarrd, Kristi Elle. Book List [Review of the book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village]. Retrieved from http://booklistonline.com/Good-Masters-Sweet-Ladies-/pid=2796547

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