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Medieval Scheming and Sabotage in Smith Hall

A History Course Brings the Past to Life

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Trouble is brewing in Smith Hall. The Pope is holed up in a women’s restroom, conferring with the papal council. King Philip IV paces the hallway, plotting his next move. And French clergy convene in a nearby classroom, debating whether to support their king or the Pope.

Students pose as knights in Reacting to the Past course.

One question posed by the game is whether professional soldiers (left) or traditional knights (right) represent the future of the French military in the 15th century. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

It’s all in a day’s work for students in Reacting to the Past: Religion and Politics in Medieval Europe, a history course in which role-playing is serious business.  Students learn about the past by living it, delving deeply into the motivations of people that influenced key moments in history. The course is designed around games that pit different medieval factions against each other. The players try to improve their individual positions using strategies that would be true to their characters.

The Reacting to the Past curriculum was first introduced by a historian at Barnard College and has been gaining traction across the country. “It gets students to start thinking about history in a different way,” says Robin Stacey, professor of history and Joff Hanauer Honors Professor in Western Civilization. “It’s not just memorizing dates. This is a curriculum where they can experience history. It gives them a sense of how human events transpire.”

A duel in class

When a leading proponent of parliamentary rule insults the king, it leads to a sword fight—fought with nerf swords. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Stacey, a UW Distinguished Teaching Award recipient, developed her course with the help of Department of History curriculum development funds. Offered Winter Quarter 2015, the course is centered around three games that she designed, each exploring a pivotal clash between religion and politics in medieval Europe. The first is a mini-game to familiarize students with the approach. The others are nearly month-long projects, one focusing on the church-state conflict of 1302 between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France, the other exploring the fallout after Joan of Arc’s capture in 1430.  “You have to have an issue that matters,” says Stacey. “You have to start with some large philosophical or political question that is informed by texts on the history of ideas.”

Before each game, students read about that moment in history to understand the politics and perspectives of the time. Then Stacey assigns each student a role—some historical, some fictional composites—and provides information about the character’s goals, allegiances, and public and private motivations. “Setting up the game, I tried to make people’s loyalties complex, as they would have been in real life, so they will have to think and act broadly in concert with others,” says Stacey. Every student must present at least one speech and write one or more papers—some in character—during each game.

Most students do extensive research to better understand their own character and other characters they hope to influence.  “Research is power,” says Stacey. “How deep it goes will vary from student to student, but if you’re up at the podium giving a speech and don’t know something important, you may suffer for it, as it is easy to be confronted by someone who has done more research.”

This is a curriculum where they can experience history. It gives them a sense of how human events transpire.

In addition to individual research, students meet up for faction meetings at which they strategize with classmates sharing similar goals. One faction might extol Joan of Arc as a heroine and work to negotiate her release while another plots to prevent her return to France. Negotiations among factions can result in game-changing treaties or new alliances.

“Faction meetings are a huge part of the class, since understanding the motivations of all the characters in the game and their reactions to certain events is crucial to planning your next move,” says Christian Gobrecht, a UW electrical engineering major who had little interest in history prior to this class. “I spent most of my day today in faction meetings with people from this class—in fact I skipped a class in my major to accommodate one such meeting—simply because it's so much fun to consider all the options your characters had historically and who they could have been allies or enemies with. I normally find it very difficult to motivate myself for classes, but in this class I find it impossible not to be motivated and driven to succeed.”

Costumed student raises her hand.

Students respond to classmates's speeches by questioning them in character, with the questions—and answers—based on historical research. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Lest anyone think that Stacey encourages the skipping of other classes, exchange student Trace White clarifies. “Professor Stacey hoped to limit an excess of out-of-class faction meetings for the sanity of her students,” says White, “but all the factions I have been involved with were having too much fun devising new strategies and discussing the class to not meet up.”

When they’re not scheming in factions, many students hunt down costumes. Dressing in character is not a course requirement, but it can help students fully inhabit their role, as history major Josie Rollins discovered. She has played the head of the Knights Templar in France and Queen Yolanda of Aragon and Naples, donning costumes for both.  “Both of these characters have become quite real to me,” she says.

Gobrecht taught himself to sew so he could create costumes for his characters. “I was so consumed by the need to be involved in my character that I didn't feel like I really had a choice in the matter,” he says. He sewed a monk's habit for his role as a monk-turned-vengeful-assassin, then made a royal robe for the King of France as fulfillment of his duties as Grand Chamberlain. More recently he helped White sew a gold-trimmed cape for her character, Archbishop Regnault de Chartres.  “It was surprisingly beneficial in the effect it had on my command of the character,” says White.

Students in costume conferring in the hallway.

Students take to the hallway for a faction meeting. Trace White, center, sewed the gold-trimmed cape for her character with the help of Christian Gobrecht, left. At right is classmate Sam Ditty. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Despite the period costumes and historical research, Reacting to the Past games are not precise recreations of past events—nor are they intended to be. The conflicts and major figures may be the same, but a game played ten times would almost certainly have ten different outcomes. That doesn’t worry Stacey or her students. Pre-game readings and post-game debriefs provide historical accuracy, and students work extensively with historical texts while researching their characters.

“The primary intent of this class is to allow students to experience firsthand the passions, emotions, fears, and aspirations implicit in these medieval debates over politics and religion,” Stacey explains. “Often consequential decisions in history can be determined by relatively small things, such as personality conflicts or family priorities. Students get a sense for the real complexity of the past. Should every history course be taught this way? Probably not. But learning about the past in this manner may make students look at things differently in other history classes.”

Stacey hopes to teach the course once each year. Offering it more often would be difficult given the time commitment involved. During one particular dramatic stretch of the class, full of intrigue and negotiations, students were so hungry for guidance that Stacey spent up to three hours a day responding to their questions. Not that she’s complaining.

“The course is enormously time consuming, but it’s also enormously rewarding,” she says. “You see the students really come alive. It’s amazing what imaginative strategies they come up with.  This is both the most fun and the most work I have ever had in a classroom.”