Sunday, February 24, 2013

Castles and Dungeons

If you are taking a look at the Medieval Period, you simply can't skip past a good look at castles - and along with the castle, the associated Dungeon.  In reality, things like the infamous iron maiden, and other torturous devices were generally used during witch hunts and religious persecutions that took place in the latter portions or the period.  Stories of dungeons for use of torture devices and leaving forgotten, starving captives languishing in darkened prisons below ground are vastly exaggerated.  These stories really come from the pre-renaissance portion of the dark ages.  Additionally, with elementary kids, I think most would agree focusing on the castle part of things is sufficient, but for those kids that really like the drab and dark, I've tried to include a few resources here for that as well.

Projects to Do:

Modeling Castles

I decided to have Alice build a small model of a motte and bailey castle, and then also build a model of a "fairytale castle."  This link will take you to a basic diagram of a motte and bailey.  Motte and bailey castle models are apparently a common project in some locales so instead of rewriting the instructions here, I will direct you to this set of clear instructions.

For the fairytale castle, we simply used an old shoebox, paper roll cylinders of various sizes for our base.  Tag board cut into circles with a pie slice removed, were rolled into cones for the tops of the turrets and then the whole thing was painted.

Textile Arts

Castle walls and floors have often been adorned with tapestries, rugs and other textiles to help keep chilling drafts at bay.  Since Alice had also been reading the "Caroline" Book Series from the American Girls Collection, she was already becoming interested in different stitches so I taught her cross stitch and tied in tapestries with this skill.  Not that tapestries were cross-stitched, but some wall-hangings of the time, were woven tapestries and sometimes made with embroidery.  We took a look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's article on tapestries and compared needlepoint wall hangings with tapestries.  A famous medieval needlework wall hanging is the Bayeux Tapestry.  Although, not officially a tapestry, the linen is 70 yards long and covered with needlepoint depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066. After viewing the museum page, I also shared this You Tube video with Alice.  It animates the tapestry so although it is not an accurate depiction of the artwork itself, it certainly expands upon the tapestry designer's intent.

We also took a look at "themes" in art lessons and quickly learned that the Medieval Period resulted in repeated religious motifs, but she was fascinated with the idea that tapestries depicted unicorns so often.  She decided to choose a favorite animal for her cross stitch project and did a panda.  Though not medieval in any way really, while she stitched, Alice felt connected to people of the past that had to sit and learn the same kinds of skills.

If needlepoint isn't your thing, and you don't feel confident picking up a beginner's kit to help your child with, pick up a small piece of white linen and have your child draw a scene depicting a subject from your studies on the fabric using charcoal or chalk.  He or she can draw a favorite personality from the period, a castle, an animal such as a unicorn or bird the Medievals may have chosen or any such thing.  Then, use a little fabric paint and trace the picture with dashed lines to look as though they are stitches.  Also add some color, glue the fabric to a dowel and hang it proudly on the wall somewhere. 

As a part of her studies of Ancient Greece, Alice had already learned a lot about weaving because of our activities relating to the myth of Arachne and her weaving.  During this time, I had purchased a potholder loom, but she hadn't been quite ready to have the patience to complete a project yet.  I've discovered she is ready now!  Alice completed one pot-holder square quickly and easily this time.  If you'd rather not focus on needlepoint, since most surviving tapestries are actually woven, such an activity for your child would be highly appropriate.  Just don't expect to be able to fashion a picture on the first try!

Build a Trebuchet

Part of what makes the Medieval Period one that is so hard to know about, is that it was a time of huge upheavals and a lot of warfare.  The loss of a unifying government and its central police force and laws led to the destruction of many resources and an increase in the need to spend one's time making a living.  Fewer people had the chance to learn to read and write so they made fewer records of themselves.  Many records and treasures were also destroyed during battles and sieges.  Each group of people fought differently and had different weapons at their disposal.  Medieval Battle Tech, by Modern Marvels offers up insight into the different weapons in use and who used them during this period.
The trebuchet (treb- you- shay) is not quite the same as a catapult, but by using the word catapult, I give you an idea of what a trebuchet was for.  As much as a castle was a home for the nobles living in it, a place of work for the numerous servants working there, and a place of celebration and symbol of opression for the many serfs that lived in the shadows of its walls, its first function was mainly that of a fortress.  Siege warfare proved to cause an ever-escalating arms race both in the technology used in laying siege to a castle and in defending it.  Building a trebuchet together offers opportunities to introduce concepts in mechanics and create a memorable experience in learning more about this period in history.  Trebuchets were used to weaken castle walls, injure and kill soldiers on the wall, and instill fear in those people sequestered inside the walls.

Again, building a trebuchet is a common assignment at some points in school so I will include a link to these instructions which will actually take you to a set of instructions for a wooden trebuchet, but there are also a few other possible styles listed below if you prefer (we liked the popsicle stick one - though it is pretty light-weight).  You can also buy kits if you wish.  We happened to also be studying simple machines so building a trebuchet tied in quite nicely with our science studies as well. 

Books We Enjoyed

Everything Castles by Crispin Boyer
This book has the gorgeous photographs and stunning visuals we have come to expect from National Geographic.  It is thorough as well.  Covering everything from the construction of a castle, to siege and castle warfare, the weapons used, and the life of the knight who fought to protect the castle.  It even shows some "Pop Culture Castles" such as Hogwarts and Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Life in the Middle Ages - The Castle by Kathryn Hinds
Despite its title, this book is actually a well-rounded look at life in Medieval Europe.  It actually describes what feudalism is in a way that is relatable and understandable for the older elementary/primary student - something most books on the period often mention, but don't fully address.  It covers the various responsibilities/jobs of the variety of people that would have lived in the castle.  While knights and the crusades are discussed, they do not dominate the whole book.  There is even a section titled, "Ladies at War," that discusses the role women sometimes took on in protecting their lands or their husbands during this dangerous period of history.  Illustrations depict tapestries, pages from manuscripts and paintings from the Medieval period or Early Renaissance.

Stephen Beasty's Cross-Sections: Castle by Richard Platt
Search out the enemy spy while you peruse this large and visually detailed primer in the anatomy of a castle, its defenses and its times.

Video and Online Resources

Time Team Special Dover Castle is a must see for anyone wishing to have a better understanding of Medieval Life and life within and around a castle.

History Channel's Modern Marvels Take a look at Castles and Dungeons

David Macauly's Castle Both the book and movie provide a nice anatomy of a castle, how and why it was built, and how the people in and around them, depended upon castles.

Modern Marvels: Forts - Describes the evolution of technology behind building defensive battlements.

Lecture: English Architecture Making England in the Shadow of Rome - 410-1130 by Simon Thurley for Gresham College.

How Stuff Works - Castles Includes articles and videos about castle construction, living, history and defense.  Only one of the castle moves is directly about Castles, but the articles are brief and give good over-views providing a great place to start research on any number of sub-topics regarding castles and castle life.

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