Get medieval for inspiring lessons on social studies, science, and art. The Middle Ages lasted from the sack of Rome in 400 AD to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th century, so there’s plenty to work with. Let us share our favorite lesson plans for working on this time period with all grade levels.
First, online resources to get your room set up:
- Dragons Classroom Theme and Fairy Tale Classroom Theme ideas give you resources and inspiration for classroom decoration during your medieval unit.
- History.com has a good overview of the thousand years of the Middle Ages.
- The Web Chronology Project is a project of Then Again, and has a lot of interesting resources.
- Physics lessons from medieval warfare
- Don’t forget the Vikings!
- An interactive exploration of medieval women will make a fun computer center.
Books for the class library or reading table:
- Design Your Own Coat of Arms: An Introduction to Heraldry gives insight into the social order of the time, as well as a thought-provoking art project.
- Days of Knights and Damsels: An Activity Guide has lots of hands-on ideas, including costumes and recipes for a medieval feast to culminate the unit.
- A Medieval Feast by Aliki is a fun introduction for younger students, and has lots of detail to help older students prepare their art projects.
- The Making of a Knight: How Sir James Earned His Armor is full of information, and a comfortable read for middle school.
- The Door in the Wall is a Caldecott Award winning novel set in the Middle Ages.
- Adam of the Road is another classic novel of a child in 13th century England.
- Medieval Times Thematic Unit from TCR uses the two previous novels to study the Middle Ages.
Now you’re ready to jump in.
Most traditional fairy tales take place in the Middle Ages, though some more properly belong in the Renaissance. For the youngest students, fairy tales are the best possible introduction to medieval times. Older students will also find fairy tales an accessible way to approach the Middle Ages.
Begin by reading or retelling some favorite fairy tales. Our fairy tale lesson plans give summaries, online sources, and activities for all the best known tales, from Rapunzel to Snow White, and they will give you plenty for your younger students. Just add the stories to your classroom timeline around the 14th century.
Have older students retell the stories in modern settings. Put students into groups and have them create tableaux or brief reader’s theater retellings of various fairy tales in their own time and place. Have each group present its story (and perhaps create a video) to the class.
Use Venn diagrams to identify the differences between the original story and the retelling — what makes the original story medieval. Students may notice differences in the position of women, in family dynamics, in available technology (Rapunzel couldn’t use her cell phone to solve her problems), and in the food and clothing and other elements of daily life.
Have each small group choose one of the listed elements and conduct research online and in the library to understand their chosen aspect of medieval life. Then, using the fairy tale the group had rewritten earlier, each group can create a poster board display, PowerPoint, or other visual product showing the impact of their chosen element on their chosen story.
Some fairy tales are clearly not medieval, and this may show up in the research process if a later story has been chosen. For example, the French version of Cinderella which was the basis for Disney’s Cinderella includes a clock which strikes the hours — a late Renaissance invention. If students find items like this which prove that their story could not have been from the Middle Ages, that proof will make an interesting report as well.
You can easily imagine Rapunzel in the tower at the beginning of this post. Snow White, an Italian princess, would also have been at home there, since this is a medieval castle in Italy. The town is Ninfa, and we visited the ruins during our trip to Rome. There we also saw the cottage below, which is the sort of place where Snow White would have lived with the seven little men.
Here are some excellent resources for castle study:
- Castle Web has photos and information about lots of castles.
- Google Earth Castles and Palaces Tour shows 3-D models of a nice variety of castles and palaces. You can watch at the website, or download the tour to watch on Google Earth in your class. Be sure to click the 3-D buildings layer on if you watch it in Google Earth!
- SketchUp castles Also check out this video, especially if you plan to have students create castles of their own:
- Castles.org is an old website, with the common problems of old websites, including slow loading and counter intuitive navigation. However, there’s lots of good stuff there, including a section on parts of a castle. Check it out when you’re feeling patient.
- Castle by David MacAulay is probably the best single resource on the subject.
Once your class has done some exploration of castle information, have them list the characteristics of medieval castles (as distinct from later ones) and then build one. There are lots of great ways to build a castle:
- SketchUp Here’s an assignment handout for such a project.
- Build a model with paper or cardboard. Download a printable castle , use the book Cut & Assemble a Medieval Castle: A Full-Color Model of Caernarvon Castle in Wales or Castles to Cut Out and Put Together, or let your students plan and create their own. Here’s a nice assignment sheet for such a project.
- Use recyclables such as milk cartons, oatmeal drums, and other boxes and cartons to create a castle. This is much easier and requires less geometry, but still allows younger students to enjoy building their own castles.
- Go 2-D with paper shapes or your computer graphics program. You can make your 2-D paper castle big and put it on the walls of the classroom to create your own castle to study in.
Mapping Medieval Movement
When we use modern maps to study Medieval Europe, we get a false idea. The world didn’t consist of nations at that time, and there was a lot of movement from one place to another. The Vikings went to North America, Spain was part of the Arab World for quite a while, and the Golden Horde followed the Ostrogoths to the Mediterranean.
Medieval Map is a wonderful interactive map that shows the movements of the various groups from the dominance of Ancient Rome to the rise of the Ottoman Empire. This map doesn’t neglect the Asian and Arab populations, both of which were very important influences and yet often overlooked in our studies.
Divide students into pairs and have each pair follow a single group throughout the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of information at that website, so students should be able to follow up and continue research on their own.
- Columbia has a collection of more detailed maps from different time depths during the period.
- A map of European languages shows a more complex current situation than a political map of Europe.
- An unlabeled map of Europe with modern boundaries could be a good starting point for creating maps.
Have students create maps that show what they’ve learned. This is a good time for students to learn that different kinds of information need to be presented in different ways. Some groups moved from one area to another; some saw their sphere of influence grow and shrink around a central point; some stayed in place as other groups moved through them.
Some of the approaches students might consider:
- a PowerPoint with multiple maps showing the borders of their group’s influence as they change through time
- a paper map with overlays showing changes
- a map with drawings (if on paper) or popups (if in Google Earth) showing significant events
- a map with a timeline of events
- a map showing the progress of the group through space with arrows
Create a display of the maps.