Schlitz, L.A. (2007). Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
I have a bias here. When this award was named the Newbery winner of
2007, I glanced through it, asked why, and decided I wouldn't bother
Flashforward to the present, I as a teacher desperately need an
activity to go with my discussion of the history of children's
literature. And Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (Are the exclamation
points really necessary?) flashes into my mind. Fine. I'll use it.
Guess that means I'll actually have to read it.
The foreword begins, "This is a part of the book that most people
skip." Yes, yes it is. "This is the foreword--the part where the
author tells why the book exists and why the reader might want to read
it. And you can skip it, if you'e in a hurry." I want to, I really
do. But I'm too nerdy for that and I read on. I learn that Schlitz is a
librarian for a school that only has 17 children to a class, that as
they study the middle ages the students have opportunities to build
mini-catapults and castles, bake bread, tend herbs, to compose music
and illuminate manuscripts" (p. viii) and it makes me want to cry
because many classrooms across the country, around the world can't
afford the resources or time to do such wonderful exercises. What do
those classrooms get? I wish I could say this book, but that's
probably not true either.
I kept reading, which proved to be very important since in the first
monologue of Hugo, The Lord's Nephew, I learned that 'Friants' are
boar droppings" (p. 2). Very important. Then I tried to imagine
seventh and eighth graders saying "Followed his fraints straight to
his bed and found it warm." I struggled. I suppose if framed
properly students could have fun with it. At the very least, a
teacher could say at least the friants weren't warm and steamy.
While looking across the interconnected 19 monologues and dialogues of
children and young adults living in the Middle Ages, Schlitz does an
excellent job of showing the differences among the classes and gender (and to a lesser degree, religion).
Race remains completely unaddressed (It probably would have felt
forced to try to incorporate). Schlitz makes an effort to make the
characters relatable. The unfortunately named Taggot has a crush on a
boy. Jack the half-wit is bullied and wants a friend. As I read on,
the monologues grew on me. While I still think a teacher will have to do a bit of work to get their students to engage with the text, there are a lot of uses a teacher could use.
Activities to Do with the Book:
Students could actually perform the monologues, with attention to whose characters
If students are having trouble with the language, they could
re-present the monologues in another time, with modern language,
perhaps as journal entries. This could be used to show some of the universality of the conflicts.
Students could discuss life in the Middle Ages, the crucades, how the
upper class maintained power in the medieval village, the
timelessness of abuse, cheating, bullying, friendship, the political and economic reasons for going to war and on and on.
“It was from novels that I learned that history was the story of survival: even something that sounded boring, like crop rotation or inheritance law, might be a matter of life and death to a hungry peasant. Novels taught me that history is dramatic. I wanted my students to know that, too" (p. ix).
"There's no use in looking back,