Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Review: Good Masters! Sweets Ladies!

We are studying the medieval period of history right now, one of my favorites. In fact, I think I'm taking too long to cover it with the girls, but I can think of worse problems to have. The girls and I have enjoyed reading many great literature selections depicting the middle ages, and one that stands out particularly is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Past winner of the Newbery Award, the book is a collection of nineteen short plays, most of which are monologues. Each character is between 10 and 15 years old and lives on an English manor in the year 1255; Schlitz leaves it up to the readers to decide for themselves the age of each character. Some characters are members of the nobility and some decidedly are not. Yet each one has his or her own unique voice, which Schlitz creates with wonderful accuracy for the period.

That is the beauty of the stories: each character is so finely depicted, his voice is so vivid, her circumstances so carefully constructed that the medieval era comes to brilliant life. Far better than any dull textbook rendering of "Life in Medieval Times," these plays vividly re-create the social strata and living conditions of a typical feudal-system manor, from the desperate situation of a runaway villein to the frightening expectations of the lord's nephew and all those in between.

The book includes several explanatory essays that give background information on issues of the day. These include "The Three-Field System," Medieval Pilgrimage," "Jews in Medieval Society," and "Towns and Freedom." Well-written and just thorough enough, the essays shed light on aspects of some of the characters' lives. Also, there are notes alongside the text whenever further explanation of a term or situation is warranted.

As we know, medieval life was difficult and often cruel, and these plays do not shy away from tough topics. There are brutal drunkards for fathers, dishonest millers, rank poverty, and other ugliness. I have not felt the need to skip or edit any of the selections, and the girls and I have had some good conversations following particularly difficult monologues; but your family may feel otherwise. Use your own discretion. That being said, there are also moments of self-awareness, clarity, and honesty so poignant that it almost hurts to read them.

My daughters are developing a love for the medieval period, and I'm delighted to watch it blossom. This book is one of the reasons they've become so intrigued.

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