On 1st July 2013 I joined the thought-provoking round table discussion on “Teaching Pleasure in the Middle Ages” at the Twentieth International Medieval Congress, which took place in Leeds. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/ims/imc/imc2013_call.html

The panel was excellently organized and chaired by Dr Kimm Curran (History Lab Plus, Institute of Historical Research http://www.history.ac.uk/historylab/plus), supported by Dr Jason T. Roche (Department of History and Economic History, Manchester Metropolitan University).

We addressed some of the following questions concerning teaching ‘pleasure’, the theme of the conference:

  • How do we (or should we) teach medieval pleasure to undergraduate students?
  •  What are good practices to engage them with such, sometimes ‘uncomfortable’, topics?
  • How can seminars and lectures, as well as activities outside the classroom, stimulate further interest and discussion?

By comparing and contrasting methods and methodologies applied at different levels to the teaching of different aspects and interpretations of medieval pleasure, presenters discussed their personal experiences and the pedagogic strategies behind such choices.


Presenters’ contributions:

Dr April Harper (State University of New York, Oneonta) 

discussed her teaching strategies when delivering an entire module on medieval gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages at UG level. In her experience, it had proven more successful to build an entire module on such topics, so that students became progressively more familiar with the subject and felt less hesitant in discussing it, rather than trying to include one or two sessions on such topics within more general module.

Different types of sources were used to stimulate discussion concerning the semantics of pleasure and sex, genres, authorial roles and so forth.

Students also created a Facebook page (which is still running, even after the end of the module where they were encouraged to post comments, links and sources concerning representations of sexual violence in the medieval and modern periods, to reflect on the ways of presenting and discussing those topics through different registers and aimed at different types of audiences.

Iona McCleery (University of Leeds, UK) 

shared her experience in teaching different types and interpretations of medieval pleasure from the perspective of the history of medicine. Using different types of sources to generate a first ‘impact’ on students’ perspectives and to help them unfold and demystify incorrect stereotypes and false knowledge about what is generally regarded as ‘medieval’, Iona has managed to engage students actively in their learning. Despite the fact that some of her lectures and seminars dealing with medieval forms of pleasure were included in modules on different subjects – such as magic in the Middle Ages – she exposed students to think more broadly about concepts which could be approaches from multiple perspectives.

Antonella Liuzzo Scorpo (University of Lincoln, UK) 

I discussed the ‘pleasure and troubles’ of teaching medieval friendship as a form of intellectual, physical and social practice. In my modules, students analyze and discuss different types of sources – from the classical period to medieval reinterpretations – to reflect upon what friendship meant for a medieval mind and how it was experienced in fact. To engage students actively as co-producers of historical knowledge, I will ask them to work with an online tool called Xerte (as part of an HEA funded project ‘Making Digital History’ that we run at Lincoln, https://makingdigitalhistory.co.uk/) to experiment and reflect on specific topics, to think about them transversally and comparatively, as well as to put sources in dialogue, while developing transferable skills such as communicating ideas in different formats and to different audiences. Whilst improving their digital literacy, Xerte-based projects will also encourage students to create and experiment with ideas, sources and resources of different types.

Katherine Lewis (University of Huddersfield)

is running a fascinating assessment activity for one of her modules about medieval myths, their foundation and development. Third year students are asked to create a pitch story, video game or movie on a topic of their choice (previously agreed with their tutors) based on the primary evidence available and supported by the existing historiography on the chosen subject. Students can decide whether they want to put together a historical ‘reproduction’ that is as accurate and faithful as possible to the sources available or whether they want to ‘modernize’ the story. Importantly, they must present and justify the rationale behind such changes.

One of the numerous examples that Katherine showcased was the work of a student whose pitch was a video-game on the Vikings based on the Sagas, which also helped the student to reflect upon narrative structures and the processes of ‘historical re-creation’ across times and spaces.


Some of the questions which were asked in the discussion which followed those presentations were the following:

  • How do we make students comfortable with discussing topics such as sexuality and related forms of pleasure when teaching more general modules in which no more than one or tow lectures/seminars are dedicated to such specific subjects?
  • How do we assess new types and formats of creative work, such as the Xerte projects or the pitch videos/video games?
  • How and to what extent are virtual learning environments helping and facilitating (or not) the discussion of specific subjects, such as pleasure?
  • While it is important to let students share and discuss ideas freely and creatively in class or through online tasks, how can we reduce the risk of getting ‘off track’?

Thinking creatively and comparatively about teaching pleasure in the Middle Ages was an excellent opportunity to share ideas and good practices, as well as to get different insights into subjects which, as medievalists, we are all familiar with, although teaching them to undergraduate students is very often a challenging task!

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