In the forward to her Newbery winning book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, Laura Amy Schlitz references her student love for historical novels, and how the plights, struggles and survivals of ordinary people inspired her. Wanting to provide the same inspiration for her own students, she wrote Good Masters!, a collection of prose and poetic monologues and dialogues depicting children from a medieval manor in England in 1255.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! opens with the monologue of Hugo, the lord’s nephew. In short stanzas, Hugo speaks of finding a boar in the forest. This adventurous story perfectly sets up the characters we as readers , listeners and performers are about to meet. Schlitz lays the groundwork for an informative and entertaining look at a period of history. Schlitz includes timely vocabulary, such as “friants,” (boar droppings) “villeins” (non-free peasant) and “varlet” (a man who looked after animals), as well as incorporating religious customs and holidays into her monologues and dialogues. Schlitz provides explanations and definitions in footnotes, so as to not interrupt the flow of language.
“Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,/ And the river turns the mill wheel/ and the wheel goes on forever.” These three lines are repeated often in the tale of Otho, the miller’s son. Each character brings with him or her a different style of writing, some verse and some in prose. But Otho’s monologue is the only to include repeated lines. Otho’s narration bounces back and forth between an eight line stanza with an ABCB rhyme scheme and the refrain which includes the lines quoted above. The overall effect is not unlike a nursery rhyme, though the subject matter is significantly more mature. Otho talks of being a miller, and cheating his customers. “My father used to beat me sore - / I’ve learned that life is grim./ And someday I will have a son – and God help him!”
Throughout the unique voices presented here, readers, listeners and performers can observe and relate to a variety of different experiences and opinions. While the effects of medieval politics and religions might not be immediately relevant to their lives, many youth can relate to feelings of inadequacy, obligation, jealousy and friendship. Schlitz touches on very common feelings while exploring historical details.
In addition to informative footnotes, Schlitz also includes stage directions (also presented as footnotes) and prose interludes to give the reader more information about a certain historical topic, such as medieval agriculture and the Crusades. This brief but helpful instruction can only enhance a reader’s or performer’s experience.
For many students, history can be a dry subject with endless names and dates that seem to have no relevance to their lives. The beauty of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is that it gives students an immediate connection to the past. This tactic could be employed to explore different time periods. Students could take time looking at the lives of children to enhance their understanding of history. I think a valuable exercise might be to have students choose a time period and allow them to create a character from that period, and then write a scene for them, describing the quotidian details of their lives in context.
Schlitz, Laura Amy. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780763615789