an experiment in historical reconstruction in the classroom


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    The experiment in reconstruction here recorded was made in Barrs Hill Girls Grammar School, Coventry, between the years 1934 and 1948. During these years, we, the two history teachers, followed a wide school syllabus with text-books, library books, tests, mapwork, essays and external examina- tions. But we felt that a more imaginative approach was necessary to demonstrate that history is the story of real people, individuals with problems which do not always find much space in text-books. An approach through some form of play-acting seemed natural ; costumes and acting help to re-create the past, unusual words are so much easier to under- stand if they are actually used in speech, and there is a fascina- tion in using the very words uttered on some historic or special occasion. We found, however, that published books of history plays did not meet our demand. These plays often contain an extraneous vein of comedy or love interest, as though ordinary routine or extraordinary incidents were not in themselves exciting enough. As plays, they .often sacrificed historical accuracy to dramatic necessities. The spontaneous turning of a lesson into a play-acting scene, a method all teachers must use at times, was not enough. If done too much, this makes the pupil disinclined to tackle stiff learning. We wanted to re- produce scenes from the past, using where possible the actual words spoken or symbols used and demonstrating the inherent interest of such episodes. We wanted to reproduce in slow motion some event which, though mentioned only briefly in the text-book, had given rise to questions and comments in class. This reproduction would not be planned ahead, but would arise from our own lessons and would be prepared by all of us, teachers and taught. During the preparation we were all seekers for historical knowledge. Our usual school course was full of opportunities for this treatment.

    To illustrate this method we have mentioned five examples, in which the method of preparation and presentation varied according to the age of the form and the nature of the subject. The titles are :-

    A Manorial Court of the Middle Ages ;

  • 156 . HISTORY [JUNE

    Coventry City Council in Tudor times and at the present day; The Early Growth of Coventry ; Three famous Trials of the French Revolution ; Extracts from Debates leading to the Repeal of the Corn Laws ;

    Some of these were exercises based on sixth form studies by girls taking the Higher School Certificate examination. The others were arranged with second year forms.

    * * * * ' A Manorial Court of the Middle Ages ' was based on the

    history lessons of two terms and the incidents were put into dramatic shape in four scenes as the subjects arose during the lessons. It was performed by the whole form, a second year one, average age 12 years. The theme developed after explana- tions had been given of the nature of the manor and the meaning of such terms as tithing, freeholder, fealty, heriot and serfdom, attached, respite and jury. Examples of the various forms of trials for offences had been discussed. The first two court scenes are supposed to occur consecutively in the thirteenth centufy and afford an opportunity for the bailiff to follow up, at the second court, judgments given at the first one. The names of persons and places are actual thirteenth- century names.


    Bailif: William of the Water is attached because he dug white earth in the way between Keresley and Foleshill to the hurt of his neighbours at Keresley.

    (Clerk calls William forward.) Stmard: William, is this true ? William: It is not true. I ask that an enquiry be made. Steward: Let an enquiry be made and William shall be in

    respite until the next Court.


    Beadle: Silence. Oyez, oyez, oyez. All who have business with the Lord of the Manor draw near.


    Richard of the Well: William of the Water has broken his leg and is unable to come.

    Bai lg : William of the Water is in respite from the last Court while an enquiry is being made into the digging of white earth.

    Richard of the Well: I represent William. Steward: Has the enquiry been made ? Leader of the Jury: We find that the digging caused grievous

    hurt to Williams neighbours. Their land was damaged and their pasture ruined.

    Steward: William shall restore the ground and pay a fine of four pence.

    [NOTE. We do not know what the white earth was or why William dug it. But suggestions led to profitable discussions about the work of the potter and the fuller.]

    The last two courts are supposed to be held in the fourteenth century. The earlier one before the Black Death showed the the thange in status of the villein, commutation and the movement to the town. The later one, after the Black Death, is concerned with the depopulation in the village and the search for villeins.


    Bailif: Edmund Banty who held half a messuage of land is dead. There comes Margery, his wife, to take these tenements and there falls to the lord a heriot, value two shillings.

    Steward: Margery, do you take the lands for the term of your life, according to the custom of the Manor and with the services due ?

    Margery: I cannot pay the heriot. All my cattle have died and I have nothing to give.

    (Steward consults with Bailiff.) Steward: Remembering the calamity of the Plague, I will

    (Bailiff calls Margery forward. Margery receives from Steward a white wand, kneels and places her hands between the Stewards hands.)

    release you from the heriot.


    Margery: So help me God and all His Saints, I swear from this day forth to be true and faithful to the Lord Mountjoy and to owe fealty for the land I hold of him. I do become his man from this day forth of life and limb and earthly honour.

    The teacher used the standard works on the English manorial system. There are many printed texts of manorial rolls and records to be consulted in the Historical Association Library. The girls used the Quennell History of Everyday Things, and many illustrated history books for children were in the form library ; these provided a guide for costumes and setting. The girls managed the costumes themselves with the aid of the school property box. Usually the best speakers took important parts and the other parts were taken in any order, e.g., as the girls sat in class. There was constant action and though there were many speeches there were also some periods of silent ceremonial which were very impressive. The production took place on the floor of the school hall, as it was not intended that it should be regarded as a stage performance. The beadle and bailiff stood on a higher level than the body of the court and remained standing during the proceedings, representing the dominance of law and order in the court. Any audience there might be (and the scenes were not produced primarily for an audience) had to get in where it could, e.g. on the smaller hall platform. The teacher wrote and assigned the parts. The speeches were not necessarily learnt by heart though most of the speakers preferred to commit their parts to memory. As f a r as possible the traditional form of the court phrasing was used. But, of course, there had to be some adaptation of speech and incident. It will easily be seen that there is plenty of work, sometimes dificult investigation, sometimes mere copying behind an apparently simple reconstruction. The work was a co-operative one and was usually fluid until the day of production. It was indeed never written as a complete text until after it had been performed.

    * * * * The Tudor city council scene arose out of the sixth-form

    lessons on Tudor local government. The Coventry Leet Book in the edition prepared by Mary Dormer Harris was used to provide episodes and actual names. Frederick SmithsSix Hundred Years


    of Municipal Life, and many other books on local history were consulted. The twentieth-century city council scene, which formed the second part of this section, was based on visits to the Coventry council chamber when the aldermen and councillors were in session. The girls also used a copy of the minute book of the city council and some published correspondence between the council and the ministry of labour. The minutes were carefully studied for present-day reference to matters mentioned in the Tudor council scene and this provided a continuity of theme and an illustration of the change of social pattern during four centuries.The girl who took the part of the mayor in both scenes was specially interested in this aspect ; some girls were able to do some research in Coventry records themselves. Gradually the reconstruction was evolved, not in one consecutive writing, but in sections. Each girl was responsible for the words of her own part. A few minutes in class were devoted to piecing together the sections, but most of it was done out of class. Some of the sixth-formers not in the history sixth were willing to be extras in the scenes. Some speeches on non-controversial topics were invented by the girls to replace others which dealt with matters still awaiting legal decisions. As in the manorial court scenes both parts were performed in costume on the floor of the school hall. Speeches were not learnt by heart. Costumes of the Tudor period were difficult to collect and only the chief speakers could aspire to any correctness


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