Welcome to the subject of History and to your new year at school! I hope that you make new friends and enjoy all the experiences that our school has to offer. In particular, I wish you the very best in my class and I look forward to hearing your comments and reading your ideas about the past — and the present.
As you know, we have no choice but to experience our lives in chronological order, from birth to death. When we take on the role of historians, however, we can dip into the history of humankind at any time and in any place.
I like to imagine that, in this role, we all become rather like timelords who, even without a tardis or a time machine, somehow manage to wander into other societies where mysterious people lived. These people were like us, yet also different from us in intriguing ways. As historians, we encounter their suffering, their hopes and their dreams. In the process, we both discover their stories and enrich our own.
I hope you will enjoy this journey through space and time. The activities and the presentation below will introduce you to many vital details about history and prepare you for the adventure ahead.
Videos, Links and Videos for Your First Experience as a Time Traveller
Florence • Commonly considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance
Dear Year 8 students,
Right now, you are working your way through adolescence, a period when children turn into adults, become increasingly independent in thought and action, and begin to question all that they have ever been told. In a way, the Renaissance was rather like that. The word Renaissance means “rebirth”.
During the Renaissance, people began to rethink and reconsider all the ideas that had been accepted and assumed for centuries. There were new ideas in art, science, literature and other fields of human endeavour. Of course, in those days, ideas and movements did not spread with lightning speed as they do now in our intensely connected world. The ideas and the achievements of the Renaissance developed over centuries, beginning in Italy and spreading from there all over Europe.
Over a period of more than two centuries, artists gradually became more and more intrigued by the nature of human beings, human and natural beauty, anatomy and the natural world. They created art with several themes that artists would not have considered earlier: portraits of wealthy people (often clutching books to show their intelligence and education); detailed prints and paintings of plants, animals and landscapes; scenes and buildings in which careful attention to the rules of perspective is evident. Later, artists began to paint ordinary people involved in everyday pursuits, such as children playing games or peasants at a wedding. There were still many religious paintings, but other central ideas became evident.
Many fields were affected by these new trends. Sculpture and architecture changed and developed dramatically as well. Writers began to employ their mother tongue and tell stories that revealed the lives of ordinary people. Scientists and astronomers started to question the long-accepted ideas of the Church and to base new theories on experimentation rather than on “deduction from fundamental principles”. The scientific method as we now know it was born.
This was certainly a time when creativity flourished, yet there was also a reaction against new ideas. Alongside those who embrace change in any historical period, there are also others who fear the effects of change on their belief systems and way of life. The leaders of the Catholic Church, for example, were deeply suspicious of many Renaissance ideas, did not allow dissection and accused scientists of heresy. For fear of scorn or punishment, Copernicus did not publish his theory about a sun-centred universe until late in his life. Galileo was accused of heresy after supporting this view of the universe and placed under house arrest for the last few years of his life. Botticelli, the artist who gave us “The Birth of Venus”, even burned some of his paintings because of his fear that they were sinful and wrong. Even within a single human being, there was sometimes a conflict between the desire for change and the fears that change brought.
All in all, this period was an absorbing and ground-breaking time. Some people pushed forward into the future; others yearned for the old ways.
As you grow older, your thinking will become more independent and questioning, like that of many people during the Renaissance. There may also be a small part of you that yearns for the security of childhood. During the time of upheaval and change of human history that we now call the “Renaissance”, there were also those who cast a lingering look back at the past.
This handout provides two jigsaws of a medieval sculpture, Crusader and His Wife, and the Renaissance sculpture Pietà by Michelangelo. After completing the sculpture (in pairs if you like), select which adjectives relate to each:
Please note: There is a rather gruesome opening to this. In my experience, most students are less sensitive to blood and gore than I am, but avoid the first minute if you become faint at the sight of violence, blood or unbridled ambition.
Imagine sitting somewhere for hours with no certainty of success and a growing sense of the ultimate futility of all your efforts. Does this sound rather like school to you?
Well actually, I’m referring to carrying out a siege of a medieval castle.
Besieging a castle was a tedious, dangerous and messy business. All too often for the attackers, their efforts were futile.
Besiegers surrounded a seemingly impregnable castle and tried to induce the inhabitants to leave their stone refuge.
The besieging army would therefore be out in all kinds of weather, living in close proximity without proper sanitation. They would be vulnerable to castle defenders taking potshots at them from the castle wall and they would often feel cold and hungry. If dysentery broke out in the camp, everyone would become ill. The symptoms of dysentery include watery diarrhoea and vomiting. Imagine experiencing that without a toilet in the vicinity!By all accounts, the smell of a besieging army was particularly unpleasant. All in all, the sheer monotony, along with the constant danger and the lack of comfort, would lead to a constant sense of frustration.
Meanwhile, the defenders who were holed up inside the castle might well have enough stores to sit out the siege for months. They were in a highly defensible position.
Longbow • In the Public Domain • Wikipedia • This weapon was powerful and accurate at long range. It required years of training and great strength to learn to use it. A skilled archer could shoot 12-15 arrows per minute, which may explain why the longbow is sometimes referred to as “the machine gun of the Middle Ages”.
Sieges took place quite often during the Hundred Years War (which actually refers to a series of battles over a 116-year period, between 1337 and 1453). The French knights, despite their long years of training, heavy armour and daunting warhorses, were no match for the longbow archers of England at the Battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. As defenders sought protective cover in castles, rather than riding into open battle, a kind of arms race between the architects of castles and the designers of siege engines developed.
The Battle of Crécy (English on the right) • From an illuminated manuscript of the writings of Jean Froissart [Public domain] Wikipedia
Knights did not appreciate siege warfare since it provided no opportunity to show their valour. There is nothing very heroic about sitting and waiting, whether you are defending a castle or attacking it. Increasingly, such warfare involved mercenaries and peasants who were pressed into combat.
I hope that this rather unappealing description of siege warfare makes you feel slightly better about your daily fate in the halls of learning.