Distinguishing characteristics of change and continuity among periods

Despite the changes from one era or culture to the next, there are often similar types of texts that show up throughout different periods.  The way that these texts evolve is reflective of the culture producing them, as such they can be really useful tools in charting change and continuity over time.  A compare and contrast exercise of this type is also valuable for reviewing past material.  Texts can include laws, speeches, biographies, histories, fiction, etc.  It can also be applied to art or music, whether religious, public or private.

There are different ways to do this.  One is to send your students off on a scavenger hunt in the library to find the primary sources and to write a compare and contrast essay, asking them to identify the features of the text that place it in a particular time, era or culture.  If you have been working with these sorts of texts all along than you can include a review assignment.  Venn diagrams can be used, but I also am a big fan of students writing in the cultural style of one or another, or switching styles within in a story.  Possibly, my favorite is a Mad Libs exercise.

The Mad Libs has the advantage of emphasizing certain vocabulary, while being a shorter, more condensed assignment than a larger writing project.  For example, in my Western Civilization class, I assigned excerpts from Roman Vitae (Lives) which were biographies of various famous men (for the most part) extolling or castigating their virtues and actions, thus revealing the societal mores.  Romans wrote about everyone from Alexander the Great to Hannibal to Julius Caesar.  Early Christians, living under Roman rule, adopted this practice for holy men, writing sacred Vitae.  These differed in several identifiable ways: 1) Early Christian Vitae were, well, Christian while Roman Vitae were pagan (until the conversion of Constantine); 2) Early Christian samples were typically shorter than their Roman counterparts; 3) Early Christian virtues included martyrdom, ascetic living and often included desert seclusion or giving up Roman secular living and offices for roles in the church, whereas Roman virtues were concerned with leadership; and, 4) the “characters” surrounding the Early Christian subjects were also slightly different, involving Church officials, than the Roman subjects who typically involved soldiers and senators.

The evolution of the Vitae continues into the Late Antique era and then the Early and Late Medieval eras.  The Late Antique stories focus on conversion and monastic withdrawal, with less emphasis on martyrdom, though it remains a theme.  By the Early Medieval, particularly surrounding Charlemagne, there is a revival in the Roman style of Vitae, but with Christian markers, such as churches, church hierarchy and, of course, certain Early Medieval realia and institutions instead of some Roman examples.  The Late Medieval, meanwhile, describes a new type of Christian living, the Vitae Apostolica, which is patterned on the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles and Jesus in the Gospels.  These Vitae stress preaching, serving the poor and sick and active involvement among God’s flock instead of withdrawal and seclusion.  Below are some examples of different Vitae from these different eras that I have used (typically in excerpts):


  • Plutarch’s Lives
  • Suetonious’s Lives


  • Eusebius on Constantine (in his ecclesiastical history)
  • The Lives of Desert Fathers
  • St. Anthony


  • Sulpicius Severus’s Life of St. Martin
  • Gregory of Tours on Clovis’s conversion
  • Bede’s Life of Cuthbert


  • Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne
  • Notker’s Life of Charlemagne


  • Life of St. Francis of Assisi
  • Life of St. Roch

The Mad Libs looked like this:

Vitae Mad Libs

Roman               Late Antique                   Carolingian


Adj. (describing the individual of the Vita)


Adj. (describing the individual of the Vita)


Vb. (describing an action of the individual)


Vb. (describing an action of the individual)


N. (person, deity, group)


N. (person, deity, group)


N. (situation, event)


N. (time of day, event)




N. (person, deity, group)


The _1_ man was _2_.  He _3_ other nations.  He always ­_4_ to _5_ in the morning earning the admiration of _6_.  When _7_ happened in the _8_ he was the first to _9_ his _10_.

This was a short exercise, part of a larger homework assignment, that asked the students to think about the differences in vocabulary that marked this largely laudatory style of composition.  It asked them to further assess the different values of each society.  Students can be asked to select one time period, or can be asked to create separate samples for each period—particularly in this case, as there are only ten words to supply for each sample Vita (singular of Vitae).

While an assignment like this can be modified to work really well with young students focusing on unit vocabulary, who may need to be reminded that ancient Romans did not have cell phones, it also works really well with more advanced students who can read more complex primary sources.  It is a simple way to explore societal norms, but it can also be a way to highlight someone who was bucking the trend if enough primary sources are engaged.  In this way, it is easy to see how this might be developed into a larger project that would cover more ground and call for a deeper analysis.  Not only that, but such an analysis may also reveal which authors were emulated.  A perfect example of this is the Roman historian Livy who is repeatedly emulated during the Middle Ages—especially the Late Medieval—and later in the Italian Renaissance.

Speaking of the Italian Renaissance, this is also an exercise which can emphasize that these eras we use are largely conceits, created for convenience.  The need to break the vastness of the world’s history down into easily manageable units led to the creation of all of these periods and eras.  But, they are also misleading.  Seldom does a culture in history end and abruptly shift to a new culture.  Sometimes there are momentous or catastrophic events that seem to bring to an end one era and make way for another, but it is often difficult to discern how sweeping such changes actually are at all levels of a society.  The Italian Renaissance is often advertised as one such abrupt change, but it is more often than not greatly exaggerated.  It was, for example, far less sweeping than the Muslim acquisition in the matter of a century or two of the Near East, northern Africa and Spain.  All of the attributes of the Italian Renaissance began their development in the 1100s, from cities to economics, and from Roman revival in learning to art.  The biggest difference would be revealed in the artwork and the development of the humanistic attitude that identified everything before it as lacking, until one got so far back as the Romans themselves—an attitude adopted by many subsequent generations of scholars.  Europe never let go of Rome, however, and it continually returned to Roman writers and precedent.

Another challenge of eras and periods is the experience of those living in the different eras and periods.  That is, did everyone experience the Carolingian Renaissance?  How far reaching was it in its society?  What about the people of the 12th Century Renaissance, or the Italian Renaissance?  Did the experiences of women change?  What about slaves?  None of these considerations damns the usage of periods and eras, but they should encourage us not to be slaves to our constructs.  This is a useful challenge for students and can be introduced in different ways.  These can build off exercises like those suggested above, or can be independently employed.  One way to do this is to emphasize who is writing the sources in the unit’s corpus?  Some of the eras I mentioned were limited in authorship to Church officials—monks, bishops, etc.  Others are more broad.  Also, who was the audience?  By the Late Medieval and the 12th Century Renaissance, women are already increasingly being included in both authorship and audience.

These sorts of source exercises really challenge students to think about our ability to access different members in society and the limits of the sources perspectives.  It is useful as a thought experiment to ask students to think about what other types of sources a culture might produce—and then supply some samples for review.  Court records, for example, are often a good way to access the experiences of the illiterate, but these have their limits, too.  Archaeology also provides added perspectives.  As do art and music to a degree.


Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s