Tag Archives: Vitae

A Bit of Mad Libs, A little practicality and a little fun

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Every semester it is one of my favorite assignments.  In asking students to start to recognize the vocabulary that can help them place a Vita (translation: Life–as in an early form of biography that often focused less on accuracy and more on example or political commentary) in the appropriate era, I have them select an era and then draw up a list of words, Mad Libs style, that would be appropriate for a Vita from that era.

Below, are examples from this semester with my commentary:


The virile man was cunning.  He conquered other nations. 

He always ­delegated to Jupiter in the morning earning

the admiration of Alexander.  When combat happened

in the noon he was the first to struck his Caesar.

This group included key figures/deities that would indicate a Roman text, as well as focusing on the admirable traits of a Roman leader: virile, cunning, conquering, striking–in other words, strong, clever, and militant.


The literate man was educated.  He copied other nations. 

He always ­converting to Charles in the morning earning

the admiration of Missi.  When the crowned emperor happened

in the death of Charlemagne he was the first to defend his Carolingians.

This group selected the Carolingian era, for which they read an excerpt of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne.  This is rather different from the Late Antique-era Vitae which focused more on holy men and women with a special emphasis on martyrdom, conversions and miracles, or withdrawal from the world.  The Carolingian Vita–and especially Einhard’s–is deliberately copying the Roman tradition of Vitae.  This group, however, chose to focus on the particular marks of Charlmagne’s reign: education and literacy, copying of texts (though in the Mad Libs, this meaning was changed considerably), conversion and defense of the Church and empire.  It also included important Carolingian features and events, such as the Missi who were the messengers of the king, distributing his capitularies (laws) and charters, and the crowning of Charlemagne as the new emperor by the pope.


The hearty of service man was master of good will.  He overpowered other nations. 

He always ­surpassed to Caesar in the morning earning

the admiration of soldiers.  When assault happened

in the nighttime he was the first to die his orator.

Here, again, is a Roman example.  This one also focuses on virtues of a leader including a permissible goodness, strong military career–including the admiration of soldiers–and a touch of the Hellenistic or possibly a nod to the typical career-building of the Roman elite (or both) in identifying him also as an orator.

Late Antique

The blessed man was arrogant.  He granted other nations. 

He always ­relinquished to Jesus in the morning earning

the admiration of martyrs.  When persecution happened

in the Easter he was the first to overthrow his bishop.

This one is a little confused merging historical interests of the Late Antique writers, such as Gregory of Tours, and the holy-man/martyr-Vita.  If one discounts the use of “arrogant” and “overthrow” in this sample, one can see the clear use of Late Antique preoccupations in their Vitae: blessed men (and occasionally women), relinquishing worldly possessions and goals, devotion to Jesus, willing martyrs in the face of persecution, the importance of Easter, and the significance of stable church offices, such as the bishops, in the face of great change and threat of violence in a post-Roman Empire world.  Historians of the era, on the other hand, often discussed the violence of the newly arrived peoples–particularly that of fratricide among Frankish princes in order to secure a larger cut of the kingdoms they inherited.  This may explain the incongruous additions of “arrogant” and “overthrow”–unless their Vita was a conversion story, of course.


The strong man was controlling.  He reinstated other nations.

He always ­sent to the Merovingians in the morning earning

the admiration of missis.  When the Battle of Tours happened

in the Treaty of Verdun he was the first to convert his Carolingians.

And, finally, another Carolingian mock Vita.  This group focused less on Charlemagne’s renovatio (the word the Carolingians used to describe their own program–what many scholars today call the Carolingian Renaissance) and more on the type of leader Charlemagne was: strong and controlling, trying to convert the Saxons.  They still include the renovatio in the verb “reinstated” as many Roman and Church traditions, in addition to the education programs, were attempted.  This group references the Carolingians fellow-Frankish dynastic predecessors: the Merovingians, including (I think) their glorious campaign by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles “the Hammer” Martel, the Battle of Tours (they mean Poitiers, though, unless this is just a convenient place name to describe a battle which could have taken place) which drove the Muslim advance out of Gaul (modern day France) and back into Spain.  They leap forward then to the later Treaty of Verdun signed to attempt an amicable division of territory between Charlemagne’s grandchildren–it would not last.

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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.

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