Plod this past them

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Two nosethirles short of a visage, Rowland Moloney dares to introduce 12-year-olds to Middle English and the world of Chaucer.

How far ahead do you prepare your lessons? Anyone working on 1998 yet? No? A pity, because I've got one here that would fit in nicely with the BBC Pounds 1.5m animation of The Canterbury Tales, scheduled for screening in two years' time. Do I hear cries of disbelief? Chaucer, in the lower school? What, Middle English with Year 8? You must be two nosethirles short of a visage.

Actually I'm not joking, but before you dismiss the idea let me - since we're talking pilgrims here - trundle, stroll, plod this one past you. Okay, not a lot of Middle English. But quite a lot of Becket. Quite a lot of London-to-Canterbury. And quite a lot, I suggest, of someone like the Pardoner, or the Friar, or the Wife. Someone you can get your teeth into.

Well why not? It's a meaty topic if it's taken in broad context. It's excellent background to English literature. And if you give the children their heads to find various bits of the whole task that they're individually interested in, then chances are it'll come off.

The first thing to do is order in advance through your school library one of those book box project packs: books on Becket, Chaucer, Canterbury Cathedral, Life in 14th-century England. This will be your research pack and it will underpin your lessons when, momentum well under way, 30 children appear to be working in 30 different directions. Make sure you have at least one copy of Neville Coghill's modern translation.

Now give them a list of the pilgrims from The Prologue and let them find pictures of your typical Monk, Nun, Knight, Guildsman and so on. They must choose just one and then cut him or her out in silhouette from a piece of card, or make up a collage figure form old magazines.

Polystyrene, drawn on first with the outline figure, then cut with hot wire works well. The 3-D effect is quite striking and they're very easy to mount. If you don't have access to hot wire (and one has to be wary of noxious fumes with this method) a sharp knife will do the job, though this means a terrible mess on your classroom floor and you must be ready with a box of chocolates and apologies for your after-school cleaner.

Naturally the pupils paint or colour-in their chosen figure. With some guidance and a good deal of plain old insistence you don't have to end up at this stage with 30 Nuns or 30 Wives of Bath. Now comes a cunning piece of language work. Before this wonderful display of colourful figures goes up on your wall each pilgrim must have attached to it a piece of Chaucer's description of him or her. A line or two from The Prologue will do fine, in Middle English. And underneath, the modern translation. It's not a big task and it gives pupils a taste of 600-year-old English.

Now what? A look at one or two pilgrims in detail? The Coghill translation is accessible. But before that, some warm-up discussion. Who reads their stars? Who is superstitious? What are some current superstitions? Who makes money these days out of people's gullibility?

A couple of looks at Chaucer's and Coghill's descriptions of the Pardoner and a listing of all the facts we get about him shows us that here we have a seriously weird chap. Well, what do we think of a guy who makes a packet out of flogging pigs' bones and passing them off as bits of saints? He's got a piece of St Peter's sail. He's got a piece of Mary's veil. He sells pardons for sins, for goodness sake!

Are the punters only getting what their naivety deserves, or is he an out-and-out shyster? Does he perform a public service, giving people what they want? And what about his rat-tail hair? His goat-bleat voice? His author's view that he was a gelding or a mare? It shouldn't be too difficult to write a bit of dialogue after they've absorbed all this: persuasive effeminate salesman on the one hand, simple villager with a bad conscience on the other. There's scope for drama here, too. The fellow claims he's selling pardons for sins . . . Who believes him? Who doesn't. Or what about the Friar: a man who loves money, loves pubs, loves barmaids, loves dressing well, loves giving presents to pretty girls . . .

Alongside the figures-for-display work you could have a series of researched paragraphs, using all the volumes in the book box: paragraphs on the murder of Becket, on the Cathedral itself, on everyday life in 14th-century England: dress, food, occupations and so on. A route map of Southwark to Canterbury would be instructive. In addition to all this there are plenty of modern renditions of the Pilgrims' Tales and one or two of these re-told is not difficult to do. A piece of imaginative writing on the actual murder (St Thomas, forgive us!) will appeal to some once they've been fed the facts.

So what about it then? Chaucer with the juniors? You have here material for the best part of a term's work. It's sound Eng lit background. It's hugely varied; and tell me an assignment that's more cross-curricular: it's got history, geography, technology, art, RE, drama - and a bit of English too. And if you do it fairly soon . . . well, picture the scene in '98 when a certain series of Animated Tales hits the telly and a huge rediscovered interest in yer main man Geoffrey is aroused. "Chaucer? Sure, Chaucer's cool. We did him way back."

Rowland Moloney is senior sixth form tutor at Sidmouth College, Devon.

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