Illuminating the Past… Middle Ages Simulation

Simulation: Illuminating the Past!scribecolor

This week students experienced a unique one-day simulation. While studying the Middle Ages, my students learned about monks and monasteries. I thought it would be cool for students in the digital age to experience life in a 12th century Italian Monastery. Students picked a text they loved (a poem, book, or song lyrics) and brought it to class the next day. As they walked into class, students were transported to an Italian monastery nestled in the foothills around Rome.

Making this transformation wasn’t hard or costly. Mood lighting was important to set the stage, so I began by turning off all the lights. I opened my shades just a little to give some natural light. I had bought some LED candles from Amazon and put them on each table and a few extra ones spread around the room. The sounds of a monastery also needed to be replicated – nothing ten dollars on iTunes store couldn’t solve. I purchased a chant CD worked perfectly.

The first part of class was a presentation on illuminated manuscripts. Students learned about their importance and key characteristics of designing them. The students were interested in the craftsmanship that went into these books. I told the students that they would be simulating the efforts of monks to transcribe important literary works.

Things I expect to see in the final document are:

  • Careful crafted font – For monks, the text was part of the art. Students must take added care in their writing.
  • Repeating patterns – Many illuminated documents had these as part of their style
  • Colorful – It’s essential – they were illuminated after all.
  • Illustration – One very striking detail for people of this time were to see these beautiful images.
  • Font – The font itself was a work of art. Students needed to take great care with their writing.
  • Oversized lettering – The first letter was oversized, similar to “Once upon a time …”

While not all monks take a vow of silence, I informed the students that they had previously taken such a vow.  I gave students a single sheet of computer paper and told them to start transcribing the document that they had brought to the scriptorium. You could have heard a pin drop. For added affect, I called all the students sisters and brothers, e.g. brother Thomas or Sister Jenna. As these mini-monks slaved over their documents I gave them a short lecture providing them with more detail of the life of a monk.

Students loved this simulation. While I have had great success simulating naval battles, Roman courtrooms, and ancient Olympic games I wasn’t sure an Italian monastery would connect and inspire my students. Well, I am here to tell you that it definitely did excite them. Students were a buzz all day about the class. After each period, they asked great questions about monks, monasteries, and general questions about the life and times of the Middle Ages. I was asked after each class if we are going to continue this simulation. When I informed them it was a one day simulation they began to beg for more time.

I will admit, I didn’t think this simulation would have this kind of response from the students. One lesson I learned in creating this simulation is the powerful impact a sensory experience can have on students. That the power of this experience, as the student actually feel what it was like. I have really enjoyed building my own simulations this year and hope to write a blog post about creating your own. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this summary of my Illuminated Manuscript lesson.


  1. Hello! I’m trying this tomorrow in a gifted third grade class. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • I would love to hear how it went in your classroom. My students just loved it. Please consider getting back when you have the chance.

  2. This sounds awesome. I have done something similar but I love how you took it to the next level.

  3. Love this! I did with my 6th graders two years ago and it was fabulous. My team also allowed kids to wear their “hood-ies” during class if they took the vow. That was a BIG hit with the kids!!

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