When I heard the concept of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz (monologues given by medieval children), I thought it would be horribly boring. Monologues? I thought. What is fun about monologues? I thought children would be bored by these “Voices from a Medieval Village.”
To my delight, I found Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! to be easy and fun to read. I loved meeting the youth of Schlitz’s created medieval village and I would love to see a group of children perform this collection of monologues: it is a collection of personalities, and it shows how every person in a village has a role, be they rich or poor. I think children would like this book as well!
Monologues of Medieval Life
The students where librarian Laura Amy Schlitz worked were studying the Middle Ages, and she wanted them to perform something – but plays rarely have 17 main parts, and everyone wanted a main part. So she took it upon herself to create a village setting and write monologues or dialogues for all the youths in the class. The end result was Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and it won the Newbery Award for excellence in Children’s Literature.
In Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, we meet the daughter and nephew of the feudal lord, a plowboy, a doctor’s son, a religious pilgrim, the miller’s son, the village half-wit, the moneylender’s son and a merchant’s daughter, and many other peasants. My favorite was Alice, the shepherdess: her sheep was dying and she sang it back to life, a story based on a real one (in more modern times). My other favorite was Mogg, who, upon her father’s death, learns that the lord has the right to take the best of their livestock, a fact she’s quite angry about; to her and my delight, her story ends happily.
Every person of the village expresses their frustrations and challenges. As we learn of their individual worries and problems, we see how they don’t understand each other. Interspersed throughout the book are short, two-page informational sections clarifying things: Why did villagers dislike the miller? Why was the pilgrim traveling? Why weren’t Jews liked? From what was the runaway fleeing?
I finished the book knowing more about medieval society. I also better appreciated everyone’s role in society today.
Performance as Literature
Schlitz was quite right in her portrayals of Christian medieval youth as “acting” their literature. According to Chapter 3 (“Court, Commerce and Cloister”) of Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, just as religious services were performances, the literature of a medieval childhood was performed.
Children were given lots of responsibilities, from medieval courts of leadership to craft guilds, and each role had literature for the children. The literature of medieval childhood included the earliest lullabies, religious primers, and courtesy/conduct manuals. Much of the learning was through riddles, and these riddles were “dialogue[s] between master and students” (page 63).
Lerer illustrates how medieval literature wasn’t only performance: it was also “romance and adventure, Robin Hood and magic, lullabies and folk rhymes” (page 80). While I certainly don’t wish to have lived as a child in medieval times, it’s refreshing to see, in history, literature beginning to develop for children.
It seems quite appropriate that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! allows modern children to enter the medieval world in a similar way. I’d highly recommend this book for children and parents alike.