Activity: Medieval Reader Role-Playing Exercise

Goal: To introduce students of medieval literature to the idea of historically specific reading practices. To encourage both paraphrasing and creative close reading. To introduce theories of allegory.

This activity is specific to ENGL 381 or an introductory class in medieval literature. I assign passages from The Second Shepherd’s Play, but it would work for any particularly rich passage from a medieval text.

I begin by introducing my student’s to the four categories of meaning most commonly used in medieval allegorical exegesis. Medieval readers interpreted texts as having four distinct levels of meaning:

   1) the literal sense: the deeds and events that are presented in the text; its plain sense;

   2) the allegorical sense: what the text teaches us about what we must believe; the way it illustrates the life of Christ, the Christian Creed, the Sacraments, or the role of the Church

   3) the moral or tropological sense: what the text teaches us about how to live

   4) the anagogical sense: what the text teaches us about death, final judgment, heaven, hell and the afterlife

Once I’ve explained these categories of interpretation, and perhaps given an example from the reading, I break them up into four groups and assign them the same passage from the play. I tell them that they are to imagine themselves as medieval readers interpreting the passage according to the four levels of meaning. I choose a passage where the Christ-symbols or other allegorical meaning is fairly obvious. For the literal sense, I ask them to describe what is actually happening onstage, but if you are interpreting poetry it would be equally useful to ask them to produce a modern paraphrase. At the end of class, I have each group report back their interpretations of one level of meaning. (I eavesdrop on the groups so I can call on groups that have done particularly insightful or creative interpretations to report on that level.) I don’t judge how historically accurate their interpretations turn out. It’s useful enough to get them thinking about how texts might work on several levels. They come up with surprisingly innovative and occasionally sophisticated readings when they are forced to produce more than one interpretation of the same passage.