Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a book of short plays—nineteen monologues and two dialogues—that Laura Amy Schlitz wrote for the students of Park School, where she works as a librarian. In the Foreword, she says:

They were studying the Middle Ages, and they were going at it hammer and tongs. They were experimenting with catapults and building miniature castles, baking bread and tending herbs, composing music and illuminating manuscripts. I wanted them to have something to perform.

The only difficulty was that there were seventeen children in every class, and no one wanted a small part.

The plays work on their own, but also as a set of interconnected stories—all of the characters live in and around the same English manor in 1255. They range in age from 10 to 15; there are boys and girls; some are rich and some are poor; some are some are in the world on their own and working, some are in training for specific professions, some are considering the possibility of marriage; some are supporting their families and others have never known want. Most are Christian, though we do hear from at least one Jewish character; while Schlitz does touch on the Crusades and doesn't paint them in a remotely positive light, as far as I could tell, all of the characters were white.

It appears that rhyming is contagious? Anyway.

The sidebars (see below) contain explanatory notes about vocabulary and stage directions:

However the actor feels about kidneys and fat, this line should be spoken with enthusiasm. In the Middle Ages, it was difficult to get enough protein and fat in the diet. The kidneys of the boar would be a real treat. (4)

Example of the layout in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Example of the layout in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz

The sidebars also include historical information about life in the Middle Ages. The notes in the margins of the monologue by Otho, the Miller's son prompted this exchange:

Me: The rules in this era were so STUPID.
Josh: Well, at least people were dirtbags all the way back. Gives the world some continuity.
Me: That... does not make me feel any better.

There are also a few two-page informational spreads on various topics in which Schlitz gives more in-depth information about aspects of life in England during the Middle Ages—on subjects like falconry, the Crusades, and Jewish life.

On to the plays themselves! They were such a huge pleasure to read that I'm sad this was my first time through—I know so many young patrons who'll be all over them. For one thing, they're an utter joy to read aloud, and they vary in terms of format and rhythm and topic and tone. Try reading this bit aloud to feel the rhythm in your mouth and on your tongue: 

He kept his word. Right there in the wood,
     we kindled a fire and butchered the boar.
     The kidneys were mine, gleaming with fat.
          He clapped my back, and called me a man. (4)

 

And then there is such lovely imagery, like this bit from a little earlier on in the same play:

I gasped like a fish, let my head fall back:
the green leaves swam in the sky. (4)

As well as plenty of appropriately grody images, because the Middle Ages were grody:

I'm used to the lice
Raising families in my hair.
I expect moths to nibble holes
In everything I wear.
I scrape away the maggots
When they crawl across the cheese.
I can get used to anything,
Except for the fleas! (61)

This bit from Thomas, the Doctor's Son, about how to manipulate customers, is wonderfully funny (and also rather horrible):

After the prayer, let the patient rest,
And tell his family, "I will do my best
To fight this sickness, but I fear his fate—
It may be that you called me in too late."
Then shake your head, look serious and wise—
This sort of talk protects you if he dies.
If he recovers, it was all your skill
That brought him back to life. And that's better still. (19)

As is this bit, from Otho, the Miller's Son:

My father is a hard man,
Muscular and stout.
He swings a heavy cudgel
Whenever he walks out.
My grandfather was like him
A man of gain and sin:
They found him in the millpond
With his skull bashed in. (27)

I picked those three excerpts for their rhythm, too—try reading them out loud, pay attention to the different rhyme schemes, everything everything everything! The design in general is gorgeous, and then there are the illustrations by Robert Byrd, which I pored over again and again and again. (In case you can't tell, I have some serious heart eyes going right now.)

Along character lines! In some cases, we only get one first-person view, but in others, the plays work together to give us a more three-dimensional image. Otho, for instance, comes off as boastful, proud of his father's ability to cheat his customers and looking forward to the time when he will take over the mill and continue the crooked family business. The next monologue, though, by Jack the Half-Wit, gives us another view of Otho—seeing him through someone else's eyes shows his vulnerability and his loyalty, and it shows just how much posturing he did in his own monologue. Taken together, those two monologues are a good lesson about unreliable narrators, or at the very least provide some commentary about how focusing on one aspect of someone's life isn't a tell-all.

In a book with this many voices, it stood out that the two characters with disabilities were pretty sidelined: Jack's story is more about Otho than it is about Jack himself. And Constance the Pilgrim, the only physically disabled character in the book, is entirely defined by her disability, with a monologue that ends:

For a hunchback's life is a life of scorn.
I have known more sorrow than tears can tell. 
There are times when I wish I had never been born,
But I will be healed at Saint Winifred's well. (21)

Next up, maybe:

I could head over to 1290, and re-read Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, which I haven't picked up in over a decade. Or I could read A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E. L. Konigsberg, which... I don't think I have EVER read. Which is horrifying, because I love Konigsberg. And then there's Old Magic, by Marianne Curley, which is a time travel story about contemporary Australian teens who end up in 13th century England. Other than Geraldine McCaughrean's The Kite Rider, I haven't found much of anything set during the Middle Ages that ISN'T set in England—I'd love some recommendations there, so if you know of any—and as always, #ownvoices preferable—let them fly.

Lists & so on:

Award: Newbery Medal, 2008 Winner
Award: Parents' Choice Awards, 2007 Fiction

Book List: ALA Notable Children's Books, 2008 Older Readers
Book List: Booklist Editors' Choice, 2007 Middle Readers
Book List: School Library Journal Best Books, 2007

Starred review: Booklist
Starred review: Kirkus
Starred review: Publishers Weekly
Starred review: School Library Journal

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