Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guest Post: Feudalism Lesson

This week, history teacher Wil Ragen was substituting in a middle school Emotional Support classroom and trying to figure out a way to teach the students about feudalism.  Out of thin air, he came up with a lesson that was so awesome that it made me want to teach history!

After he told me about it, I asked if he would write it up and I would happily host it on this blog.  Even if you're not a history teacher, I highly recommend that you check this out and then share it with every history teacher you know!


Index cards (however many students you have)
8”X11” lined white paper
Station signs (Ocean, Mill, Granary, Salting Mill, Dungeon)
Directions handout (one for each students)
Title cards (fisherman, farmer, miller, knight, lord, monarch)
Fish pattern
Colored chalk (or expo markers)
Construction paper


To start class, pass out instructions sheet with “job” information posted on it.  Have students pick a job card from a hat or bucket or whatever is convenient, if the class is too large and time is a luxury, simply assign students a job.  Students will be assigned a job, either fisherman, farmer, miller, knight, or lord.

Student Roles:

The king or queen.  Your teacher.  The teacher is responsible for ruling over all the land.  He or she will survey the kingdom and ensure that everyone is doing their job properly.  If the monarch sees fit, he can imprison anyone in the dungeon for not doing their work.  Imprisonment results in loss of points on the activity.

The lord is the inventory keeper.  On a sheet of paper, he will take stock of all production.  If the lord sees someone not doing their job, they will consult with the monarch to see if a serf or knight needs to go to the dungeon.  The lord must present the monarch with evidence of wrongdoing.  The lord must keep inventory of the number of fish harvested, the number of loaves of bread made at the mill, the amount of grain stored in the granary, and the number crops harvested from the fields.  A simple tally for everything produced will suffice.  Farmers must have the permission of the lord to harvest their crops, as the crops are growing on the lord’s land.

The knight is the law in the land.  If the knight sees a serf not performing his duties, or not performing them satisfactorily, the knight can seek permission from the monarch to imprison the serf.  Evidence must be given to the monarch or the knight will be sent on a crusade, which usually results in the knight fetching candy for the monarch.  The monarch will the decide whether or not to move serfs around to maximize production to ensure the protection of the realm.

A fisherman is a serf.  He or she is responsible for harvesting fish from the ocean.  In order to do so, the fisherman will cut fish out of the blue construction paper provided with the pattern given.  A fisherman can only catch (cut) one fish at a time.  If a fisherman is seen wasting the king’s resources (not using the paper as much as possible), he will be placed in the dungeon by a knight.  If a fisherman is seen cutting out multiple fish at one time, he will be accused of sorcery and thrown in the dungeon.  The fisherman can only take five fish to the salt mill at one time before being able to go back to the ocean on his or her boat.

The farmer is a serf.  He or she will drawn his crops on the chalkboard.  Once the farmer has drawn 10 crops, he must seek permission from the knight or lord to harvest.  A farmer can only plant 10 crops at once. After permission has been granted, the farmer erases the board, takes the corresponding number sheets of paper for each crop harvested to the granary, then begins “planting” anew.  Lazy farmers will be sent to the dungeon if they are not working hard, or are planting the wrong crops.

The miller is a serf.  He or she must “mill” the grain and turn it into bread.  In order to do this, he must take the crops from the granary to the mill.  In order to mill and bake the crops, the miller must fold the crops into paper footballs.  A miller’s cart can only carry five completed loaves of bread (paper footballs) at a time, so he or she must make several trips to the granary with the completed products.  If a miller demonstrates abnormal strength in carrying too many loaves of bread at once, or is seen tainting the bread in any way, he will be imprisoned in the dungeon.

With those roles in mind, place several sheets of paper at their designated locations.  Construction paper in the ocean, 5 sheets of paper in the granary to start, and a stack of paper next to the farmland for when crops are harvested.  

Students will draw their roles from a hat, most students will be fisherman or farmers, with few being millers and even fewer being knights.  About two knights per class, and one lord should be enough.  The lord role is ideal for classroom aides if one is lucky enough to have one, but if not available, the king should assign the title to a student.

Once the students are set upon their tasks, set a timer for roughly 15-20 minutes depending on how long the period is.  Describe this time as one growing season.  The monarch should circulate around the kingdom to make sure students are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  You can assign different chores that students in the dungeon will have to do, such as wiping the board clean at the end of the class, cleaning up fish guts (scrap paper), or cleaning the mill (collecting scrap paper from the mill).  The monarch may also introduce arbitrary rules throughout the exercise, such as blights to crop (can only produce five crops at once), faulty machinery at the mill (use one hand to make paper footballs), lack of bait (three fish at a time) in order to illustrate the very real challenges serfs faced during the feudal period.
After the season ends, have the lord collect all crops, loaves of bread, and salted fish from the salt mill.  Put them on a big desk and have every student gather around.  Students in the dungeon get nothing.  The monarch will then give a generous amount of the foodstuffs to the lord and a slightly less amount, though still generous amount to the knights.  The monarch will then take the remaining food and keep nearly all of it for his or herself.  The serfs will be left with barely anything to survive the winter on.  Play up the persecution angle with the students and ask them questions such as:

Do you think this is fair?  Why or why not?
What would you do if you were a serf in a similar situation?
How would you seek to change this system?
Which person in society do you think is most likely to help out the serf’s situation?
How do you think this eventually changed?

The last questioning part should take up the remainder of time in class.  Have the students take notes on those questions or have them printed on their instruction sheet.  Ensure each station the students will be working at will also have instructions on how to perform their duties.

Wil would love to hear your feedback on this lesson, including how it might be modified for larger classes, longer periods, more in-depth concepts, etc.


  1. Any chance the students responses will be shared online? I could see benefits to posting reflections and inviting feedback from other classes doing the same activity?

  2. Nice! I teach one section of social studies and I have the students in manor groups. Each is assigned a role. Currently vassals and serfs are creating contracts between themselves and lords and king/queen are negotiating contracts. Lots of talk of rights, obligations, agreements, etc.


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