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Ravens Rewind

Middle School Medieval Festival

Eighth-Graders’ Exploration of “The Canterbury Tales” Became a Schoolwide Extravaganza

By Karen Shore | Back to Table of Contents


Juggling, jousting, sword fighting, tumbling: for nearly 20 years, Ravenscroft students practiced these and other unusual skills in preparation for the Middle School’s annual Medieval Festival. The daylong event — and the weeks of work leading up to it — remain fond memories for many alumni and former faculty and staff.

Language arts teacher Carol Smith held the school’s first Medieval Festival in 1971 as a way to increase her eighth-graders’ understanding and appreciation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece, “The Canterbury Tales.” With the arrival of colleague Elaine Cottrell the following year, the festival grew into a schoolwide extravaganza featuring performances, jousting contests, an elaborate feast and more. Parent and trustee Fran Pugh even had horses, sheep and other livestock brought to campus from nearby Tara Farm to add authenticity to the day’s events.

Alumni recall making costumes, researching and portraying different roles and setting up booths to display their work. Timothy Tippett ’78 created a lute-inspired instrument from a gourd and performed “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Allison Smith Shackelford ’83 learned to play the dulcimer for her role as a minstrel. Angie DeMent ’81 remembers playing Chaucer’s legendary Wife of Bath in a skit.

Michele Richards Natale ’78 was involved in several projects for the 1974 festival. “I drew the design for the castle backdrop, which was built by my grandfather’s building company as I recall, and I did much of the painting of the ‘stones’ that decorated it,” she said. “I made a costume for the Rev. Daniel Sapp of Christ Church — whose son, Dan, was a Ravenscroft student — for his role as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I also made and designed my own elaborate costume out of cast-off drapery fabrics. The fabric for the Archbishop’s costume was gold-hued upholstery brocade. My mother was always recovering furniture and the like, so these were materials that were around the house!”

Members of the Class of 1977 dress in costume for the expanded festival of 1973.

Cottrell (shown here in 1981) is credited with expanding the festival into a schoolwide celebration of Middle Ages culture.

Live performances by students add excitement to 1977’s festival.

Eighth-graders set up booths from which to display their wares and skills, as shown in this 1977 Corvus photo.

William (“Ben”) Rose ’83 fondly recalls his role at the 1979 festival despite an unfortunate glitch: “When it came my year, I wanted to be a blacksmith and got the job. I remember, though, we could not get the oven going and were basically unable to do much creating that day. But we had the tools we made practicing and displayed them proudly.”

A pilgrimage to Canterbury — Chessmen, Jugglers, Blacksmith, an Alchemist, lots of good food and various vendors of unique wares characterized May for the middle school … Though the event was early getting started it ended all too soon for the enthusiastic pilgrims. The festival of 1981 now joins the history from which it arose.

 — From the 1981 Corvus

Faculty and staff outside the Language Arts Department got involved, too. Retired P.E. teacher and coach Jimmy Cox recalls that “the P.E. Department helped the students in their preparation for the event. I remember one person teaching tumbling and another teaching students to do tinikling, which is dancing between sticks that are touched to the ground and then to each other in rhythm. I taught some boys simple juggling skills as part of their act. This festival was a huge deal, and the P.E. teachers were proud to be a part of it. We, of course, attended the festival to not only watch our students but to enjoy a remarkable feast that words cannot do justice to.”

Former Middle School Director Bruce Miller remembers students jousting with cardboard tubes and playing chess on a life-size chessboard as well as staying up all night with football coach Bill Sewell and parent volunteers to roast a whole pig for the feast. He also recalls one year when the weather looked ominous. “I didn’t have the heart to call off the outdoor event and move all of the tents, food and fun indoors,” he said. “Of course, it did rain — hard — and everything had to be moved into the Middle School Gym in a hurry!”

Creative teachers conceived of the Medieval Festival as a way to engage Middle School students in literature, but it became a much bigger part of the fabric of Ravenscroft. Today, the festival remains a beloved symbol of Ravenscroft’s distinctive approach to immersive, hands-on learning — and a source of cherished memories for many Ravens.

Students participate in a life-size game of chess in this 1981 photo.

Read more memories about the Medieval Festival (and share your own) in this post on our Alumni Facebook page

Color photos courtesy of Carol Miedema.