Within My Teaching Box

Oyster shells are lovely. I don’t eat oysters, so I didn’t appreciate their loveliness until quite recently. This shell is my very own, collected on the Pacific (the Australian side) a few years ago. I use it to teach stuff to do with the Middle Ages. It’s exceptionally useful for teaching. I use it in a number of classes, but I’ll focus on just one use here.

Just because plastic was not around in the Middle Ages, nor chemical dyes, doesn’t mean that painters didn’t mix colours. An art expert taught a workshop of Medievalists that oyster shells are exceptionally good for mixing colour. She showed us how to mix and paint and it was wonderful.

This is not that shell. It’s too deep and too contoured and too furrowed. The European shells we played with in Leeds were much smoother and flatter. This is why I use the Australian shell to teach. I don’t have the right shell and I explain this, but even if I had the right shell, I’d bring out this one first.

Brought to you by the town of Tuross Heads

I have two reasons.

As writer, we fall back on what we know. A lot of things we think of as universal are not. Bringing out the type of shell my students know challenges this and says to them “Find out what the people you’re writing about used, not what you know.” In many classes, there’s a writer who hates me for this, because they don’t like their knowledge being challenged and they really don’t like the work entailed in addressing their assumptions.

They want to write, but they want the shells they already know. I tell them that the best things to write, if they don’t want to do this research, are stories that use their own background. They want to write the Middle Ages, however, for the Middle Ages are glamorous and exotic. It’s a problem.

That’s my first reason. We write better if we know what we’re writing about, and we are – for better or for worse – the centre of our own universe and what we know matters to how we write.

The second lies in the word ‘plastic’. So many student writers assume that any other place or time has a certain barbarity compared to their lives unless it contains plastic or computers or their favourite gadgets. They write these assumptions into their fiction. “In this barbarous time, no-one had containers as we do.” Except they did, if we’re talking about the European Middle Ages.

I argued this so very strenuously with so many writers for so very long that some of the writers said “We need a book” and that’s what The Middle Ages Unlocked is about. It all goes back to my teaching, however, and to how we develop worlds for our fiction.

My two points are really one: Pacific oyster and plastic. If I want to write a medieval world I need to find out what they used in their everyday and not simply assume that the everyday was impossible because they lacked plastic and couldn’t mix paint easily. We have many paintings from that time, so we know that they mixed paints professionally. The question is how, and to find out how, we have to ask “What assumptions are we making by falling back on what we know rather than asking what life was like then?”

In my teaching box I have objects that would be plastic today but are definitely not. Others will emerge in time. There’s something to say about each of them because each and every one of them changes the way some people see the Middle Ages. Each of them makes writing more interesting for readers.


About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Within My Teaching Box — 4 Comments

  1. I guess, in our rush to see modern society as the apex of civilisation, we tend to forget that human beings have always been good at fashioning tools from whatever materials they have handy at the time. I came across this site in my wanderings the other day:


    It really is fascinating to see how various items—and their usage—have both changed, and remained the same, over the centuries. Fish hooks, for example, don’t seem to have changed much at all since their inception.

    • I love that site.

      One of the things I do when building cultures for my fiction is keep an eye out for classic designs (like the fishhook) that work across cultures and across centuries. They’re easy for readers. It’s part of the magic, isn’t it?

  2. It can be really interesting running across the term “plastic” in older works — as late as the early 20th century. It doesn’t mean the same thing

    • I love it that the substance things are made of was named after the property that was used to describe things. It’s one of the magics of etymology that always makes me happy.