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Medieval Festival Transforms Notre Dame Sydney to the 14th Century

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
5 Nov 2014

Notre Dame University's Medieval Festival was a collaboration between the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Theology and Philosophy

Along with hay bales, a tavern, a chook pen, musicians and the occasional knight, St Benedict's courtyard at the University of Notre Dame was transformed last week when 110 students from three different faculties joined forces to create a Medieval Festival.

With live performances of Chaucer's much-loved Canterbury Tales, the Festival also featured a variety of Medieval music, films and philosophical debates exploring the drama and influence of ideas and how these affect culture both now and in the past.

There were even stocks where the hundreds who attended could throw sponges at a hapless "Medieval felon."

The Festival was the brainchild of Theatre Studies coordinator, the multi-talented British-born former actor-producer, Jane Bergeron, authority on the Middle Ages, UNDA's History Lecturer Dr Karen McCluskey and Dr Renee Kohler-Ryan, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and represented the first multi-discipline collaboration of its kind at the university.

Jane Bergeron coordinator of the University of Notre Dame's acclaimed Theatre Studies program

The inspiration for the Festival was Chaucer's stories of the 14th Century and the often hilarious and frequently bickering pilgrims who travelled on foot or horseback from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral 700 years ago to pray at the shrine of St Thomas Becket during the time of the Hundred Years' War. The tales, which are mostly written in verse, although some are in prose, are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return

In preparation for the Festival, students enrolled in history, theatre studies or philosophy spent their second semester this year studying The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's texts and the context in which the Tales were written.

The pilgrimage made famous by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales

In addition to the literary as well as historical significance of the Canterbury Tales, which recounted the stories in the English vernacular rather than in Latin or French which was customary, students were encouraged to research the backdrop against which the stories were set. Chronicled not long after the scourge of the Black Death, the Tales were also written at a time when the Catholic Church was in the midst of the Western Schism and embroiled in controversy.

At this time, Europe's university system was also emerging with pagan thought and ideas were explored along with the thoughts of Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophers.

For the Festival students studying History created short films to further illustrate and explore Europe and England in the Middle Ages while philosophy students created often hilarious topics for debates from the different philosophy positions held at that time.

Students from Notre Dame's Theatre Studies program enact Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

But for many the highlight of the day was the performance by 29 third year Theatre Studies students who brought the Wife of Bath, the Man of Law, the Monk, the Pardoner, the Summoner, Sir Thopas and other Chaucer favourites vividly to life.

Under the guiding hand of Jane Bergeron, the theatre studies students not only researched Chaucer and Medieval literature but wrote, designed, costumed, produced and performed five of Tales made famous by Britain's 14th Century chronicler.

"Mounting a live show of this nature meant every third year student was involved not only as an actor but also behind the scenes," Jane says explaining that the production was a "huge learning curve and involved a large amount of team work, collaboration and creativity."

She points out that pulling off something of this magnitude where each student takes on both front of house and behind the scenes roles was a huge effort and that their work on the production together with an academic essay on the development of the characters they portrayed, comprising two units for their final degree.

Achieving good marks is important but for the 29 students taking part in the production of The Canterbury Tales, the excitement of a liver performing along with great applause and  reviews and positive feedback that followed will be long remembered.

Notre Dame students in 14th Century costume

The students staged two performances at the Festival with first taking place at 2 pm and the second a few hours later at 4.30 pm. For each of these St Benedict's courtyard was filled to overflowing with families, young children, staff from the university, friends, parents and many hundreds of undergrads and post grad students.

"There was a huge turnout and in every respect, the day was an unqualified success," says a delighted Jane Bergeron.

This week, Jane had a further reason to celebrate when the Australian Government's Office of Learning and Teaching announced on Monday, 3 November that she had been awarded a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.

The award was given to Jane Bergeron for  the design and implementation of UNDA's Theatre Studies program that develops skills to support and nurture students throughout both their personal and professional lives."

Actors in a scene from The Canterbury Tales

The Australian Government's Office of Learning and Teaching also recognised Dr Sean Kearney, Tim Perkins and Julie Maakrun of Notre Dame's School of Education, Sydney for the "development of a sustainable, innovative and transformational international service learning immersion project in Kenya" for the university's education students as well as those from the School of Medicine.

The Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, the Cook, the Knight and other Chaucer favourites were brought to life last week at Notre Dame's first ever
Medieval Festival