TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The black-robed women in Tony Silvestri's Medieval Experience course at Washburn University sat in a circle in the International House as guest lecturer Carla Tilghman showed them how to embroider running and chain stitches on a small square of fabric.
Sewing was a skill they needed to master if they wanted to improve their lot in life and "marry up," said Tilghman, who teaches art history at the university.
"If a woman doesn't marry, she's a burden on her family," she confided.
As the young women continued to maneuver their needles through the fabric, Tilghman, dressed in an early 12th-century ensemble of hand-woven, embroidered cloth, talked about the roles of women, poetry and the fate of unfaithful spouses.
On the other side of the classroom, male students — also wearing black academic robes — quietly studied under Silvestri's supervision.
A few days earlier, the hand-bound codex shared by the 22 students had been stolen from Mabee Library. Tension over the missing book simmered.
Suddenly, an archbishop — also known as Alan Bearman, Washburn associate professor of history — stormed into the room with the codex. He chastised the students for the "childish notes" they had left at his office regarding the book's disappearance and ordered Silvestri be arrested for ignoring his orders to stop educating women and endangering students' souls.
As their teacher was led off to the dungeon, the students seized the codex and returned it to the library's basement, where it was chained to a table so it could again be accessible to both male and female students.
End scene. Class time is over. The robes come off, and the students go to the next activity in their day.
Using historical-based games and role-playing, Silvestri teaches medieval history by transporting students to the era they are studying. In addition to wearing robes, the students greet their teacher in Latin and prepare for classes by reading from the illuminated codex, which was created by Silvestri and bound with a wooden cover hand-fashioned by his father.
"They all have to use that one book," said Silvestri, a lecturer in Washburn's history department for the past four years. "They've just adapted. The students study together. They read out loud (from the codex) to each other."
In addition to the codex, each student learns from a modern, traditional textbook on medieval Europe.
Silvestri said his approach to the course was inspired by an article he read in the Chronicle of Higher Education about 10 years ago that described an instructor at a Minnesota college using the method to teach 13th-century history.
After he came to Washburn, Silvestri decided to adapt the method to fit his class and the students at Washburn. The Medieval Experience course was offered for the first time this spring.
"It's most ambitious. Almost the entire semester is a simulation game," he said. "I couldn't be more pleased (with the way they are) responding to the experimental aspect of the course."
Bearman's visit to the class was based on happenings at the University of Paris in 1277, when bishops intervened in instruction, teachers were arrested and students rioted.
An earlier class period revolved around a debate between two groups of students about whether it was lawful to overthrow the king. The students used scripture and the writings of ancient philosophers to make their cases.
"We are 21st-century students learning in a medieval fashion," said Hannah Thompson, a graduate student who serves as "apprentice master" for the class.
Other guest speakers have included a modern-day Franciscan nun, Benedictine monk, book binder, specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature, an armor and chain mail maker, and Castle and Cross Consort, a Topeka-based early music ensemble.
Silvestri said he plans to teach the Medieval Experience course next in fall 2014.
"I wouldn't teach medieval studies any other way now," he said. "It's too much fun."