Picture Interpretation

Peasants To Popes

Chess Board


This lesson on Medieval History involves analysing a picture to see what can be learned of society in the middle ages by careful examination of an image and consideration of what is drawn there. It is amazing how much can be learned from a picture. 

There are four works sheets to be used in conjunction with lesson, covering analysis, comprehension, interpretation and concepts. These can be used in any order, but are designed to work most effectively if used in the order outlined.

The image referred to is of  'Life in a Manorial Village', from the Bettman Archive, New York. This image is available in Eshuys, J., Guest, V., and Lawrence, J., Tracing History: Discovering the Past, p197, Jacaranda Press, Qld, 1982. 

With four work sheets this lesson can quite easily last for a 75 minute lesson, but could be abbreviated for shorter exercises. The same principle can be used for other areas of study, with adaptations to the work sheets as required.

Education Focus: A Picture Paints A Thousand Words 


Teacher Focus:

This lesson utilises the comprehending, analytical, interpretative and conceptual activities of Picture Analysis, to focus on developing student awareness of social environments and technological realities of Medieval life. The image used is ‘Life in a manorial Village’, from the Bettman Archive, New York.

Prerequisites: This is a good lesson to commence study with, or at least introduce in the early stage of a course, and there are no prerequisites.

Resources: Overhead of image. (This allows a ‘heads-up’ environment facilitating group discussion) A questionnaire handout of four pages, including a photocopy of the image. (The image is also available in this schools text book).

Student Focus: Students undertake a study based on analysis, interpretation and conceptualisations drawn from considering a picture in intimate detail. There are four questionnaires design to focus student attention on considerations such as, social relationships, the level of technology of the period, art, law and daily activity. The first questionnaire requires students to divide the picture up into four frames as a means to encourage detailed observation of the components of the picture.

 By considering this image in detail and undertaking review processes formalised by questionnaire, students will be encouraged to think about the technologies, life experiences and political and social structures that existed during this era.

Student Task: Students are given four questionnaire handouts which detail questions to consider in reviewing the image, and which also hold sufficient space for them to write in their answers. 

Picture Analysis Time Teacher Activity Student Activity


5 minutes Inform students of the picture that will be reviewed and outline the steps they will need to take to undertake this process. Emphasise the exploratory and investigative nature of the task. Review each sheet to ensure they understand what is involved and ask any questions necessary to understand what is required


Picture Analysis 

10  minutes

1)       Provide instructions for process regarding steps 1 –4

2)       Facilitate class discussion of results


1)       Divide the image into four squares and list everything you can see in it, divided into the three categories of people, objects and activities.

2)       List three things you have noticed about medieval life

3)       Write down any questions this raises for you

4)       write down where you might find answers to these questions


Picture Comprehension

15 minutes

1)       Provide instructions for process regarding steps 1 –3

2)       Facilitate class discussion of results


1)       Analyse the image and answer each of the twelve questions on your Picture Comprehension Work sheet.

2)       Write a sentence about what you have learned about medieval life by looking at this picture

3)       Participate in class review of results


Picture Interpretation

15 minutes

1)       Provide instructions for process regarding steps 1 –3

2)       Facilitate class discussion of results


1)       Analyse the image and answer each of the five questions on your Picture Interpretation Work-sheet

2)       Answer the component of each question, ‘How do you know’.

3)       Participate in class review of results.


Picture Concepts

15 minutes

1)       Provide instructions for process regarding steps 1 –4

2)       Facilitate class discussion of results


1)       Analyse the image and answer each of the six questions on your Picture Concepts Work-sheet

2)       Answer the component of each question, ‘How do you know’.

3)       Write a sentence about what you have learned that starts with, “In the Middle Ages...”

4)       Participate in class review of results

Conclusion 5 minutes Facilitate class discussion on results with some emphasis on evaluation of the effectiveness of the process as well as summation of the actual results Participate in class discussion about your results and about your thoughts on this process.


Annotation for this lesson regarding the nature of History as a discipline

 The problem of sentiment and politic in language, when reviewing history is mentioned by Jenkins when he says:

 "…the difference between ‘the past’ and how we look at the past... (is)…acknowledged in our language and therefore inherent in our own minds” (Jenkins, K., Re-thinking History, pp. 67-69, Routledge, Wiltshire, 1996.)

History is often reflected in intimate detail from the pictures of the time. This image (produced approximately 1400 AD) is remarkable for its detail and covers a broad scope of social life, and of the technology of the Middle Ages. One of the wonderful things about pictures is that they literally avoid language, and all of the politics and sentiments that language may inadvertently hold.

Picture analysis facilitates investigation in an environment that holds less of the colouring of written information, with its unconscious inclusion of politic and sentiment. I say less, rather than ‘without’, because pictures are not free from politic and sentiment either. The scale, colouring and positioning of people and objects can reflect a political position, or ethical or social presumption...but there is less of it than writing frequently holds.  

Regarding curriculum theory and principles

 I conceive of this lesson as having a teacher led approach. This is because of the use of structured questionnaires and the need to facilitate, and possibly promote, discussion. This lesson therefore holds qualities of providing scaffold instruction. Consideration needs to be given to the level of difficulty of each stage and the ability and aptitude levels in the class, so as to provide for information that remains in the zone of proximal development of students.

 McInerney suggests that the three key principles that underline effective use of the zone of proximal development are that the education must be a) holistic, b) be situated in a social context, and c) it must mediate learning. I have attempted / or will attempt to incorporate these principles by (respectively):

 a)      ensuring that this is only one of many approaches, but that when it is used it be done in a fulsome and comprehensive way

 b)       that the activity is both 1) shared by the student group and 2) includes considerations of comparative historical social context

 c)      that it is applied in a way that promotes interest, engages students in cognitive conceptualisation  processes and is conducted in such a way as to promote retention of information

Regarding practical approaches to teaching history

Images are effective in allowing people to access information in a non-threatening way. We start our journey towards literacy in fact, by reading pictures. For some, images can be more easily translated into understanding than words allow, and for perhaps all of us, images give some sense of evidencing a schematic reality, one more easily understood than words. Campbell, in describing the requirements for developing an awareness of ‘reality’ (whether historic or not) puts it this way:

 “What is required…is a dialogue by way of symbolic forms...”

Campbell, J., The Impact of Science On myth – Myths To Live By, p13, Bantam Books, New York, 1988

This particular image is in part effective because of the variety of social levels it evidences, with the nobles apparent in the foreground, the castle in the background, and the poor peasants in the middle. The three tiers of social life are each represented and I hope that it may give some sense of social strata, a factor almost always existent in any society and which Jonathon Swift described, both so eloquently and  so ironically when he wrote:

  So Nat'ralists observe, a Flea

Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,  

And these have smaller Fleas to bite' em

And so proceed ad infinitum.  

Cited by Hardison in Disappearing Through The Skylight, p 65, Penguin, New York, 1990, quotation from Jonathan Swift “On Poetry: A Rhapsody” (1733) 

This lesson affords an approach to the discipline that makes use of iconic information. In practical terms this is achieved by utilising picture analysis as a framework for conceptual consideration, fostering interpretative and conceptual  thought. This has been implemented within a context of staged and deepening analysis, provided by sequential structured questionnaires.

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