Pirates, Princes and Popes

History class immerses Maryville students in Renaissance Europe

by Tim Fox

For most of her senior year, Brie Howerton was a mild-mannered pre-med student, working hard to balance her full course load with her extracurricular activities. But for a few days last semester, she became Baldino and Isabella Malapensi, scions of a property-holding family in 15th century Florence, Italy.

Howerton’s transformation was part of an ambitious Active Learning Ecosystem project designed by Lisa Lillie, PhD, assistant professor of history and director of the history program. The project was for one of her honors courses entitled “Pirates, Princes, Popes: Medici and Renaissance Europe.”

“The challenge was to find a way to help modern-day 18-year-olds wrap their heads around the complex social world of Renaissance Europe,” Lillie said. “How could I make it come alive for them?” Lillie’s ingenious solution: create an interactive game around the concept of vendetta.

In the ancient world, a vendetta, or blood feud, was an act of vengeance set off by a family member being killed or injured by another family. Wrapped in strong feelings of honor and loyalty, vendettas could last for generations before being finally resolved. In the process, many innocent people could die.

The game began by Lillie assigning groups of students to one of four Renaissance families. Three of them — the Alberti, the Foresi and the Medici — were real historical families. Lillie invented the fourth, the Malapensi (“bad thoughts”). She then carefully crafted scenarios for each family. For example, the Malapensi were an ancient family with extensive property holdings, but little revenue.

Over the course of the game, families received points for significant events, like the baptism of a child or a successful marriage as well as acts of civic charity, like funding a public art project. Teams lost points for practicing usury, the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates. At the end of the game, the teams were ranked based on how much money they had accrued. But the most points went to the family that had completed a successful vendetta.

As the students — now family members — schemed ways to increase their fortunes, Lillie played “God,” going about the classroom letting each family know that various events had occurred. In the tenuous world she created for the game, the birth of a child, the loss of property or a murder could lead to chaos in the social order.

“Students had to get into the mindset of a culture where things like your family, the part of the city you lived in and your genealogy controlled all aspects of your life,” she explains. “And if you crossed those dividing lines you could get into trouble — even becoming part of a vendetta.”

Needless to say, in the game, things became very interesting, very quickly. “It was kind of raucous!” Lillie said. “It was definitely not part of the usual teaching plan. I knew that some students would emerge as natural leaders, but the game brought out many different aspects of their personalities.”

Howerton agreed. “It got intense really fast,” she said. “People were becoming pregnant out of wedlock, killing each other, becoming widows or widowers. We realized right away how important it was to be in the top family, and how easy it was to drop in status.”

Grouping students by privilege, or lack thereof, opened larger conversations about contemporary issues of identity and privilege. By playing both a male and a female family member, Howerton realized how little power she would have had as a young woman at the time. If she spoke up with an idea as “Isabella,” Lillie was quick to swoop in and remind her that she didn’t have a voice.

“It was so frustrating!” Howerton said. “When I had a good idea, I had to wait my turn to voice it. But by the time I did, one of the guys had already made the decision. It made me thankful I didn’t live in that society. It also made me think more about the struggles women still face today.”

Another of Howerton’s takeaways was that in this world, spiritual currency ultimately counted for more than material wealth. Many students expected the well-known Medici family would win the game because of their vast holdings and political power. But in the end, it was the Alberti family who gathered the most points because they made investments with lasting significance, such as funding buildings and art.

“There is great value in learning through play,” Lillie said. “One of the exciting things about being at Maryville is that the leadership has asked the faculty to rethink what learning looks like. This project allowed my students to shift their perspectives and grasp difficult concepts, all while working together as a group and having fun.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Maryville Magazine.

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