Designing Multimodal Texts about the Middle Ages

in Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society


Multimedial and multimodal communication arouse interest in many fields of research today. By contrast, little attention is paid to multimodality in relation to designs for learning, especially in relation to representations of knowledge on an aggregated level. By analyzing three multimodal texts about the Middle Ages, including a textbook, a film series and a museum exhibition, this article provides insight into the role of multimodal designs for learning in a school context.

Over the last three decades, notions like “the flipped classroom,”1 “TPACK,”2 “digital learning objects,”3 and “virtual learning environments,”4 together with the evolution of multimodal communication5 and new standards for the assessment of historical thinking,6 have indicated a change in terms of learning ecologies in formal education. These developments have given rise to a number of questions regarding, on the one hand, demands on teachers and pupils, and, on the other, the “essence” of each particular school subject. As regards children and pupils, the abundance of multimodal texts is a reminder of the necessity of multimodal literacy for participation in communication. In terms of school subjects, it is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate the incessantly expanding ocean of information in search of appropriate materials to use in designs for learning.

The availability of information highlights the constructed and ideological nature of what “becomes” a subject in the classroom—the result of a series of decisions, made by the teacher, as to which aspects to focus on and which to leave out. Apart from the question of what to include, the question of how selected aspects of a given subject should be incorporated in a learning situation also becomes central. Based on a design-theoretical, multimodal perspective on learning and communication,7 and on a multimodal and pedagogical analysis of learning resources,8 this article departs from the assumption that a given knowledge domain is realized in different ways depending on its representational forms and on how different units of information in a text are orchestrated.

In this article, we examine several resources that have been used by teachers to design and redesign the subject content of a specific curricular unit (the Middle Ages) within a specific subject (history) in two Swedish primary schools.

Aim and Purpose

We offer close readings of three multimodal texts used in classroom teaching, including a textbook, a film series, and a museum exhibition. Our purpose is to investigate the relation between different knowledge representations and knowledge emphases, as well as ways in which multimodal texts encourage pupils to take an active part in the construction of knowledge and to create links between past, present, and future. We ask three main questions: (a) What content has been selected, and how is knowledge represented? (b) What possibilities and constraints do these texts offer in terms of reading and interaction? and (c) Do the texts encourage readers to make comparisons between past, present, and future, and if so, how?

The Book of History [Boken om historia] by Stina Andersson and Elisabeth Ivansson9 from 2012 was produced for the intermediate level of primary schools. The textbook covers twentieth-century Sweden, the Viking Age, and the Middle Ages. Around fifty pages (out of 160) concern the Middle Ages in and outside of Sweden. This chapter deals with various aspects of history, such as politics and politically significant individuals, religion and the role of the Church in societal changes, and the nature of social life (including the conditions faced by women and children). In addition, it also contains specific sections on the lives of knights, with information on their diets and their health.

The film series With Ahmed in the Middle Ages [Med Ahmed i medeltiden] from 2010 was produced by the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (UR)10 for grades four to six of the primary school intermediate level. The series, which consists of ten episodes, was designed like a (computer) game in which alternatives are examined. In each episode, Ahmed discovers a medieval artifact and tries to find out its original purpose. There is also an archeologist (the expert), who explains what it was like to live in Sweden during the Middle Ages.

The main exhibition of The Museum of Medieval Stockholm11 was redesigned in 2010 and is open to visitors of all ages. It gives an account of the origins and development of the city throughout the Middle Ages. It is built around a few ancient relics and monuments—most important of which is the city wall, which was unearthed in the late 1970s. The exhibition covers 1,750 square meters and contains approximately 850 objects.

Theoretical Tools for Analyzing Multimodal Texts

Our analysis starts from a multimodal and design-oriented perspective on communication12 and uses a model for analyzing knowledge representations and content as elaborated on by Kristina Danielsson and Staffan Selander.13 In our analysis, we focus on how the Middle Ages are represented in various media via verbal and visual semiotic modes, and how these modes are orchestrated and designed. Each mode and design has its own particular communicative meaning potential.14

From a multimodal perspective, text is defined as “any instance of communication in any mode or in any combination of modes.”15 In multimodal texts, modes like verbal text, image, color, and sound, as well as the sequencing of information (for example, tempo) each contribute in a different way to the meanings being produced. While the textbook primarily employs the modes of written verbal language and images in creating its knowledge representations, exhibitions put materiality and sensory experiences at the forefront via the spatial display of objects. Film includes several modes, such as moving image and sound. Semiotic principles like framing, materiality, and tempo are used differently in different media.

The notion of design16 points to the processes of transformation and meaning-making. We see this as a dual process both in terms of designs for learning and in terms of designs in learning. However, here we focus on the designs for learning aspect.

Design always entails choices in terms of making selections and arranging resources in the production of particular messages for a particular audience.17 A central point here is that form and content are considered to be individually and socially motivated.18 To design something means to express at the same time epistemic values and social functions.19 Thus, how something is designed reflects not only what is selected as relevant knowledge, but also which specific aspect of the said knowledge is seen as especially important, as well as how the reader or spectator is supposed to relate to the material. This will also have an influence on what is to be recognized as knowledge and learning.20 The design also conveys possibilities and constraints for active participation.21

In learning contexts, it is important to investigate the epistemic interplay of several modes, since the orchestration of modes into an ensemble is essential for determining the nature of the representation of the subject content. As an analytical framework for our multimodal text analysis, we use the principles elaborated on by Kristina Danielsson and Staffan Selander.22 These principles were developed for the specific purpose of examining multimodal representations in relation to learning—an aspect often overlooked in multimodal analyses of communication. The first aspects we examine are general structure, thematic orientation, and information sequencing. In addition, we wish to introduce two further analytical concepts: the emblematic and the thematic representation of the text in its wider sense. Emblematic features are elements that stand out as general signifiers and set up the overall framing of the information—for example, elements that appear to be typical, dominant, or frequent. Thematic features, the various building blocks of a text, are those distinct parts and entities that carry specific or delimited representational meaning.

The next step in our analysis involves an examination of the orchestration of or interplay between different parts of the text. An analysis of sequences and reading paths also allows us to draw conclusions about possibilities for active participation. One aspect of this analysis is, for instance, to investigate whether messages realized verbally are congruent with those realized visually. The final step in our anlysis involves a look at the meaning potentials of metaphors and metonymies in the texts.

General Structure, Thematic Orientation, and Information Sequencing

The timeline at the beginning of the textbook emblematizes its temporal dimension. In the illustration, seven smaller images represent a series of thematic features, including a church, the priest as a central figure, a windmill, Stockholm founded in 1250, the age of knights, Bridget of Sweden, Queen Margaret, the Black Death, and Engelbrekt’s uprising.23 The nineteen headings can be categorized according to the following themes: (a) the living conditions of ordinary people in the country; (b) religion and faith; (c) politics, the economy, and the founding of Stockholm; (d) life in the city; (e) political and economic history on a societal level; (f) how to become a knight; (g) interpretation of source material; and, finally, (h) the world outside Sweden.

In the film series, the archeological artifact stands out as a general signifier of the text: an artifact is shown in the first scene of each film

Figure 1
Figure 1

Textbook: Timeline.

© Anders Nyberg

Citation: Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 9, 2; 10.3167/jemms.2017.090201

as well as in screenshots of the series on its website.24 These artifacts are considered to be emblematic, since, in addition to their prominence as general signifiers, they seem to provide authenticity to the film series. After the presentation of the artifact, each episode contains a vignette that begins with a close-up of Ahmed. By means of camera movement and zoom, the audience “enters” Ahmed’s eye and views additional emblematic features, including a jester breathing a ball of fire, a blacksmith forging a tool, men cooking over an open fire, a man in a bathtub, a knight on a horse, a woman carrying a baby through a forest, and a man wearing a mask with a conical nose.

The episodes deal with ten different themes, each accompanied by a symbolic object: (a) love: a cow’s horn; (b) fashion: a piece of cloth; (c) professions: a stool; (d) entertainment: a bone on a string; (e) faith: a needle; (f) sin: a chain with two heavy stones; (g) sickness: a sharp iron object; (h) hygiene: a metal peg; (i) food: an iron hook; and (j) crime: a leather bag. Each one of these themes and objects is presented at the very beginning of their respective vignette.

Subject-specific concepts are used to a larger extent than in the textbook. Examples of such concepts include “alliance,” “altarpiece,” “monastery,” “bloodletting,” “defamation,” “bondsman,” “heretic,” and “pagan.”

In the exhibition, it is the city itself that is presented as emblematic. Five different archeological relics stand out as distinct emblematic signifiers of the exhibition: the “Tunnel” and its accompanying projection of medieval Stockholm; the reproduction of “The Sun Dog Painting” (Vädersolstavlan) picturing the town of Stockholm; and the archeological relics “The City Wall,” the “Cemetery,” and the “Church Wall.” From these five building blocks, it is possible to deduce the following eight “themes”: (a) the city/Stockholm; (b) handicraft; (c) defense/war; (d) church/cloisters; (e) shipping / the harbor; (f) crime/punishment; (g) disease/health; and (h) source material. Subject-specific concepts, such as “bloodletting,” “ecclesiastical year,” “gallows hill,” “pillory,” “cogs,” “journeyman,” and “dendrochronology,” are also used frequently.

Interplay between Parts

The main body of the textbook text is structured chronologically in sequences starting with the building of churches in the early twelfth century and ending with an account of prominent individuals and events, such as Engelbrekt’s uprising in the 1430s. The ordering (sequencing) of headings suggests a progression from the more familiar (social history) to the less familiar (political history). However, the chapter includes relatively few dates and timelines, indicating a downplaying of chronologies as such. The headings do not build on each other or presuppose knowledge of the preceding headings; the order in which they are used is left to the discretion of the teacher or reader. Though there is a suggested reading sequence, the combination of paragraphs, specific passages with facts, illustrations of actions and events, geographic maps, and photos of objects suggest multiple browsing or reading possibilities, thereby encouraging active participation.

Several of these headings (“Sweden Gets Several Cities” or “Margaret—A Powerful Queen”) present facts or summarize relevant information that will be presented in subsequent paragraphs. The protagonists of these passages are presented as active figures that do things. For example, “Magnus decided that lords who came down heavily on farmers would be punished,” and “Women would be spinning wool or sewing.” Captions and fact boxes often offer what the authors apparently consider particularly interesting facts that they think will encourage reading: “Did you know that Holy Bridget is the best known Swedish person?” or “All the churchgoers got to see the condemned. They could throw stones or spit at her or him.” Thus, the reader or pupil can rely on each text type to serve a specific function. Yet apart from the above example, there are almost no questions that seek to involve the reader in a dialogue. Questions are largely limited to those posed in interviews with imaginary medieval characters, such as “What have you done today?” and “What is it like in church?”

Images are often drawings of events, actions, or scenes from everyday life, rather than photos of authentic objects. Most of the images are cartoon-like, humorous drawings of people in everyday contexts, not naturalistic depictions of objects or events. The humorous tone is more pronounced in the images than in the verbal text. The few times that photos of authentic objects or maps are introduced, their function is to imply scientific knowledge. Congruence between verbal text and image is also created via connections between the narrative text and the illustrations, in which people are described or depicted doing things together or to one another. Taken as a whole, both the verbal text and the images represent history as something people did, not as descriptions of events that took place.

The film series has an unnumbered, conceptual structure that allows the viewer to select the order of the episodes. The written verbal information is used in subtexts that support the interpretation of the moving images, in textboxes (“Ask the Expert”), and in captions at the end. The moving images include combinations of actions and speeches performed by actors. The choice of representation is narrative: the scenes are combined in a more or less fixed order to form a sequence. The introduction is followed by scenes showing Ahmed in a contemporary setting interviewing people on the street or in a school and asking them to help him solve the task related to the artifact in question. After this, Ahmed talks to the female voiceover, which functions as both game-master and narrator. This female voice, which does not belong to any character visible in the film, plays an important role in pushing the story forward. The narrator gives Ahmed clues and three alternative interpretations or possible solutions. All the episodes have the same structure: a mystery that needs to be solved followed by three possible solutions.

Each episode includes three alternative stories about the purpose of its respective artifact. These narratives take place in a “medieval” setting evoked by the characters, costumes, and music. After one such alternative story, Ahmed asks a group of pupils to discuss the differences and similarities between the Middle Ages and today via themes like love, fashion, or sin. In other scenes, also set in a contemporary environment, Ahmed addresses the viewer directly, discussing the task at hand. After the next story, Ahmed is seen talking to an archeologist, who gives him further insight into aspects of the Middle Ages that may give him clues about the nature of the artifact. These scenes take place either in a museum or in a “historical” environment. Subsequent alternative stories are followed by additional scenes with the archeologist. At the end of each episode, Ahmed is asked to choose between the three options given. The viewer is invited to help him decide, and in the end the female voiceover presents the right answer.

The episodes, which are short (around fifteen minutes each) and humorous in tone, are designed to attract and hold the pupils’ attention. At the same time, the archeologist’s report and the presentation of authentic objects lend an air of authenticity to the text. Compared to the textbook, there is also a stronger focus on social history, as the clips present imaginary individuals in everyday situations. Verbal text and moving image are congruent in terms of tone and scientific claims. The verbal texts and moving images are narrative representations signifying history as something people did, not as descriptions of events.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Film series: With Ahmed in the Middle Ages.

© Erik Amkoff / Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (UR)

Citation: Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 9, 2; 10.3167/jemms.2017.090201

Unlike the textbook, which is structured in sequences, the exhibition has a conceptual structure that allows its “visitors” to move around freely and view the displays in a sequence of their choosing. In a three-dimensional space like this one, illustrations and graphic elements are of even greater importance than texts. Needless to say, “exhibits” (such as displays of historical artifacts or wax figures) also contribute to the potential meanings. This exhibition, however, includes many different kinds of verbal texts as well, which appear in a series of panels and labels. While some of these panels include writing only, others combine images and verbal texts. When it comes to written texts, headings offer a comprehensive way into the texts. These headings, which appear in red or black according to the level of importance of the respective section, help the visitor determine the level of importance of each text (that is, whether it is to be considered superior or subordinate).

The red ink headings are consistent with themes like war or the Church. There are also other types of verbal texts—for example, a panel next to the city wall that includes drawings. In some panels, text and image might be combined in other ways, as in the panels relating to crime and punishment, which include quotes from medieval laws and images from medieval manuscripts, or those concerning the museum and archeological excavations, which combine photos, images, drawings, and verbal texts. Digital resources such as videos on computer screens are also used; these include verbal texts as well in the form of texts spoken by actors and the instructions on button labels.

A closer examination of the verbal texts in these panels and labels reveals that, whenever individuals are mentioned, they are presented as being involved in the events described, but not as historical actors: “The gallows hill of Stockholm was situated in the southern part of the city. Women were never sentenced to hang, but could be decapitated by sword or axe.” Descriptions of conditions and tasks are also common: “Most shoemakers had their business in the western and inner parts of the city. A shoemaker would make two pairs of shoes a day.”

The exhibition uses many different images, including reproductions of medieval art, photos of archeological excavations or relics, and a large map showing the trade routes of the Hanseatic League. These images contribute to the scientific claims produced by the exhibition. Authenticity is evidently important: an entire section of the exhibition is devoted to historical knowledge and the interpretation of sources. The museum demonstrates how knowledge about the Middle Ages is constructed via various methods borrowed from the disciplines of history, archeology, and the natural sciences.

Rhetorical Approaches in the Written Text

The textbook makes use of fictitious characters to impart knowledge of daily life in the Middle Ages. Via interviews with characters like Erik Knutsson, the farmer’s son, the reader learns about what people did and how they lived in medieval times. The choice of representation is narrative, as people are doing things to or with one another in interconnected events. The verbal text, which is typically formulated from a contemporary perspective that allows students to compare different historical dimensions, also encourages comparisons. Occasionally, the verbal texts make connections between “now” and “then.” For example: “[Nowadays,] it only takes a few minutes to a make a sandwich. You can buy the bread and the filling at a shop. It’s easy and doesn’t take long. [But] if you were living in the Middle Ages, making the sandwich would require a great deal of work from you and your family.”

As in most educational texts nowadays, the writing style in the textbook is informal; the verbal text often uses direct speech, for example “In this chapter, you will read about” or “We will visit some ordinary people.” The figures in the images are often depicted as looking directly at the reader as if to engage the reader in a dialogue, thereby encouraging identification and recognition and creating a connection with the reader. In terms of rhetorical techniques, the text makes use of metaphors and metonymies. Examples of metonymies include “the crown,” when speaking of government power, and Hansan, referring to both the federation and the merchants that were its members. In sum, the authors attempt to connect with the readers’ everyday experiences via various means. Images are often drawings of events or scenes from everyday life, rather than photos of authentic objects or original images from other sources.

In the film series, the style of narration is, like in the textbook, informal. Everyday language and direct speech are used on several occasions, as when Ahmed involves his viewers by saying things like “OK, I know that these [stones] have to do with sin—you know, when you do something you shouldn’t” or “This, ladies and gentlemen, was a way to preserve food: a chicken leg on a string, so no one could steal your food. Smart, huh?” Ahmed speaks into the camera and looks directly at the viewer, which may be seen as a way to encourage active participation.25 Questions often involve the viewer in a dialogue, as in “It’s a glove from the Middle Ages, isn’t it?” or “Could it be something that was used by a dentist?” Ahmed is presented as someone with whom many students in our intercultural society can identify: he is young, wears street-style clothes, and uses slang words and expressions—a typical modern day youth.

The questions, which are intended to encourage active participation, are posed from a contemporary perspective, which the reader perceives as a potential basis for making links between the past, present, and future. Significantly, this comparison of different historical dimensions is affected via the interpretation of material objects. In the exhibition,

Figure 3
Figure 3

Museum exhibition: Wax figure.

© The Museum of Medieval Stockholm

Citation: Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 9, 2; 10.3167/jemms.2017.090201

as noted above, the style of writing is descriptive and contains many scientific claims. Although almost no questions are posed, other means are used to draw the visitors’ attention and encourage participation, such as displays combining artifacts, props, and historical or fictitious wax figures. The museum thus uses both esthetic and material means to encourage active participation. In contrast to the figures in the textbook illustrations discussed above, the wax figures do not look at the viewer. This may reflect a decision on the part of the exhibition producer, who apparently did not wish to suggest an imaginary relationship between them and the visitor.26 This arrangement can also be read in more objective or impersonal ways.

Metaphors, though infrequent, do occasionally appear; examples include “sudden death” representing the plague, “melting pot” to signify the culturally diverse harbor area, and “heart” as a reference to the town square. Compared to the film series and the textbook, the exhibition contains relatively few references to the visitor’s everyday experience. The exhibition provides explanations of specific terms and generally emphasizes source material and scientifically based historical knowledge, thereby stressing the interpretive and scientific aspect, but without aspiring to promote connections between the past, present, and future.

Comparisons and Conclusions

In seeking to answer our first research question regarding the nature of the selected content and the ways in which knowledge is represented therein, we found, first, that each of the multimodal texts examined addresses a slightly different subject. The textbook deals with political, social, cultural, and economic history; the film series focuses on social history, but without addressing economic or political history (while containing specific themes like love and fashion that are not discussed in the two other texts); and, finally, the museum exhibition covers social, cultural, and economic history, and its focus is on Stockholm. The various modes (written or spoken verbal language, illustrations, film sequences, and the objects and their display) as well as the orchestration of these modes are used in different ways to highlight what is seen as the core element in each of the specific semiotic contexts—whether the concern is to create interest and stories (the film series), authenticity and reflection on historical knowledge (the exhibition), or a deeper understanding of historical change while presenting facts and establishing norms for the kind of knowledge accepted as such in a school context (the textbook). Each of these representations offers teachers a different ground on which to design the learning environment as well as to decide who will test and evaluate the student’s learning, and how.

Our second question concerned the possibilities and constraints that these texts contain in terms of reading and interaction. The textbook orchestrates many different modes of engaging readers, such as presenting a structure that invites navigation and bidirectional reading. In keeping with this aim, the textbook has the character of a narrative, and the verbal texts are written mainly in informal language, often using direct speech. The images (many of which are cartoon-like drawings) are humorous. On the other hand, the text contains few questions that invite participation and few metaphors.

Like the textbook, the film series uses several designs that encourage active participation and enable viewers or teachers to decide the sequence of the episodes (though the scenes within each episode are combined in a more or less fixed order, forming a narrative that provides limited scope for navigating). The game-like design, narrative structure, setting, and humorous tone can all be seen as strategies to attract the viewer. The film series also invites active participation through the use of informal language and questions. A relationship with the viewer is also hypothetically created via the main character’s gaze, which is constantly directed at the camera. The museum exhibition allows the visitor (or teacher) to navigate through a conceptually organized, three-dimensional space. Though it contains a complex web of verbal text, media, and modes, the exhibition employs few metaphors and poses almost no questions to the visitor.

Our third research question was whether the texts encourage readers to make comparisons between past, present, and future, and if so, how. Via the narrative design of the textbook, where people represent actors and dynamic processes, and via interviews with fictitious characters and comparisons to pupils’ everyday experiences, the textbook allows the reader to make connections between “now” and “then.” Authentic artifacts and source material, while playing only a small role in the textbook, are central to the exhibition and the film series, which use both narratives and questions to encourage comparisons between the present and the past. Parallel stories in contemporary and “historical” settings also seem to encourage these comparisons, as do the questions concerning “unknown” artifacts that are posed to actors within the film and to the viewers. In the exhibition, hardly any attempts are made to encourage such comparisons; instead, much emphasis is placed on history as a science and on knowledge production via the display of historical and authentic source material.

Each form or medium has its own characteristics. In terms of content, only the textbook includes cultural, economic, political, and social history; the film series has a clear focus on social history, and the museum exhibition, while seemingly avoiding political history, focuses on cultural and social history. In terms of active participation, the film series offers significantly more opportunities than the museum exhibition. In all three of our examples, readers are positioned as active participants with the ability to identify and make choices, albeit in different ways and to different extents. While both the film series and the museum exhibition place a clear focus on the interpretation of historical source material, only the film series uses these to encourage connections between the past, present, and future. The textbook also encourages the reader to make comparisons between our own time and the past, but does so via narratives and interviews rather than via authentic sources or objects. In the exhibition, authenticity and the interpretation of historical sources are important aspects of the exhibition itself, but not in relation to the visitor’s own time, situation, or identity.

In conclusion, we could say that each of the three different ways of representing history also suggest three different ways of focusing on content, and that they invite the reader, viewer, and visitor, respectively, to engage with the material in different ways. The multimodality of digital resources affirms the value of comparisons like the present one, and an analytical framework informed by multimodality shows how this can be done across media or modes (via reference to the intrinsic characteristics of the latter, rather than to the characteristics of the content selected). This analysis and comparison constitutes an important first step toward understanding knowledge.


This article incorporates information from REMAKE: Representations, Resources and Meaning-Making: The Middle Ages as a Knowledge Domain in Different Learning Environments, a research project funded by the Swedish Research Council.


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The Museum of Medieval Stockholm, main exhibition.


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Engelbrekt was a mine owner and a nobleman from the historic Swedish province of Dalarna. Outraged by the numerous offenses of the Danish local bailiffs and by heavy taxation, in 1434 he started a rebellion with the support of local mine workers and peasants.


Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (UR), Med Ahmed i medeltiden.


Cf. Kress and Van Leeuwen, Reading Images.



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  • View in gallery

    Textbook: Timeline.

    © Anders Nyberg

  • View in gallery

    Film series: With Ahmed in the Middle Ages.

    © Erik Amkoff / Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (UR)

  • View in gallery

    Museum exhibition: Wax figure.

    © The Museum of Medieval Stockholm


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