More correctly I should probably title this, “Movies About the Middle Ages” but hopefully people don’t think I’m promoting the idea that a film-making industry existed during the Medieval period.
The motivation for this is a recent post by Steve Muhlberger about historical movies. This was excellent – I really enjoyed Paul Halsall’s article which Steve included.
I spend a lot of time thinking about public perceptions of the Middle Ages. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. Some are pretty simple and easily countered if you find someone willing to listen, such as the Agincourt “Pluck Yew” story, (this is still a really cool story – I wish it were true!) or that Medievals engaged in mass infanticide when girls were born. Others are more complex, sometimes because historians haven’t exactly figured things out (exactitude in history is relative anyway), or because it’s a matter of, “it was true in some places and times but you shouldn’t generalize this to cover all of Western Europe for a millennium,” such as people thinking of The Church as some sort of monolithic, power-hungry, repressive agency which actively discouraged intellectual thought and discovery. You can find specific instances where this last happened and if you decided to write every case down it would look pretty impressive (sort of like if I made a list of Stupid Things I did before the Age of Twenty-five) but overall it doesn’t work. This would take a series of posts to go through, or more – books have been written about it. I suggest David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science as a good starting point for this one.
Part of this whole issue is related to the role of modern popular depictions. These encompass a wide realm of forms including web pages, “popular” histories, historical fiction – and movies. I haven’t devoted a lot of time to this because, quite frankly, historical fiction doesn’t interest me and I haven’t read a lot of the popular histories – in order to critique I should read it. 1
I’ve come up with something of a mantra for all of these; If a book/movie/web page gets people interested in the period, it’s a net positive. If it’s the last thing they ever read/watch and leaves them with a bunch of misconceptions, it probably isn’t. That’s why a book like A World Lit Only by Fire is so bad – I can’t see where William Manchester’s depiction of the period would encourage anyone to engage in further study. OTOH, a lot of people have said that Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror was one of the first things they read and it helped inspire them to further study. The errors of fact and characterization historians point to in this don’t seem to be so egregious as to be beyond correcting.
One of the areas I haven’t critiqued is that of film. I haven’t always felt that way. When I first saw Braveheart I quickly learned NOT to watch these in a theater but wait for the DVD (VHS back then). I spent the entire movie mumbling under my breath how Isabella was 10 when William Wallace was executed or about the whole “Right of First Night” thing, or that Edward II had a bunch of kids so if he was gay, indications are that he wasn’t all gay, etc. My gf was not happy. Fortunately the place wasn’t full so I don’t think I bothered other people too much – at least my griping was fairly quiet. Now I wait for the DVD, watch it the first time and gripe about it, then watch it a second time a couple of weeks later for entertainment. I gripe a lot less than I used to – the latest Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe didn’t bother me at all even though Richard’s death wasn’t depicted as the sources indicate, the whole Magna Carta thing was completely ahistorical and Philip never invaded England (though he intended to).
Movies, even those advertised as historical (this is a peeve – what’s wrong with “historically based”?), have a different purpose. They’re designed first and foremost to entertain (I think I may be disagreeing with Dr. Halsall here) and to get people in theater seats – or at least renting the DVD. Movies generally impose modern sensibilities into the plot. The audience needs to sympathize with the characters (at least one) and it’s hard to get them to do that if they have no idea where they’re coming from. Historical facts take a back seat to dramatic effect.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Paul Halsall’s essay that Dr. Muhlberger posted is the discussion of how we can examine popular contemporary sources for bias; how does the 20th/21st century view/depict the medieval period? What contemporary values and beliefs color popular depictions of the period? This would make a great exercise for an introductory history class; to use what we’re doing, right now, in depicting the Middle Ages as an introduction into why it’s so important to examine source material while taking into account the chronicler’s/author’s background, motivations, and so on. How does, say, Ridley Scott’s and William Monahan’s depiction of the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven compare with the 12th century’s depiction of King Arthur, complete with equipping a 6th century figure with 12th century values, clothing and armor, etc.?
16th Century sculpture of King Arthur from Innsbruck, Austria, wearing a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t exist in the 6th century. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Ultimately, what I’ve come to do with popular history is to be prepared to counter the factually incorrect aspects if asked. More important is to be prepared not just to rattle off a list of inaccuracies (this often has the dual result of boring people to death and their thinking you’re trying to show off your knowledge at their expense) but to really discuss the period (mis)represented. How close does the film/book come to what we understand about the period? Could a medieval Count/Lord behave as barbarically as they are often depicted and not face a wholesale revolt, assassination or, at least, complaints taken to another authority such as a bishop or king? Were religious leaders really first and foremost concerned with power rather than the spiritual well-being of their “flock”? 2
I have a group of people I eat lunch with 2-3 times a week and I love it when something like this comes up. Part of that is because these folks seem to actually enjoy when I go into some depth on a topic (though I’ve come to recognize the glazed look in their eyes as a sign that enough is enough). In any case, I think that rather than providing a blanket condemnation of a film or book, we’re far better off using this as an opportunity to engage people in a discussion. 3
1 A recently formed academic organization devoted to studying how the Middle Ages is perceived today is The Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages or PUMA. There’s also The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages. I couldn’t say if the two entities are related. I’ve debated signing up for them but I doubt I have much beyond anecdotes to offer.
2 There have been efforts to correct factual missteps in popular media. Tim O’Neill, who I’ve known online from way back on soc.history.medieval, goes after The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown. I haven’t read the book and while I saw the movie, it made so little of an impression on me that I think I’d forgotten it by the next morning. Sharon Krossa, an independent scholar, has pointed out factual errors in just the first couple of minutes of Braveheart. I’m sure the same has been done for other films and books.
3 The next step is to not just recommend that people read something, but hand them a book along with notes about sections they might want to look at. You hand someone a 500-page book without suggesting they read through, say, a 20-page section and they’ll look at you like you have two heads. If you’re very lucky, people will find the section so fascinating that they’ll read the whole thing.
Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1992). ISBN: 0-226-48231-6.