The Misleading Depiction of Middle Ages in Cinematography

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Films about the Middle Ages are inherently modern creations. They tend to reflect the concerns and preoccupations of their modern context rather than those of the people who lived throughout the Middle Ages. One could argue that it is natural for contemporary issues to influence the cinematic decisions of a film’s creator. However, this in turn results in the overall concern and message of the film being misleading. The perspective of medievalism - the continuing process of reconstructing the Middle Ages - will be considered throughout this essay. Films about the Middle Ages allow for medievalists and historical researchers to envision the past, enabling historical imagination, albeit through depictions that fail to fully represent what the Middles Ages was actually like. With the term ‘misleading’ having a definition of ‘giving the wrong idea or impression’, the factors contributing to the creation of films about the Middle Ages must be interrogated in order to determine to what extent the audience is misled.

There are essentially two different types of film depictions of the Middle Ages. The first implies to represent the reality of the Middle Ages and the Second is more self-aware. This causes problems when understanding how misleading they might be. The first attempts to represent the reality of the Middle Ages, including fictional films and historical dramas. They claim directly or indirectly to depict how things really were to their audience. Recent examples of such films would include Braveheart (1995) and The Name of the Rose (1986), as well as the many films about Joan of Arc. The second, more self-aware films, make no fabrications of depicting the Middle Ages as they really were. For instance, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1991), the knights, instead of riding horses, pretend to ride them as one bangs coconut shells to imitate the sound of hooves. Similarly, in First Knight (1995), at the jousting the crowd all take part in ‘the wave’, mirroring modern American football crowds. Both of these examples are evidence for the argument of this essay – that films about the Middle Ages can only be misleading.

Medievalists, as mentioned in the introduction, gain an ability to imagine the past to some degree through cinematic depictions of the Middle Ages. However, the first type of film spoken about – the ones which attempt to produce some type of historical realism – compared to scholarly articles, essays and books, are flawed in numerous ways. The first flaw is a lack of transparency resulting from a heightened difficulty in telling whether or not a film is historically true in relation to already existing sources. The audience has no supplementary materials such as footnotes or appendices which could validate the historical accuracy. Whereas medievalists and historians will regularly contextualise their arguments and opinions whilst making clear their own biases, films about the Middle Ages are more commonly imprecise and indistinct about their sources of information, resulting in it often being more difficult to ascertain a films reliability. To this criticism, however, it can be disputed that any historian or medievalist curious enough, can quite easily research the film and check up on its production. An example of this would be various Joan of Arc films. We do not know for certain whether Joan witnessed a rape – it’s possible that she did – but the available records about her do not tell us. While the story in The Messenger (1999) may not be 100% trustworthy, the story of Joan of Arc is so accessible that the film can quickly be fact-checked.[footnoteRef:8] Furthermore, films about the Middle Ages are misleading through their misrepresentation due to limitation of time. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades (1935) was meant to represent the entirety of The Crusades, however the film only focused on one single campaign. DeMille himself called this ‘telescoping history’ whereby the historical fact of there actually being several crusades extended over centuries is overlooked due to the impossibility of telling the whole story in a 2-hour film.

Additionally, another problem with films about the Middle Ages that try to represent medieval life and culture is that their historical accuracy is often questionable. Specifically, fewer efforts are made to represent the Middle Ages reliably and consistently with existing written sources for the period. For Instance, In Braveheart (1995), Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace, is shown with clean, shiny hair – something unrealistic for someone living with no indoor running water or proper shampoo. Also, in A Knights Tale (2001), the armour is mostly from several decades/centuries later. This clearly shows discrepancies in historical accuracies as these are done purely for aesthetic reasons.’ Moreover, films about the Middle Ages take liberties with historical sequence or reproduce events in an inconsistent order or manner as the textual historical archives record them. As Robert Rosenstone says: most historical films ‘are almost guaranteed to leave the historian of the period crying foul’. This again reiterates the argument of this essay – that films about the Middle Ages are misleading. As in Game of Thrones (2014), the duel between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane is arguably one of the most memorable scenes of the series, however it is in no way realistic of how a battle would have occurred during the period.[footnoteRef:14] Combatants in the Middle Ages had to conform to a set of rules, including being of similar measure when it came to skill set and weaponry. While both men were deemed skilled fighters, the significant difference in their weapons and armour would have resulted in them not being allowed to fight. Of course, written records and modern accounts are also guilty of ignoring and altering history as it ‘really was’ as each medium is limited in its knowledge of the reliability of every source previous. Yet it cannot be denied that many films about the Middle Ages have limited reliability thus making them misleading.

Furthermore, a problematic aspect of films about the Middle Ages is that commonly they tell stories, not about the middle ages, but relating to modern western life in period dress. A film about the Middle Ages can never truly be authentic to the existing sources. This is not only due to the fact that knowledge of the period is sometimes limited, but also as a result of society today, namely the creators and audiences of the film, live in such an unfamiliar world to the Middle Ages. Accustomed to the conventions of modern narratives, we have significantly different expectations of a story than people would have had in the Middle Ages. In other words, if Europeans in the year 1100 had the ability to make films, their cinematic depictions would be a lot different from a Martin Scorsese film made about life in the year 1100. Maybe talk about like the intention of film in terms of entertainment or reinforcing societal norms and how that is extremely different to the norms of the Medieval period.

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A main characteristic of a historical film is their presentation of a different world to an audience, letting them experience that world as if it were their reality. The effect of a photographic image gives the impression that what the audience is witnessing is an already reliable and objective record of reality. By adding the sound, movement and expression, the images are transformed into a film. This illusion is heightened to a point in which the audience can be led to believe that they’re actually witnessing what really happened. This is ultimately misleading as the audience becomes passive, believing the depiction of the period to be historical truth. Film is often criticised for being a medium unsuited to present historical arguments. With film being an audio-visual medium, conveyed through images and sound, it is more difficult for an audience to interpret a film’s meaning, whereas written texts can explicitly state what they want their audiences to take from their work. This serves to highlight that, with the meaning of an image or sound being more debatable, films about the Middle Ages can only be misleading.

The focus of this part of the essay is on the relation between the known historical facts and their audio-visual translation. Mainstream films about the Middle Ages embark on telling their period of history as a story, with a beginning, a middle and end. Regularly these stories leave their audiences with a moral message often embedded within a progressive view. This is true for the story of Robin Hood where the context surrounding the narrative is important. This is because stealing is morally wrong, but like anything morality is subjective leaving the overall outcome of Robin’s famous theft from the rich to give to the poor challenges the immorality. This example is embedded within its own progressive view as it examines morality in a situation created wholly by man’s own shortcomings and portrays how morality can be completely situational. Comment by Liam Dean: story with a beginning, middle and end. Comment by Liam Dean: reword this

Another way in which films about the Middle Ages can only be misleading is through emotionalizing, personalizing and dramatizing the topics they explore. It delivers us history as triumph and heroism in the likes of Braveheart though William Wallace’s bravery in the face of danger and belief in his compatriots. As well as suffering, and despair. Creators of these works use special effects – close up shots of human faces conveying emotion, the quick juxtaposition of dissimilar images and the power of music and sound effects to intensify the audiences’ feelings and reactions to the events depicted on screen. Each of these are used by the creators to achieve their cinematic desires often resulting in the historical elements being compromised. This is seen in Kingdom of Heaven, the original release of this film in 2005 received wide criticism for its misrepresentation. The ‘director’s cut’ - a later release of this film - added important scenes back into the film such as the crowning of King Baldwin V, making clear the film’s historical accuracy was not a result of lack of research, but deliberate creative decisions. Film thus raises the following issue: Is it beneficial to attach emotion to a historical category such as the Middle Ages?

Subsequently, films depicting the Middle Ages are often modernity in costume and apart from evoking a certain medieval mood, they rarely concern themselves with, as Arthur Lindley notes, 'reconstructing the past at all, at least not in a detailed way.’ Rather, the stories and concerns of films about the Middle Ages are distinctly contemporary. The subject of these films are ‘the present, not the past’.[footnoteRef:19] Lindley offers an admirable example of this: In the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal, Antonio, the return crusader, is seen playing chess on a stormy beach with a metaphorical figure of death. Although the date is supposedly 1349, the issues of the film, Lindley proposes, are those of ‘the sub-atomic early 1950s, with universal death looming out of the northern sky’. With Peter Cowie similarly stating The Seventh Seal ‘reflects the trepidation of the Cold War era.’Aesthetically, films about the Middle Ages often combine attempts at reproducing authentic works with eighteenth and nineteenth-century ideas about the period in order to create an idealised medieval world. This is apparent in films such as The Adventure of Robin Hood and Camelot.

One could argue however that films about the Middle Ages are not only misleading due to the fact they don’t claim to be historically accurate- meaning their audiences are not led to believe that they’re reliable. Braveheart, for instance, has several inaccuracies that are widely accepted by its viewers and historians that study it. For example, King Edward II is featured as an adult, whereas in reality he would have only been thirteen. Equally, the Scottish rebels wore kilts throughout the films, something they would not have sported. In this way, films about the Middle Ages can be greatly useful to the medievalist or historian. These films may not have references like scholarly pieces, they may be historically inaccurate, and they also may be conclusively modern in their perspective and viewpoints of the period. Just as in the more recent Disney film Brave, the progressive views on women’s independence and feminist theory throughout the film portrays more of a 21st Century perspective than one of the Middle Ages. That being said, films about the Middle Ages are widely enjoyed and sometimes considered more engaging to an audience that other scholarly works. If films about the Middle Ages are enjoyable, even if they’re unreliable, they can encourage questions about what really did happen- awakening historical curiosity about times which seem so alien to the world we live in today.

Of all the contributing factors in the making of historical film, the element of invention proves to be one of the most problematic from the viewpoint of a historian, serving to highlight the argument that films about the Middle Ages can only be misleading. Accepting invention is to significantly change the way in which we think about history – altering basic elements: its textual and empirical aspects. In order to approach films about the Middle Ages seriously, one must accept the idea that the empirical aspect is only one way of making sense of the past. Accepting the inventions and changes to the Middle Ages that we see through mainstream, modern films, is not to disregard all standards of historical truth, but to accept another way of understanding our relationship to the past. Film does not replace written history but stands adjacent to it. (insert example of a film compared to written documentation about it)

Contrastingly, what are the alternatives? To insist that films about the Middle Ages are to be made 100% historically accurate is not only impossible financially, but the more historically accurate films are criticised for being tedious. This is due to their misuse of visual and dramatic possibilities of the medium. Moreover, another alternative would be to ignore films about the Middle Ages all together. However, this would surrender a large sense of connecting with the meaning of past as films about the Middle Ages are widely received by such vast audiences. Even if historical films are misleading about the period they’re portraying they should still be viewed and studied. It is widely accepted that the film is one of the largest sources of medieval imagery in contemporary society and also that these historical interpretations have a significant impact on societies’ understanding of history.

To conclude, through the study of several factors contributing to the creation of these cinematic depictions of the Middle Ages, it is evident that films about the Middle Ages can only be misleading. Whilst there are counter arguments such as some films claiming not to be an accurate representation of the time, these arguments aren’t strong enough to question the fact that these films tend to give the wrong impression of the period, even if its only to some extent. The profound modernism relating to the society in which the film was made, rather than set and lack of referencing are just a couple of the elements covered throughout this essay serving to highlight that films about the Middle Ages can only be misleading.

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