Masters and the Movies, Take 10: Introduction

Robert Brent Toplin, April 2009

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to AHA members principally in connection with their general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this issue Cynthia Herrup surveys the popularity of movies about the Tudors. She notes that history instructors can now turn to a rich variety of films that portray early modern English history, but recent productions are often quite different from the screen dramas of earlier years. Themes that appeal to young adults receive considerable play in today’s movies, such as stories about conflicts between love and work. Other topics of interest to historians, including the role of religion, economy, and statecraft, are much less prominent. In recent years filmmakers have focused strongly on the Tudors at the expense of the Stuarts, and they have devoted lots of screen time to the monarchy at the expense of stories about people who had no claim to royalty. Herrup suggests that many new productions reflect the cynicism of our age. A film such as A Man for All Seasons (1966), the inspiring Academy Award-winning movie about Thomas More’s principled resistance to Henry VIII, now looks like a relic of Hollywood’s distant past.

Herrup offers insightful judgments about the changing character of cinema, but she does not dismiss motion pictures as crass commercial productions that have little value to the history instructor. Instead, Herrup demonstrates considerable enthusiasm about the possibilities for engaging student interest in the past through the analysis of film.

Cynthia Herrup is a professor of history and law at the University of Southern California. She studies the relationship of law (particularly criminal law) and culture in early modern English societies, and she is also interested in the history of gender and sexuality. Herrup’s first book, The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law of Seventeenth-Century England (1987), explores how communities in early modern England worked without lawyers yet made decisions about law enforcement. Her second book, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (2001), examines a notorious trial to explore how law reflected tensions between genders and generations. Herrup is currently completing a manuscript on the relationship between pardoning and the early modern English constitution. Her next project will examine the way legal categories shaped ideas about (among other things) salvation, responsibility, and community relations in early modern England.

—Robert Brent Toplin (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, emeritus) is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board and edits the essays in the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized.