Lessons In the Dark: Teaching the Middle Ages with Film

Lorraine Attreed and James F. Powers | Jan 1, 1997

Historians at the 1991 AHA annual meeting encountered an unusual late-breaking announcement amid the meeting's bookstalls and message boards. The announcement informed them that actor Charlton Heston had decided to join the session "The Medieval Film: Its Uses and Abuses," sponsored by the Medieval Academy, thus casting the session's original participants in supporting roles.l Even without further advertisement, the early evening session garnered a standing-room-only crowd, not a typical response to academic papers. Fascinated by Heston's stories of preparation for his historical roles and his sincere respect for history, the enraptured audience joined in the open discussion, offering personal testimonies of film's effects on career choices visualization of past times.

Those of us who teach history, particularly to undergraduates, long to re-create that rapt attention, to seize students' imagination and inspire them to approach the past with respect fired by passionate curiosity. Film's ability to bring to life another time and place appears to meet that challenge. However, its addition to standard class assignments of text and source collections can be complicated. The videocassette recorder and even the primitive beginnings of CD-ROM have made film easier than ever to obtain and integrate, while books such as Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies provide lengthy bibliographies of critical studies.2 But the professor's obligation does not end with the push of a button or the distribution of a reading list. The visual images on which film relies have a potency beyond the power of the teacher to explain, define, and control. The student captivated by a particular vision of the past may not gain the critical skills necessary to grasp the messy contradictions and subtle distinctions of history. "Reel in other words, may be the worst possible addition to our study of real life.

For almost a decade, we have organized the Medieval Film Series at the College of the Holy Cross. This attempt to respond to our college's goal of extending intellectual activity outside the classroom rests on our confidence in the contribution that films can make to historical studies. Our enthusiasm makes us no less sensitive to the distortions that Hollywood and Pinewood can inflict on historical material when commercial considerations and audience targeting take precedence. Yet film can be an exceptionally powerful tool for communicating information about another society and culture. When that society happens to be medieval Europe, the medium becomes a particularly useful tool for American students who find the distant European past and its sense of space and monuments hard to envision. Particularly difficult to communicate to them is the blend of the recognizable and the remote: the ways in which medieval people are like us, and the ways in which they are shatteringly different in their concepts and actions. Unless that gap is bridged, medieval history will always remain an esoteric subject lacking a sense of continuum with and connection to contemporary culture and behavior.

The organization of our film series depends on the stick-and-carrot approach to learning. In our culture, viewing film is a familiar and pleasurable activity. Our task in the film series is to keep it from being a passive pastime. Nothing serves this end better than discussion of the problems of communication created by distortion of medieval material. .We are prepared to argue that the critical attitudes we hope to inculcate toward film are little different in spirit than the ones we expect students to apply to medieval primary sources.

The films we show, some of which are discussed below, are coordinated with our medieval history courses: the two-semester introductory survey; intermediate-level courses on medieval England, France, and Spain; and advanced seminars on crusades, 14th-century society, and medieval women. Films are shown on campus at no cost to students on selected evenings following the presentation of related material in class. The professors introduce each film with remarks on its production history, view it with the class, and lead a discussion after the showing. Armed with handouts, study questions, and filmography data, students are expected to view a specified number of the films, participate in discussions, and draw on their experiences to answer an essay question on film presented in the course's final exam.

As teachers we need reminding that our students come to medieval history classes, and often actively seek them out, because they are already familiar with a view of medieval culture.3 Their familiarity is based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail more often than Malory, on The Princess Bride rather than Chretien de Troyes, and on recent politically correct versions of Sherwood Forest and Scottish independence. This kind of familiarity threatens to make the students' experience unwelcome to professors already struggling to present complex medieval topics in class-sized bites without violating their vision of historical truth. But it is essential for us to acknowledge how vital it is, both to the accumulation of knowledge and the processing and valuing of it, to build from what our students already know and to integrate new material into the base of knowledge they already have-even when doing so means building on mass audience culture.

Social and Religious History

For the study of medieval social and religious history, six films have proven useful and accessible. The British work The Wicker Man (1973) demands the most from our students, given its juxtaposition of medieval themes with a modern setting. Described by critics as an intelligent horror film, it is an engrossing study of the conflict between Christianity and paganism. Stunningly photographed in the western isles off Scotland and building to a terrifying climax, the film examines the relationship between an agrarian society and the pagan religion that nourishes it. This interaction is threatened by the appearance of a devout Christian intent on imposing his beliefs on the villagers. Coordinated with readings and lectures on the conversion of northern Europe after the fifth century, and contrasted with the picture of near-spontaneous acceptance of Christian missionaries presented by writers such as the Venerable Bede, The Wicker Man provides an alternative point of view. It tells the story of an agricultural people empowered by paganism, while also revealing the essential weaknesses of paganism and its ultimate, failure. This film can help students imaginatively grasp principles of comparison and symbolism, prompt them to question primary sources such as Bede and simplistic presentations of the early Middle Ages, and help them understand that many issues of modern life have their roots in the medieval past. The very act of confronting modern images in a medieval history class, a unique distortion in itself, forces students to become active and critical participants in an ostensibly passive process. A more traditional interpretation of medieval religious conflict can be found in the noncommercial film The Disputation (1993). Christopher Lee's portrayal of Jaime I of Aragon defines sovereignty, and the debate between a converso Christian monk and a 13th-century Jew is a striking example of didactic film and multicultural analysis.

The intellectual vitality of the 12th century offers particular challenges to teachers intent upon conveying to adolescents the excitement of legal innovations, rhetorical displays, and the rise of universities. A flawed but useful film is Stealing Heaven (1989), the alternately sentimental and erotic story of Abelard and Heloise. Despite its faults, no other film has attempted to depict the application of logic to theological principles as the thrilling and dangerous sport that Abelard made it. Only Stealing Heaven gives us medieval university lectures juxtaposed with Saint-Denis politics, slightly precocious Gothic architecture-in-process, Heloise's opinions on the role of women, and an amusing look at her uncle's collection of bogus relics. Students' curiosity about the accuracy of the film serves as an invitation to explore the question them· selves, by comparing this commercial treatment of a timeless love story with the more complex history of the times it which Abelard and Heloise lived.

The 12th century also inspired two film with overlapping characters and problems of verisimilitude. The depiction of Thomas Becket as a seething Anglo-Saxon with a grudge against his Norman masters in Becket (1964) is easier to dismiss than the rampant anachronisms of The Lion in Winter (1968), our students’ favorite film. They have little trouble discerning the distortion of a king demanding his lunch and a queen lamenting the Eugene O'Neill quality of Plantagenet family life. They are able to appreciate the core of the film, the sense of humanity with which these figures are presented by great actors and the exceptional energy vitality that made an Eleanor and Henry renowned through the ages. The students' lasting belief that the couple looked and spoke exactly like Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole is a small price to pay for such appreciation.

Religion, the role of women, and the social details of everyday life are explored in Sorceress (1988) and the more polished commercial success, The Return of Martin Guerre (1982). Like The Wicker Man, Sorceress deals with the tension between the Christian religion and an older pagan culture that remained for centuries at the heart of Europe's agricultural society. Its major theme is the 13th-century cult of Saint Guinefort, a healer of children identified with a greyhound. This theme is mingled with subplots dealing with manorial relations, herbal medicine, the human impact of sexual violence, and the role of the Dominican friars in uncovering heresy. The main character, the herbal healer Elda, longs for the literacy possessed by her inquisitor, but she is clearly wise in the ways of the environment and human nature, especially in her explanations of why certain pagan rituals simply make more sense to peasant farmers than mystical, intellectualized Christianity. The film is particularly strong in showing how the medieval church accommodated itself to popular beliefs and practices, and it has proven as successful with students in anthropology courses as with our history majors. The Return of Martin Guerre's 16th-century setting does not undercut its usefulness for medieval history courses, given the deep continuities between medieval and early modern peasant and female experiences. The film can be especially useful after class periods focused on social history, the domestic roles of women and family, and the church's involvement in the laity's personal affairs (as expressed in the Fourth Lateran Council, for example). Both of these films force issues of women, sexual relations, and family values before stu.4tnts unaccustomed to acknowledging that these subjects have histories beyond their own lifetimes.

Warfare and Heroism

Warfare and heroism have commanded cinemagraphic as well as literary attention in medieval studies. At the 1991 AHA annual meeting in Chicago, Charlton Heston discussed the roles he has played in many periods of historical representation, including two roughly contemporary figures from the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The 1965 film The War Lord tells the story of an impoverished knight of the late 11th century, played by Heston, who has been given a village and tower keep to hold as his fief on the coast of Flanders, Complications include seaborne Frisians who raid the area, residual paganism among the villagers and their supposedly Christian priest, and the knight's attraction to a swine-herding village maiden for whom he will claim the seignorial right of jus primi noctis. The knight's decision to extend his night into a more permanent arrangement offers a sharp commentary on medieval social distinctions and results in a climactic siege of his little castle by the manorial villagers in league with the Frisians. The film benefited from research into feudal relationships and into the military accoutrement and techniques appropriate to the period. Heston and his garrison appear to have ridden onto celluloid straight from the Bayeux Tapestry. Moreover, the film's conflicts demonstrate repeatedly the tremendous advantage of the horse for feudal warriors. The plot 'also includes a somewhat unlikely siege, given the forces available, involving a siege tower and an uncharacteristically accurate catapult.

The second Heston film, El Cid (1961), more clearly a cinemagraphic epic, merits a mixed review for 'teaching. Recent publications make medieval Iberia more accessible to undergraduates, and hence offer a larger temptation to show the film. For, over three hours, the film deals with Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (the Cid), an important historical figure of the 11th century whose life inspired an early Latin epic poem, the Song of the Cid, in the following century. The film owes far more to a late medieval Hispanic romance, encumbered by the overlays of Corneille's 17thcentury play and the 19th-century opera by Massenet, These diversions add any number of historical distortions that blur the Image of an already colorful figure.

The film advances a basic bias for Don Rodrigo against his king, Alfonso VI of Leon-Castile, providing a straw-man portrait of the monarch as an overage adolescent with an incestuous yen for his sister Urraca. Imaginative scriptwriting adds such curiosities as an amphibious Almoravid assault on Valencia, Urraca's frustrated passion for Rodrigo, and the notion that this mercenary commander filled the unique role of peacemaker between Muslim and Christian, none of which serve the student's understanding of the Reconquest. While the filmmakers extended considerable efforts to get the decorative elements right, they succumbed to quasi-mythic scrambling of the historical facts. The ending defies all credibility by having the hero's dead body astride his horse, stiffened by rigor mortis, leading his army to victory over an understandably stunned Ibn Yusuf Tashfin and his Almoravids. Possibly the scriptwriter confused the ending to the story with the chronicle tradition that Dona Jimena brought Rodrigo's stuffed remains sitting on a chair back to Castile during her retreat from Valencia after his death. Location photography makes El Cid a striking production, although the substitution of a 15th-century Belmonte castle for the prestone era of fortification joins other images difficult to correct in students' minds.

A different kind of distortion can be found in the heroic representation of King Henry V of England. This historic figure and his myth have received two very interesting treatments in film, both based on Shakespeare's play. The first is the classic brought to the screen by Laurence Olivier during World War II. Olivier frames the narrative with scenes from a production of the play in Shakespeare's own Globe Theater, offering intriguing vistas of Elizabethan drama as it was then performed. The switch to the fields of France for the Battle of Agincourt involves changes into early 15th-century dress, the use of deliberately fantastic sets and landscapes, and "an affecting film score, all of which are informed and influenced by the manuscript illustrations of Les Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry and the traditional folk song "Bailero" from the Songs of the Auvergne. The Battle of Agincourt sees a convincing restaging of that conflict in contemporary battle gear, marred only by the conspicuous gaff of mounting the heavily armored French knights on horse-back by means of a crane. Armor historians have never forgiven Olivier for this unhistorical innovation, although Olivier intended an illustration of the dinosaur-like quality of atrophied French chivalry more than a historic mounting technique. We assign the appropriate chapter on Agincourt from John Keegan's The Face of Battle to balance the dramatic license of the film with modern historical scholarship. Student discussions of the contrast between the text and the film have proved lively. Olivier's production provides a rich treat for eye, ear, and historic consciousness, but modern students caught in late-adolescent cynicism need help in appreciating the levels of its message. Olivier caught with startling accuracy the myth of Agincourt as a colorful chivalric exercise, a clear-cut, God-given English victory—an interpretation promulgated by King Henry himself almost as soon as he left the field.4

The more recent film version of this play by Kenneth Branagh (1989), follows a leaner and clearer narrative line, and our students seem to prefer it to the Olivier version. Olivier's Globe orientation is replaced with Derek Jacobi's Chorus, still juxtaposing medieval and modern settings but lacking the 16th-century theater context. Branagh rejects implicitly Olivier's (and Shakespeare's) chivalric approach to recounting England's history, preferring a different interpretation. His calculating Prince Hal of the (literally) smoke-filled room exchanges Olivier's pomposity for Branagh's own notion of conniving and slaughter. The strongest contrast occurs in their respective presentations of the Battle of Agincourt. Branagh offers a rainy mud bath and noncontemporary battle accoutrement (for which ironically he won his only Oscar). The slow-motion violence of his combat sequence is derivative from Peckinpah and counters his apparent antiviolence theme. Nonetheless, we show both films and find that students profit from exploring two different approaches to a late medieval and Shakespearean subject. A similar comparison and contrast exists between Olivier's Richard III (1955) and Ian McKellan's newer version with its take on pre-World War II dictatorship.

Bellicose and heroic themes also underlay the Robin Hood story, especially since the varied film treatments demonstrate the possibilities of using myth in pseudohistorical re-creation. Some excellent films exist, including the 1938 Warner version of the story with Errol Flynn and the fine Robin and Marian of 1976 with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, both of which we show. The Warner film has an excellent cast, still-vivid color, a rich Korngold score, and real panache. Casting and color also favor the Connery version, along with a genuinely poetic ending taken from one of the myths. It also offers a fine example of the use of violence to demonstrate the futility of violence. Although the late 12th-century setting for Robin Hood is largely an invention of the Tudor period, the context demands that issues of politics, law, and social environment of the 1180s and 1190s be presented on film in ways that provide opportunities for student discussion and questions.

The historic figure about whom we ow comparatively little presents a set of problems in cinematic re-creation similar to those posed by the totally mythic hero. Exacerbating this situation in regard to Robin Hood is the uncritical enthusiasm engendered in our students by two comparatively recent films. The first of these, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991), revisits the Sherwood legend; the second, Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), provides an Oscar-winning view of William Wallace, the Scottish leader in conflict with Edward L This entire article could have been given over to why Costner's and Gibson's interpretations constitute perfect examples of wrong-headed films so full of distortions and anachronisms that they would be counterproductive to any medieval history film series. In Prince of Thieves, political correctness is continually injected and then thwarted at every turn along with gratuitous violence well in excess of earlier Robin Hood films. Twelfth-century gunpowder, telescopes, and an African American "Moor" (the best-played role in the film) embellish Old Sherwood, certain to raise student curiosity if not their grades.

Braveheart approaches historic reality somewhat more seriously. As in The War Lord, jus primi noctis triggers significant plot development, but without the sensitive handling of the earlier film. Gibson presents battle scenes (Falkirk and Sterling) with exceptional vitality and violence, although he misses opportunities to display Wallace's military inventiveness. Moreover, Princess Isabella never went near Scotland while Wallace was alive, and her youth at the time would have prevented diplomacy or intimacy with any figure much beyond her nurse.

Other films we occasionally show but have no space to discuss here are Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956); Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) from New Zealand; and three works dealing with Joan of Arc: Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, and Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957). Also worth mentioning is Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), with one foot in the medieval world and the other in 20th-century Europe, not unlike Ian McKellan's Richard III (1995).

We have by no means abandoned a syllabus dominated by traditional primary and secondary source readings. Nonetheless, we sense a need to include cinema in our pedagogy. The inclusion of commercial films in the history syllabus forces confrontation with the issue of distortion and its attendant dangers. On one hand, the history teacher has to be concerned with the twisting of historical reality to achieve a screen presentation. One clearly runs the risk of having historical error implanted by vivid screen images. Even presidents have confused cinematic for factual events: one especially recalls President Reagan, speaking at the 1983 convention of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, tearfully recalling a nonexistent B-17 pilot who went down with his disabled belly gunner in the English Channel, winning an equally nonexistent posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. Reagan's model apparently did exist, however, but in the film A Wing and a Prayer, which depicted the Battle of Midway. Such errors are exceedingly difficult to uproot due to their powerful subconscious implantation through visual reinforcements On the other hand, we recognize that many of our students will encounter medieval culture only through film after they leave our classes, and they need to be as critical of cinema as of any other source. We also concede an additional subtext, namely the inculcation of better cinematographic taste for our maturing students. The result is not just chewing gum for the eyes but an appreciation of times and cultures not our own-our true lessons in the dark.

Notes

1. The authors wish to thank Jeremy duQuesnay Adams of Southern Methodist University for organizing the session; Natalie Zemon Davis for her helpful comments as chair; and fellow participants Virginia Reinburg and Jay Vogelson for their excellent papers. The films mentioned in this article are widely available in video form for purchase or rental. The Disputation is distributed by Films for the Humanities, Inc.

2. Mark C. Carnes, gen. ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. A Society of American Historians Book. (Henry Holt, 1995). The book examines 76 films, juxtaposing them with art and photographs of the time periods they depict. Although many of the critical essays are written by historians, some were written by journalists and popular writers lacking in historical perspective. Also useful is the pioneering guide to the subject, John E. O'Connor, Teaching History with Film and Television (American Historical Association, 1987).

3. Lee Ann Tobin, "Contemporary Medievalism as a Teaching Tool," Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching n.s. 1 (fall 1990): 13-19. See also Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux, Education under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal, and Radical Debate over Schooling (Bergin and Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1985), 52. Aronowitz and Giroux have harsh words for teachers who express revulsion or indifference toward what their students bring to class as a learning framework.

4. Dale Silviria, Laurence Olivier and the Art of Film Making (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1985),75-141. John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme (Penguin Books, 1976); see chapter 2, "Agincourt, 25 October 1415." C. T. Allman, "Henry V the Soldier, and the War in France," in Henry V: The Practice of Kingship, ed. G. L. Harriss (Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 119-35, especially 125-26.

5. Paul D. Erickson, Reagan Speaks: The Making of an American Myth (New York Univ. Press, 1985), 5-7. Kurt Ritter and David Henry, Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator (Greenwood Press, 1992), 98-99. Michael Paul Ragin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Univ. of California Press, 1987), 7-8. Garry Wills develops this theme of Reagan's cinematic confusion with reality more widely in Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (Doubleday and Co., 1987), 162-70. "Even when you know that something didn't happen, movie photography gives you the illusion that it did.” Richard Bernstein, "Can Movies Teach History?" New York Times, 26 November 1989, Arts and Leisure sec. Bernstein's article discusses film versions of the creation of the atomic bomb, but it is a perceptive analysis of the problems of film usage in the classroom in general.


Lorraine Attreed is associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross where she teaches courses in medieval England, France, and women and family and researches English towns. James F. Powers is professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of many studies on medieval Iberian military policy and urban development. Attreed and Powers declare that their marriage, in 1988, was precipitated by a showing of the film The War Lord. * The contributing editor for this article was Robert Brent Toplin.


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