Teaching the Middle Ages on Film: Visual Narrative and the Historical Record

Teaching the Middle Ages on Film: Visual Narrative and the Historical Record

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Teaching the Middle Ages on Film: Visual Narrative and the Historical Record

By Martha Driver

History Compass, Vol. 5:1 (2007)

Abstract: This article provides an overview of some of the contentious issues concerning the role of film in historical studies of the Middle Ages. Is it appropriate to point out inaccuracies of detail in historical film? As a collective commercial enterprise, is a movie inherently limited in its portrayal of the past, and does this matter? How does film convention affect representation? Can movies err on the side of historical truth? What are the uses of purposeful or intentional anachronism? How have perceptions of movies changed with the advent of the paratext on DVD? How might movies with medieval themes be used effectively in the classroom? Responses to these and related questions are drawn from writings on film from 1915 to the present.

Writing in 1915, Hugo Münsterberg proposed the foundation of “a Universal Culture Lyceum” that would produce movies “in science, history, religion, literature, geography, biography, art, architecture, social science, economics and industry . . . for the education of the youth of the land.” Despite Münsterberg’s visionary prediction, the capacities of film to instruct and inspire are still somewhat subject to question. Developed over the last one hundred years and thus a comparatively new medium, as several proponents have pointed out, film has yet to demonstrate its full potential for teaching and recovering history. Nonetheless, film remains one of the most useful tools for talking about the Middle Ages, for conveying with graphic immediacy some subjects not fully conjured by the written word. This article surveys a number of issues pertaining to pedagogical uses of movies with medieval themes, arguing that films of a variety of genres are documents to be profitably read alongside historical and literary texts. As the historian and film expert Robert A. Rosenstone has suggested, the past created by movies “is not the same as the past provided by traditional history, but it certainly should be called history – if by that word we mean a serious encounter with the lingering meaning of past events.”

See also our section on Medieval Movies

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