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Were the Peasants Really So Clean? The Middle Ages in Film
Greta Austin (Department of Religion, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvannia)
Film History: Vol. 14, No. 2, Film and Religion (2002), pp. 136-141
Movies about the European Middle Ages are profoundly modern creations. They tend to reflect the anxieties and preoccupations of their modern creators rather than those of people who lived a thousand years ago. All the same, medieval films enable medievalists today to imagine the past, and are useful because they enabled the historical imagination. How can this be? Although medieval films may have the redeeming feature of being fun,do they have any value beyond entertainment? Is it not a paradox to criticize medieval films for their their failure to recreate faithfully a historicity, a historical past, but also to praise them for their usefulness in allowing those who study the Middle Ages to imagine the past?
The problem with films about the Middle Ages
There are essentially two types of films about the Middle Ages. One type of film purports to represent a medieval reality. Whether fictional or historical drama, it claims explicitly or implicitly show us how things were back then. 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 other type of medieval film is the ironic film which makes no pretences to depicting the Middle Ages as they ‘really were’. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1991), for instance, the knights do not ride horses, but pretend to ride horses as one bangs coconut shells to imitate the sounds of hooves. In First Knight (1995), the crowd at Similarly, the jousting tournament does the wave, like crowds at American football games today.