Humboldtians in Focus

Films Set in the Middle Ages: Between Cliché and Reality

By Bettina Bildhauer

Bloodthirsty monsters and torture chambers feature just as prominently in films about the Middle Ages as knights in shining armour and fair damsels. Mediaevalist Bettina Bildhauer reveals just how much this image has been influenced by the perception of our own times

Scene from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)
Between romanticism and brutality:
the Middle Ages in “Robin Hood:
Prince of Thieves” (1991)  ...

Photo: Cinetext Bildarchiv

Are the Middle Ages still relevant today? In the media they are certainly omnipresent. Apart from all the reports about mediaeval markets and mediaeval exhibitions, we encounter comments like the one in the German daily “Die Welt” on the last series of television’s “Big Brother” which claimed “Back to the Middle Ages! The women doing the cleaning, the men lying around”. The German detective serial “Tatort” showed particularly brutal murders involving a morning star which, according to the weekly magazine “Stern”, is a “mediaeval torture instrument”.

If you use the word “mediaeval” you are usually referring to the period between antiquity and modern times, roughly from 500 to 1500, but in the type of comments cited above, it tends to mean old-fashioned, primitive, brutal or ignorant. Thankfully, it is no longer acceptable to use words like “homosexual”, “female”, or “foreign” in a derogatory way in public, but anti-mediaevalism is still widespread.

The Middle Ages as a contrast to modernity

One of the aspects of my work as an Early German scholar is to analyse this kind of stereotype, which uses the Middle Ages as a primitive foil for comparison with modern times, and to understand the important role still played by the Middle Ages in our perception of ourselves and our world view today. My current research into the portrayal of the Middle Ages in German and international films – from “Pope Joan” and “Vision – from the Life of Hildegard von Bingen” to “The Seventh Seal” and “Die Nibelungen” –has revealed that the Middle Ages are regularly presented as a contrast to modern culture, as an era with a different conception of time, of people and of communications. But that says rather less about the Middle Ages than it does about us.

“The reason why the cliché of the brutal, narrow-minded Middle Ages is so popular is not because it paints such an authentic picture of the time, but because it confirms our belief in progress.”

The reason why the cliché of the brutal, narrow-minded Middle Ages, as portrayed in “Braveheart” or “The Name of the Rose”, is so popular is not because it paints such an authentic picture of the time, but because it confirms our belief in progress. We are, however, also presented with the other side of the Middle Ages: the lost paradise, the romanticera of knights, damsels, pure love and dragon fights in films like “A Knight’s Tale” and “First Knight”. This image is essentially an expression of our doubts about certain aspects of modern times: gender roles and the demystification of the world. In this process, the Middle Ages transmute from an historical epoch into some kind of mythical pre-history.

Films set in the Middle Ages are not stupid: behind the positive and negative mediaeval stereotypes you can often find sophisticated challenges to modern times. For example, many of these films gnaw away at our firm belief that time always moves at the same pace, from one second to the next, unstoppable and irretrievable. Never mind the theory of relativity, this way of thinking is deeply ingrained in us all. Filmmakers like to evoke the Middle Ages to envision alternatives because, supposedly, people in those days did not yet think in such a linear way. Thus in films set in the Middle Ages we encounter no end of genuine and imaginary journeys in time and conscious anachronisms: take “A Knight’s Tale” or “1 ½ Knights” in which tournaments are held accompanied by stadium chants and cheerleaders, characteristics of latterday sporting events. Past, present and future can no longer be tidily compartmentalised – with dramatic or hilarious consequences. The dead, of course, stubbornly refuse to remain dead: in “Beowulf”, for instance, the supposedly dead monster keeps cropping up again and again.

Scene from “The Name of the Rose” (1986)
... and in “The Name of the Rose”

Photo: Cinetext / Constantin Film

When playing around with time, sexual conventions are often undermined, too. In Bully Herbig’s unforgettable “(T)Raumschiff Surprise” (a pun on “Starship Enterprise”) the otherwise rather macho and decidedly heterosexual Til Schweiger suddenly looks pretty effeminate when he is relocated to the Middle Ages and has to survive as der Rosarote Ritter von Hinten (another pun, approximately: the Pink Knight of the Rear). However, the undermining of sexual conventions can also take a conservative turn. In “Pope Joan”, the eponymous Joan is allowed to pretend she is a man in order to have any sort of chance of getting an education in the murky Middle Ages but, in the end, it is her totally unreliable female body that puts a spoke in her wheel by leading her into temptation and then forcing her to give birth in public.

Films set in the Middle Ages do not only question our concept of time but also our image of modern human beings. The Middle Ages are used to conjure alternatives to the enlightened individual; they are seen as a time in which people were far more integrated in communities.

“Films set in the Middle Ages are not stupid: behind the positive and negative mediaeval stereotypes you can often find sophisticated challenges to modern times.”

A seminal feature of films about the Middle Ages is the portrayal of the media, with the written word as the quintessential image of the enemy: death warrants, banishment orders, forged signatures, stolen letters occur constantly, all written and misused by corrupt elites. The only chance for script to convey truth and beauty in films about mediaeval times is when it is a showpiece, a fine manuscript or ornamentation. Many media historians see the entire medium of film as a return to the ostensibly more visual and less word-dominated world of pre-printing days. Even if this is yet another cliché in its own right: it would not do any harm if scholars spent some time reflecting on their own approach to history.

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Bettina Bildhauer Bettina Bildhauer
Photo: Sabrina Wendling and Bernd Wannenmacher

Dr. Bettina Bildhauer is an Early German scholar at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom. She is currently a Humboldt Research Fellow at Freie Universität Berlin, completing a monograph on the presentation of the Middle Ages in various films.

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