“A Great Big Medieval Mess”

Putting a date to the generic filmic Middle Ages is a tricky business. Take Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A title card tells us that the film is set in “England 932 A.D.”[1] The fact that this is patent nonsense is not important – we can already hear the coconuts banging together. What is odd is why, therefore, a date appears on screen. In Dragonheart, a film which brilliantly features Sean Connery as the voice of a dragon, the setting is likewise in the tenth century.[2]

So why put a date to King Arthur and the dragons at all? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the magic numbers that often appear. Take Disney’s classic The Sword in the Stone.[3] The film is set, apparently, in a mid-sixth century England featuring Gothic Cathedrals and talking owls. More importantly, however, is that we know the date because Merlin tells us that the London Times won’t be published for another 1200 years. Likewise the trailers for Dragonheart intone that this is England 1000 years ago.[4] The dates aren’t there to tell us what political events we should look out for or which type of armour to expect – they are there because this is History. We are supposed to understand these events as within a real, but vague, historical context. We know that Arthur and the dragons aren’t real but at the same time everyone understands that this is essentially what happened some time between the Romans turning all the lights off and William the Conquerer rocking up with his tapestry skills.

London c.588

London c.588

Another type of medieval film is indeed more specific about its dates. They might be, like A Knight’s Tale, tied to historical figures like Chaucer and the Black Prince.[5] Even myths, like Robin Hood, are tied to Richard the Lionheart and King John. Or known events as with Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven,[6] or Black Death.[7] These types of film are often more precise with their anachronisms and, particularly in recent years, take pride in achieving a general tone. They are also nearly always, at least in Anglophone films, set after 1000AD and are often allowed to wander outside of the British Isles.

Which perhaps is the other side of the story – not just the date but the setting. Paul Sturtevant has conducted surveys considering how medieval films affect understandings of the Middle Ages.[8] A particularly interesting aspect revealed by some of these focus groups considered the nationality of the medieval period. Aladdin was, for example, not thought of as medieval because it was not European. One participant in the survey suggested “when I think of the middle ages it’s probably set in Britain”.[9] Others felt that the Middle Ages might well allow for a wider European setting but the ‘medieval’ was definitely British. Arthur and his knights as national myth-making is well-worn ground. As the voice of Fred Darian sings at the opening of the Sword in the Stone: “a legend is sung of when England was young and knights were brave and bold”.[10]

These films have dates because, despite the wizards and the killer rabbits, we understand this to be our history. It fits with the castles that we can visit, artfully preserved to look how we feel they should, comfortingly sturdy. The films rise out of the magical period of a Dark Age which looks like the England of our past imaginings; a richly forested land in which knights, whose accents may occasionally have an American twang, fight their dragons and build their castles.

[1] Monty Python and the Holy Grail, dir. T. Jones and T. Gilliam (1975).
[2] Dragonheart, dir. R. Cohen (1996).
[3] The Sword in the Stone, dir. W. Reitherman (1963).
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRjSw-4qcgM
[5] A Knight’s Tale, dir. B. Helgeland (2001).
[6] Kingdom of Heaven, dir. R. Scott (2005)
[7] Black Death, dir. C. Smith (2010)
[8] P. B. Sturtevant, ‘Based on a True History?: The Impact of Popular ‘Medieval Film’ on the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages’, PhD Thesis (Leeds, 2010).
[9] Ibid., pp. 129-130.
[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb6seu90dX8

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