(by guestblogger Anne Illsley )
The Middle Ages has become a dominant genre in movies and literature, especially in America. Medieval pageants and fairs, where people dress up in clothing from the Middle Ages to watch jousts and romanticize about times gone by is a popular weekend pastime, and Hollywood movies centered on tales from medieval times never fail to bring in the crowds. From Robin Hood and Game of thrones, to classic Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbank swashbucklers, audiences, it seems, can’t get enough of the Middle Ages.
Perhaps this is because American history stops so abruptly at the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, leaving the United States without the castles and folklore so common in Europe. However, Hollywood and publishing’s obsession with all things medieval has led to our perceptions of these times becoming altered and romanticized, but how far off from the truth is Hollywood’s version?

Hollywood’s history

There is perhaps no greater pleasure than sitting in a movie theatre, or settling down on a sectional sofa or recliner chair at home with a bowl of popcorn and a few friends to watch the latest Hollywood medieval romp. There is no shortage of medieval titles, either. From the various incarnations of Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe or Kevin Costner playing the eponymous outlaw, the Lord of the Rings trilogy,
Beowulf, Braveheart, various King Arthur movies, and TV’s Game of Thrones, the list goes on. Of course, many of these films and shows are actually based in fantasy worlds, but they share many of the same well-worn tropes that we have become to associate with the Middle Ages.
Ask most people what they think of when you mention the Middle Ages and they will most likely talk of great battles, chivalrous heroes, wicked and cruel kings, overlords that need to be defeated, castles, and beautiful and beguiling princesses. However, much of what Hollywood and literature tells us bears no resemblance to the actual period, but as with most fiction, many of these tropes adopted by Hollywood have some semblance in fact.

Feudal times

Most people in the middle ages didn’t live in castles or partake in jousting or great feasts. In most countries of Europe during this period, a system of feudalism was in place, where the general population served a feudal lord, king or landowner, who would quite often reside in a castle of other dominant building. This was not a closed court consisting of just knights and damsels, as Hollywood may have us believe, as the castle grounds were often home to market places, taverns and other places where the local people would congregate and socialize.
The system of chivalry adopted by most countries in this period, created the knights. However, these were not the glamorous warriors adorned in gleaming armor fighting for honor. Mostly, knights were political figures, many were elderly, and while they controlled armies, most were feudal lords themselves, controlling sections of land and their populations. The majority of people in the middle ages were peasants. They would pay taxes, or if they could not afford it, serve on their feudal lord’s land for part of the week, while tending their own crops for the rest of the time.  While war was common, the great battles depicted in Hollywood are quite an exaggeration. The population was sparse and often armies consisted of less than a hundred fighting men, and normally the lords and their knight advisors would take pains to avoid any conflict.

Contrarian view

In some sort of retaliation to Hollywood’s romanticized view, many people have adopted the stance that everything depicted in the movies about the period is completely wrong. However, this has led to an equally false view of the period to emerge, which is just as skewed as the romanticized depiction favored by Hollywood.
While times were difficult in the Middle Ages, it was not as brutal as many people imagine. The peasants were in the main, well fed, festivals and celebrations occurred regularly, and people generally lived contended lives. After all, a feudal lord needed to keep people happy, otherwise they’d move off his land and set up somewhere else, taking with them their labor and taxes. Furthermore, the idea that they lived under fear of death through disobedience is also wrong. It was in the Middle Ages that the jury system emerged and the death penalty was only used for the most heinous crimes, while witch-hunts and punishments against heresy were also rare.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy. Wars, invasions and sieges did occur, as did famines and crop failures, but these were rare, perhaps occurring once in a generation, just as the great plague that decimated the populations of Europe only lasted a couple of years in the seventeenth century.

Peasants were not ignorant or dirty, either. People bathed regularly and while illiteracy was high, the notion that people believed in a flat earth or were uneducated is untrue. Sailors were already exploring the world, and knew by the sight of ship’s mast appearing over the horizon that the earth was a sphere. Many great artists and scholars, such as Dante, Chaucer or Leonardo da Vinci came from this period, and songs, stories and poems entertained the peasants and gave them a great understanding off the world around them.

Hollywood may have romanticized the Middle Ages, and given us a cleaned up version of reality, but that doesn’t mean they got everything wrong. The truth about the Middle Ages may be far removed from the swashbuckling of Russell Crowe in Robin Hood, but it is perhaps a lot closer than many of us think.


Prue Batten said...

Terrific post!

There is much that is right and much that is so very wrong in what the movie world tells us. But equally, like many hist.fict writers, they are only steering a middle path between the discrepancies and argument of academic opinion.
In the end, they're seeking to entertain as we writers also are. So in the end they will surely expand on those facts that most serve their purpose to entertain.
As long as we keep in mind that it is fiction, we're okay. If we lose sight of that, then we can seriously claim to approve of 'the re-writing of history'.
Thanks so much for taking an interesting point and expanding on it so well.

Barbara Gaskell Denvil said...

I love this article and heartily agree with the basic premise. I do confess to getting irritated when Hollywood and some authors of historical fiction completely distorts history - but let's be fair - since so many of us have become passionate researchers because of initially falling for some exaggerated book or film. I'd hardly call Game of Thrones romantic - but the appeal of history does easily tend to become over-colured. And we are not the first. The Victorians, the pre-Raphaelites for instance - romanticized the Medieval period to such an extent that it was soon accepted as truth. Not only that, but the folk of the Middle Ages themselves loved to romanticize everything - promoting the image of the knight, the joust, and courtly love - whilst the wildly romantic tales of Tristan and Isolde, and King Arthur were amongst the most popular stories available.

Vava, A country dreaming mum said...

What a great post, I truely enjoyed reading it. I think we all did (or do) fantazise about the middle ages, maybe 500 years since they'll be fantazising about us ... No, that cannot be, lately ours seem to be the real "dark ages" :-(

Sharon Lathan said...

Very good post. Of course, as soon as I saw Aragorn I was hooked!!

Always pros and cons. It is funny that the image of filthy dirty people in the Middle Ages is so popular and yet move forward a few hundred years and suddenly we are to believe that everyone wore white and was spotless 24/7/365! LOL! Either extreme is false. I appreciate your comments on bathing. Indeed it was not as rare as we tend to imagine.

Very intriguing read. Thanks! Sharon Lathan

Servetus said...

In my opinion, the fundamental error in romanticizing the medieval period is frankly that it makes people think that people in the past were like us. The past is a foreign country, and this is nowhere more apparent than when we study the Middle Ages in any depth at all.

That said, people can do whatever they want for entertainment, I suppose. I'm not opposed. Just don't market it to me as history.

Anonymous said...

Drama and history are separate entities, don't you think? (I have a great fondness for The Lion in Winter - and love the BBC Robin Hood series, with its medieval casino,Yikes... etc.) :D

The past is indeed a foreign country. On the other hand, people are people, and external influences are probably a great factor in the ways they reacted, what resources were available. (water was not lacking in Europe or England for bathing - but water was not always clean, either)Movies, like Shakespeare, are meant to entertain and in the 16th C, not to verge too far from political correctness. Today?