Suzanne Lewis

title.none: Arnold, Shippey, eds., Film and Fiction (Suzanne Lewis )

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.020 04.01.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Suzanne Lewis , Stanford University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Arnold, Martin, Tom Shippey, eds. Film and Fiction: Reviewing the Middle Ages. Series: Studies in Medievalism, vol. 12. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. 257. $60.00 0-859-917-72X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.20

Arnold, Martin, Tom Shippey, eds. Film and Fiction: Reviewing the Middle Ages. Series: Studies in Medievalism, vol. 12. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. 257. $60.00 0-859-917-72X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Suzanne Lewis
Stanford University

This latest volume in the third series, Studies in Medievalism, Film and Fiction: Reviewing the Middle Ages, sets out to redress the paucity of serious studies devoted to "popular, commercial, and contemporary forms of medievalism." The collection of ten essay on very diverse aspects of medievalism in popular modern culture ranges from the now (films of the 1990s to 2001), to historical fiction and events of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to the passionate but misdirected nineteenth-century antipathies toward the spurious medieval chimeras of bad baronets and canon law. Taken as a whole, the collection's multiple angles on "modernism" argue for two critical precepts to guide the various endeavors of medievalist studies. The first is that the "Middle Ages" constitute a slippery, ever-changing set of modern cultural constructs, and, second, that "modern" vantage points can be just as elusive, ambiguous, and contradictory.

The collection opens with three essays on recent films, headed by a brilliant piece by Nickolas Haydock, "Arthurian Melodrama, Chaucerian Spectacle, and the Waywardness of Cinematic Pastiche in First Knight and A Knight's Tale." Here he argues that the persistent methodology in the study of popular cinema's colonization of the Middle Ages, "which proceeds by comparing them to their supposed medieval sources needs to be supplemented by a more consistent use of the tools of film theory and formal film analysis." In his close "reading" of First Knight (1995), Haydock contends that its wild anachronisms and parodic allusions to genre are intended to appeal to what he calls "a cinematic imaginary" about the Middle Ages, composed of fragments drawn from film history and popular culture--a postmodern pastiche. The author astutely sees the film as intensely focused on the visual, "packed with references to looking, eyes, and seeing." But First Knight invariably solicits a feminine not a masculine gaze.

In contrast, A Knight's Tale (2001) offers a cinematic experience that Haydock characterizes as "implosive," invoking the postmodern ideas of Debord's spectacle and Bakhtin's subversive carnival. Whereas First Knight "embeds anachronism and satire within the seamless diegesis of the classic Hollywood style, A Knight's Tale brings the medieval and postmodern worlds into violent collision." Interestingly, Haydock observes that the director's reliance on expert modern scholarship results in "pastiche not historical accuracy." What the film's concentration on tournament spectacles succeeds in doing is to "translate" directly from the visual culture of the Middle Ages. In Haydock's words, "the illumination of medieval manuscripts becomes the model for the film's cinematography and mise en scene." Instead of inviting us to judge these cinematic versions of the Middle Ages in terms of their historical accuracy, the author concludes that such films encourage us to understand medievalism as the practice and study of present pastiche coupled with earlier acts of compositive forgery.

Working along the more traditional lines of comparative methodology in the analysis of films about the Middle Ages, Gwendolyn Morgan's "Modern Mystics, Medieval Saints," attempts to rescue Joan of Arc from the cinematic illusions of "a medieval mystic who never existed" and to restore "the fundamental reality of a woman of unshakable faith in her personal and profound experience of Christianity." In coming to terms with two 1999 versions of the "true story" of Joan, Luc Besson's blockbuster, The Messenger, and the Canadian made-for-TV production, Joan of Arc, Morgan rejects their contemporary ideological focus on Joan's purported psychosis, feminism, Marxist populism, and rational atheism. Although these films filter and undermine our awe of Joan through the lens of our contemporary ideas about what is credible and what is not, her present "reality" is fragmented and dispersed between the medieval world of "true saints" and postmodern mass reception.

Turning from mass-market movies to a relatively unknown British/French production released in the U.S. in 1994, William Woods's "Seeking the Human Image in The Advocate seeks to redefine our notion of a good historical film. He begins by exploring how what he considers "one of the best films ever made about fifteenth-century France" works--how it develops its ideas, what, who and when it is about, and how that is related to the way all of us turn our "historical cameras" backward on the Middle Ages. The Advocate concerns a young Parisian lawyer who seeks a simpler life by escaping to the country town of Abbeville, where he unexpectedly finds himself defending a pig for murder. Within a bizarre Aesopian world, animals become a mirror revealing human nature. Although we enter fifteenth-century France, we remain aware that "we are in it, not of it," that is, we are in the paradoxical realm of medievalism. Thus, Woods concludes, the film's essential value lies in its faithful historical detail and color and its power to lure us into caring about questions of legal, political and moral philosophy--but at a distance that gives back "a troubling, ambivalent reflection of our human image."

The next two essays focus on the instability of modern celebrations of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman kings in two familiar medievalist venues--historical fiction and commemorative spectacle. In his essay, "Harold in Normandy: History and Romance," Carl Hammer reviews six historical novels dating from 1848 to 1997, which narrate the momentous tale of William and Harold. As he explores the relationship between these fictional accounts and their medieval sources, which are indeed the same texts upon which modern historians depend, it comes as no surprise that he finds his novelists disappointing. However, Hammer's comparative analyses would have been far more compelling if his secondary sources on the Bayeux Tapestry had included more recent work.

In contrast, Joanne Parker's revisiting of "The Day of a Thousand Years: Winchester's 1901 Commemoration of Alfred the Great" explores the event as the culmination of the nineteenth-century cult of the Anglo-Saxon king as the father of the British Empire as well as founder of the modern institutional machinery of the Victorian Britain itself. Ironically, Parker concludes that the 1901 Alfred millennium provided the impetus for the increasingly more "objective" research that led to the demise of both academic and popular interest in the Anglo-Saxon ruler.

The next three essays address familiar literary problems of appropriation by examining how some rather surprising nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers used and misused medieval models. In "Eric Brighteyes: Rider Haggard Rewrites the Sagas," Jona Hammer explores the intersection of two aspects of Victorian readership in a lesser known novel of Rider Haggard, Eric Brighteyes (1891) as an expression of renewed popular taste for historical fiction and the use of Icelandic sagas as model. Although familiar features mark this work as "neo-saga," Hammer's most salient insights fasten on his perception of the novel as "anti-saga," in which Haggard is seen to "turn these features over to expose the hidden sides or reshapes them altogether." As the author points out, Haggard's "darker side" is aligned with his preoccupation with predestination and a supernatural cosmic order, as well as his fascination with femininity and the occult. Beyond the stylistic shifts of the "anti-saga," however, Haggard's stoic hero steps out of his role to comment on the destructive ideology behind it to reveal the masculine-feminine duality in his nature, as well as his instability and doubt. In Hammer's view, Haggard rejects the Victorian idealization of the Nordic past for a recognition of its dark side and hence becomes, in Hammer's view, a prescient forerunner of postmodern historical fiction.

In his piece entitled, "'Biddeth Peres Ploughman go to his werk': Appropriation of Piers Plowman in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," Paul Hardwick pursues the issue of how the complexity and open-endedness of Langland's work became an "historical document" of the fourteenth century at odds with early modern expectations of the Middle Ages. In the hands of enthusiasts, such as William Morris, Piers Plowman was enlisted in the contemporary political cause of "socialist medievalism," in its revelation of "the social chasm which in the fourteenth century severed the rich from the poor," as well as, in the author's opinion, "the chasm which severs past from present."

William Calin frames his analysis of "What Tales of a Wayside Inn Tells Us about Longfellow and about Chaucer" within the framework of Kim Moreland's recent thesis (The Medieval Impulse in American Literature, 1996)--"that medievalism functioned as a response to and a reaction against modernity, capitalism, the cult of progress, optimism, and the growing materialism of life in America after the Civil War." By intertextually recasting the Chaucerian idea of the Canterbury Tales in his own nineteenth-century Massachusetts, Longfellow wrote a text of what Calin calls "secondary medievalism." Rejecting contemporary American reality for a timeless medieval past, Longfellow "corrects" Chaucer to conform to the expectations of his audience--mimetic realism emerges and sex disappears. Calin concludes that the American poet's medievalism became almost as central to the modernist experience as it was to romanticism.

The last essays deal with two enduring prejudices marking the intersection of learned and popular culture in the nineteenth century. In her "Bad Baronets and the Curse of Medievalism," Claire Simmons seeks to redress anti-medievalist attacks on the lowest-ranking of the titled classes, the baronetage, which did not even exist in the Middle Ages. Drawing her examples from the villains in such Victorian novels as Disraeli's Sybil (1848), Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and Conan Doyles' The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), the author explores the false medievalism of the bad baronets. In "'The Bony, Grasping Hand': Nineteenth-Century Protestant Views on Medieval Canon Law," Bruce Brasington analyzes a particularly salient aspect of prejudice, both popular and academic, in hostile perceptions of the ecclesiastical legal apparatus prior to the Reformation. In contrast to Simmons, however, he concludes that, despite our admirable intentions to understand rather than disparage the past, the enduring American Protestant prejudice against Rome, the Middle Ages, and lawyers, is still with us.