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Filming the Middle Ages (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 365-368 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It was once a commonly held view that the persistent and lively tradition of popular medievalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—the re-creation, invocation, and rehabilitation of the Middle Ages by postmedieval culture—could only ever be an amusing, decorative afterthought to the medieval “real.” Far less serious than eighteenth-and nineteenth-century revivalism in architecture, poetry, social ideology, and the arts and crafts movement, modern medievalism in fiction and film could be assessed and graded, much like student work, as more or less historically accurate; and it could be patronized, much like popular culture in general, as the product of amateurs and enthusiasts. Naturally, filmmakers, novelists, and fans would be drawn to the self-evidently intriguing Middle Ages, but their knowledge of its precise intricacies would be limited. Nevertheless, medievalism might still have a useful function if it directed undergraduates toward the study of medieval history and literature.

Some medieval scholars may still think along these lines, but they ignore at their peril a new generation of scholarly work that interrogates the medievalist project from a perspective of active engagement with what it can tell us about our relationship with the past and, indeed, why medieval culture itself should still matter to us.

Bettina Bildhauer’s provocative study, Filming the Middle Ages, marches close to the vanguard of such work. It is perhaps less of a game-changer than Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, but along with Nick-olas Haydock’s wonderful Movie Medievalism (2008), Bildhauer’s book is an authoritative study of medievalist film that will shape future criticism of both medievalism and historically oriented cinema.

Bildhauer steps deftly through previous traditions of criticism and scholarship. She acknowledges the tempting critical tendency to judge medievalist cinema according to standards of historical accuracy, but she proposes a more productive approach, one that focuses on “the subversive and critical potential of medieval film—partly as a corrective to the dominant understanding of almost all films set in the Middle Ages as conservative” (21).

Filming the Middle Ages offers a fresh voice of analysis and commentary. Its texts include a number of the usual suspects, and it will be an indispensable book for teaching, but its orientation is firmly toward European and, indeed, German film. In effect, it proposes a new canon and a new genre of films, along with a new term. Sidestepping the interminable difficulties of terminology around “medievalism” and its cognates, Bildhauer proposes to describe as medieval film all films that are set in the Middle Ages, or that are treated as “medieval” in the premodernity attributed to them by the film industry and in their reception. There are clear advantages here: unlike poetry or fictions that have clearer antecedents in the Middle Ages, cinema has no substantial medieval analogues to confuse us. For Bildhauer, medieval film names a distinctive genre, a corpus that is held together by features that can be described on two levels. First, medieval film shares a relatively stable set of visual codes and thematic patterns. Second, these films often share a number of less well recognized preoccupations: with time (a concept that also features in Haydock’s book); with a semiotic and ideological hierarchy that privileges the visual over the textual (despite the familiar opening trope of the medieval manuscript or book); and with a form of subjectivity that can be described as “post-human.”

This threefold thesis is played out neatly over three sections, each with three chapters that move with ease between familiar and less familiar films, often candidly focusing on German cinema and its implications for national history. There are substantial discussions of The Seventh Seal, Joan of Arc (1928), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Da Vinci Code, A Canterbury Tale, The Name of the Rose, and Beowulf, all familiar fare in studies of medieval film. But there are other treasures to be explored in this rich and engaging study. Bildhauer’s summaries of less familiar films are concise and engaging, and supplemented by many small black-and-white stills. These are not always of high quality—content is privileged over form throughout, especially in the cover image (a still from Murnau’s Faust, from 1926...



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