Making Medievalism: Teaching the Middle Ages through Film

  • Martha Driver
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Terry Jones is a funny man. He is also instructive, whether talking about Richard II or the Crusades or about the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In 2008, Pace University in New York City awarded Jones an honorary doctoral degree, describing him as “Historian, Actor, Co-Founder of Monty Python.”1 The primary emphasis on “Historian” aptly alludes to the knowledge that underpins many of his film projects. Through film Jones has shaped the modern vision of the Middle Ages, has influenced the ways in which the medieval period is taught and received by scholars and students, and has informed hundreds of thousands of people about the past. His approach is reminiscent of medieval notions of carnival, or “the world turned upside down,” an upending of the expected order. If medievalism is “the idealization of medieval life and culture, with an emphasis upon a rich, mysterious and imaginary world of nobility,” as Morton W. Bloomfield says,2 Jones’s work might be said to promote the underbelly of the idealized past, forcing viewers to question medieval stereotypes that they have not fully examined previously. And if “Medievalism is the seed-bed of medieval scholarship,”3 as Bloomfield further writes, Jones’s films send scholars and students back to their books with many questions: Which modern assumptions about the medieval past are in fact incorrect? What is the true story? What do primary sources suggest? And what (perhaps most importantly) is so funny about the Middle Ages?


Fourteenth Century Medieval Literature Medieval Manuscript Medieval History Modern Assumption 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 2.
    Morton W. Bloomfield, “Reflections of a Medievalist: America, Medievalism, and the Middle Ages,” in Medievalism in American Culture, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, ed. Bernard Rosenthal and Paul E. Szarmach, 55 (Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1989), 14 [13–29].Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Robert A. Rosenstone, ed., Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 5.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See, e.g., Susan Aronstein, Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 110, who comments: “Their Flying Circus uses postmodern techniques-pastiche, self-reflexiveness, an abandonment of continuity and closure, and parody-to tear apart social and narrative conventions, calling their audience’s attention to the fact that all narratives, from genres to political and social discourses, are assembled out of disparate parts and bound together only by conventions of closure and continuity designed to make them seem natural and transparent.”Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London: BBC Books, 2005). Also worth reading is Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Crusades (London: Penguin BBC Books, 1994), the book accompanying the documentary series (1995; DVD, A&E Home Video, 2002). It, too, contains bibliography, notes and a comprehensive index.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Georges Duby, L’histoire de Guillaume de Maréchal ou le meilleur chevalier du monde: William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Pantheon, 1985). Brian Helgeland, A Knight’s Tale: The Shooting Script (New York: Newmarket Press, 2001), viii, explains his inspiration for the lead character in the film, the craftsman William Thatcher, born in Cheapside, who becomes a knight. Looking through some old notes on medieval jousting, he found underlined, “You had to be of noble birth to compete” and invented, apparently on the spot, the peasant William “who wanted to be a knight only he had to fight the prejudices, laws, and roadblocks set up by the powers that be.” He then read medieval histories and “biographies on Chaucer, Edward the Black Prince, and William Marshall-the jousting Mickey Mantle of his day. I reread The Canterbury Tales.… All of it to steep me in medievalism, all of it to add a realism, a sense of the smell of the place.”Google Scholar
  6. 17.
    Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend (Oxford University Press, 2005), 279. See also Sarah Salih, “Cinematic Authenticity-Effects and Medieval Art: A Paradox,” in Medieval Film, ed. Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009), 23 [20–39]: “The antimimetic Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), in which various modes of the illusory medieval-chivalric glamour, earthy squalor, quotations of medieval forms-jostle with the rude interruptions of modernity, may be the paradigmatic medieval film, and is certainly a favourite of many medievalists.” Mark Burde, “Monty Python’s Medieval Masterpiece,” The Arthurian Yearbook 3 (1993): 3–20, says the film is “the product of too much research and knowledge to dismiss lightly” (4). Burde cites the Pythons’ appropriation of medieval interlace technique in the narrative (6) and summarizes the targets of the film’s lampoons (7–9). For more medieval references, see Christine M. Neufeld, “Coconuts in Camelot: Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the Arthurian Literature Course,” Florilegium 19 (2002): 127–48; and Raymond H. Thompson, “The Ironic Tradition in Arthurian Films Since 1960,” in Cinema Arthuriana, rev. ed., ed. Kevin J. Harty (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), 114–17 [110–17].Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    Nickolas Haydock, Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 10.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, Monty Python and the Holy Grail: The Screenplay (London: Methuen, 2003), 5. Richard Burt, Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 53, points out that “the film calls into question both the authority and meaning of the written record of history,” and “The shot of the police car entering the frame near the end of the film is followed by handheld cinéma verité shots of the police that continue to the end, making it seem as if we are witnessing a documentary about reenactors of a medieval battle” (55).Google Scholar
  9. 33.
    Terry Jones, The Saga of Erik the Viking (London: Penguin, 1988), 9.Google Scholar
  10. 41.
    See Thomas B. Willson, History of the Church and State in Norway from the Tenth to Sixteenth Centuries (Westminster, UK: Archibald Constable, 1903), 10–11. For the saga, see “Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway: Halfdan the Black Saga,” Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #15b, The Online Medieval and Classical Library, The historical Halfdan the Black is also briefly mentioned in John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (New York: Routledge, 2003), 58–59.Google Scholar

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© R. F. Yeager and Toshiyuki Takamiya 2012

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  • Martha Driver

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