Paul B. Sturtevant, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018.
Full disclosure: Paul is a friend and colleague; we work together at The Public Medievalist. Nevertheless, I have endeavored to be as objective as possible in this review.
One knee-jerk tendency for medievalists when confronted with pop-culture medievalism is to pick it apart for accuracy. We tend to look for how well the film portrays medieval battles. Whether the armor that SCA member is wearing follows known production methods and uses only materials available in the 12th century. Whether that TV show accurately exemplifies the socioeconomic factors of 11th century Britain. And then we follow fans of such things around yelling “No!” at them.
But whether these pop culture texts are “wrong” or “inaccurate,” people learn from them and create an idea of what the Middle Ages looked like. And they do so through all sorts of medievalist and neomedieval texts, from Disney princess films to Game of Thrones. Frequently, this is the only exposure people have to ideas about the Middle Ages. In The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination, Paul Sturtevant has tackled the big question of how people take in these ideas and integrate them with previous views of the Middle Ages or reject them.
He begins with an analysis of the malleability of the medievalist “Middle Ages”—those popular ideas we have about the historical period and the fact that those ideas change when we’re faced with new information. In order to explore this tendency, he created a study designed to explore the intersection of popular culture and historical consciousness.
The first chapter examines (and gripes about) the way historical consciousness has been studied so far. Mostly, it’s been journalists and politicians breathlessly complaining about how Millennials (or Gen X, or Gen Y, on back and back) know nothing about history and they’re obviously stupid idiots with no sense of culture and it’s amazing they can put their pants on in the morning. But, as Sturtevant points out, they get their “data” from scientifically invalid surveys that treat history like a bullet-pointed list of names and dates. Instead, he argues, this sort of study needs to focus on how people understand the past and what they do with it. This chapter also includes the methodology for his study—19 students at the University of Leeds were recruited and placed in one of three groups. Each group was interviewed about their existing ideas about the Middle Ages, then watched three films (Beowulf, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and were debriefed afterward about whether they felt these films were “medieval.”
Chapter 2 kicks off the study with the description and analysis of what the students thought of as “medieval.” Interestingly, it turns out that they don’t think “medieval” and “the Middle Ages” mean the same thing, and they have slightly different ideas about what traits and keywords would go with each. (Side note: while writing my dissertation, I had a fellow grad student tell me that I couldn’t use “medieval” and “Middle Ages” interchangeably because they weren’t the same thing and “real medievalists” would get mad at me if I mixed them up. I was baffled. My director made A Face. I’m less baffled after reading this chapter.) Of course, their ideas about the Middle Ages were pretty much what you’d expect—a blend of knights in shining armor, dirty peasants, feudalism, hardly any travel, no culture to speak of, pretty much exclusively European, etc. In fact, one student admitted that when she thought of the Middle Ages, everything outside Western Europe was fuzzy in her brain; she knew that it existed because of course it did, but it might as well have been on the moon. This chapter is incredibly important not only for establishing a baseline for the study, but also for medievalists and medievalismists who have worked in the field for so long that we might forget that other people honestly don’t have the knowledge about the era that we do. Nor should we expect them to.
Chapter 3 provides more context for the way that the public in general views or approaches films considered “medieval.” The public’s ideas about historical films of any kind tends to be muddled; they are aware that the filmmakers’ primary concern is entertainment (well, that and money) before any kind of historical accuracy, and thus tend to not trust films, yet that appears to be where they get most of their ideas about the Middle Ages. Therefore, this chapter introduces some important psychological concepts regarding learning and cognition: the sociological nature of knowledge and schema theory, in particular. Sturtevant also examines how historical films can be used for good—to illustrate certain eras, people, or concepts in the context of a classroom or other setting in which an expert can guide the students. Otherwise, people who encounter these films “in the wild” tend to be far less critical of them.
In chapter 4, we get a bit more specific with the history/film thing, looking particularly at films coded “medieval,” whether historical or high fantasy (which tends to be pre-industrial and therefore lumped into the blurry watercolor of “the Middle Ages”). This chapter tackles some film theory as well as examining what traits cause a film to be considered “medieval” and how the perception of the “medieval” in popular culture has changed over the decades (spoiler: it’s gotten darker and grittier. See Game of Thrones). This is also where Sturtevant drops the Big Question at the heart of the study: “do the ways in which the Middle Ages are depicted in film today (with an aesthetics and politics that freely mixes the medieval, the medievalist, and the hypermedieval) actually influence viewers’ ideas about the period?” And if so, how?
Chapters 5 and 6 detail the students’ experience of watching the three films and their thoughts about how they were more or less medieval. Chapter 5 is pretty close to raw data, while chapter 6 collates that data to discuss major trends and themes in the way the students discussed the films and the Middle Ages. These are the chapters that will make medievalists unleash their inner pterodactyls and shriek in frustration at the students’ ideas—Beowulf isn’t medieval enough because there are no knights. Orlando Bloom is too pretty to be a medieval hero—but it’s important to, again, remember that these students are reacting entirely on instinct and pop-culture fueled versions of the Middle Ages, not a formal education or even informal historical research.
Several more such studies could be incredibly useful to the field, especially with different demographics. For example, how do American students’ view of the Middle Ages differ from these English students’? What about history majors? Middle Eastern students? Older adults who remember the pre-9/11 world?
Somebody get on that.
But read the appendices first.