Middle Ages in film

Medieval films imagine and portray the Middle Ages through the visual, audio and thematic forms of cinema.


The 20th century is not the first to create images of life during medieval times. The Middle Ages ended over five centuries ago and each century has imagined, portrayed and depicted the Middle Ages through painting, architecture, poetry, music and novel. In the 20th century, film has defined Medieval history perhaps more so than any other medium. While the conclusions of academic research and findings of archeology have advanced knowledge of the Middle Ages, nothing has had more widespread influence on more people than the images created by film. Just as most people's perceptions of the American Wild West were drawn from cinema, versus source material or academic research, so too most peoples perceptions of the Middle Ages were influenced by the powerful narratives and images of film.

If film was the most influential medium, Hollywood was the most influential image maker. Hollywood films reached a global audience through big budget productions, and equally big distribution and advertising channels. Hollywood adapted works of the Romanticism movement to the screen, seamlessly forging a bridge between Romanticized historical novels, operas, paintings, and music of the 19th century onto film in the 20th. The ideals of the Romantics were fully realized on the screen in such influential works as Ivanhoe (1952) and El Cid (1961) which belong to the same late Romantic culture in their music, imagery and themes.

Strong cinematic images of the Middle Ages can be found in European films. Influential European films included Fritz Lang's two-film series Die Nibelungen: Siegfrieds Tod and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (1924), Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), while in France there were many versions of the story of Joan of Arc.

The first Medieval film was also one of the earliest films ever made, Jeanne d'Arc released in 1900. The first Robin Hood film dates to 1907 and was called Robin Hood and His Merry Men.

Historiography and historiophoty

The historiography and historiophoty of medieval film is a new field of study. Historiophoty, the study of history through film, was coined by noted historiographer Hayden White in Historiography and Historiophoty (1988) in which he theorized that one of the main sources of friction between History and Film is the problem of translating from a written discourse (hence the -graphy) to a visual one (-photy).[1] The French historian Marc Ferro had already devoted his seminal work Cinéma et Histoire (1977) to precisely this question, he asks in Chapter 16, "Can a filmic writing of History exist?"[2]

Although in general terms the relationship between film and history has been a subject of interest since as long as films have been made, it was only in the last decade of the 20th century that medievalists paid attention to film as a serious means of learning about the Middle Ages. As Arthur Lindley said in 1998 "One could note the absence of books by medievalists as well as books of any kind devoted to medieval film," however he prophetically observed "The situation may be beginning to change". This change took place in part by the recognition of the complex relationship between historiography and cinematic history, since the publication of works such as Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages in 1991 demonstrated the extent of the influence of historiography on Medieval History. Harnessing the work of the earlier New Historicism, this emergent field of historiography began to challenge the hegemony of Medieval historians over the history which they narrate, and opens the door for new modes of thinking by the proposition that "we cannot interpret medieval culture, or any historical culture, except through the prism of the dominant concepts of our own thought worlds."[3]

Until the publication of Kevin J. Harty's book The Reel Middle Ages (1999) there had been no comprehensive survey of medieval films, and John Aberth's book A Knight at the Movies (2003) can probably be called the first book in English dedicated solely to the subject of history and medieval history on film. One year later, in 2004, the eminent French historian François Amy de la Bretèque published his L'Imaginaire médiéval dans le cinéma occidental, in which he proposes a number of useful theories to finally break out of the circle of historiography vs historiophoty. One of the most pervasive of these, and one picked up in Robert Rosenstone's History on Film/Film on History (2006) is that both History and Film are ways of narrating the past, both equally susceptible in theory (though not in practice) to perversion. As Rosenstone observes, "we always violate the past, even as we attempt to preserve its memory in whatever medium we use... Yet this violation is inevitable, part of the price of our attempts at understanding the vanished world of our forebears."[4]

These ideas were picked up by later authors and incorporated into criticism of medieval films, most notably by Nickolas Haydock and Andrew B.R. Elliott, in order to establish a starting position which accepts the inevitable falsification of the period in film, and instead focuses on what these changes reveal about modern attitudes to the period. Haydock achieves this by arguing for a "medieval imaginary", a Lacanian idea which suggests that there exists a collected body of ideas about the Middle Ages to which filmmakers (and perhaps historians themselves) refer. Elliott, on the other hand, suggests that modern images of the period are based on semiotics, in which both images and paradigms are signifiers of an earlier medieval referent. Both of these ideas connect back to the theory of historiophoty, in that they rely on a kind of history which is written in images, and not in words.

Historiophoty today, therefore, is an ongoing process which recognises the inherent problems in bringing history in general- and medieval history in particular, given its vulnerability to be hijacked by the fantasy genre- to life on the screen. One of the major breakthroughs has been in finally overcoming the reluctance to accept film as history by the recognition that it is not a 'type' of history, but rather that cinema makes use of its own cinematic techniques in order to narrate its history, proposing not a challenge to historical records but simply an alternative way of narrating them.

Select films

At over 900 films listed by Harty in 1999, it is beyond the scope of this article to create a complete list. Listed here are some of the best and most significant films in both quality and historical accuracy as determined by a consensus poll of medieval students and teachers.[5]

Date Era Title IMDB Country Notes
1928 1431 The Passion of Joan of Arc France Joan of Arc. The film was so powerful that it was initially banned in Britain.
1938 12th c. The Adventures of Robin Hood USA Prince John and the Norman Lords begin oppressing the Saxon masses in King Richard's absence, a Saxon lord fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla army.
1938 13th c. Alexander Nevsky USSR Russians defend against invading German Teutonic Knights during the Northern Crusades of the 13th century.
1957 13th / 14th c. The Seventh Seal Sweden About a knight returning from a crusade who plays a chess game with Death during the Black Plague.
1960 13th c. The Virgin Spring Sweden Story of Christian medieval Swedish family whose daughter is raped by vagabonds. Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
1961 11th c. El Cid USA Epic film of the legendary Spanish hero.
1964 12th c. Becket UK Based on Jean Anouilh's play about Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket and King Henry II of England.
1965 11th c. The War Lord USA Based on Leslie Stevens' The Lovers. Charlton Heston is a knight invoking the "right" to sleep with another man's bride on their wedding night.
1966 15th c. Andrei Rublev USSR Life of Andrei Rublev the great 15th-century Russian icon painter (Andrey Tarkovsky).
1968 12th c. The Lion in Winter UK King Henry II's three sons all want to inherit the throne. His sons and wife Eleanor of Aquitaine variously plot. Based ten years after the events of the Revolt of 1173-1174.
1976 7th c. Mohammad, Messenger of God UK/Lebanon Also known as The Message. Tagline: The Story of Islam.
1986 14th c. The Name of the Rose France/Italy/Germany Based on the novel by Umberto Eco.
1988 14th c. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey New Zealand Seeking relief from the Black Death, guided by a boy's vision, people dig a tunnel from 14th century England to 20th century New Zealand.

See also


  1. Hayden V. White, 'Historiography and Historiophoty', The American Historical Review, 93 (1988), 1193-99.
  2. Marc Ferro, Cinéma et Histoire (Paris: Denoël, 1977).
  3. Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1991), p. 37.
  4. Robert Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History (Harlow, London and New York: Pearson, Longman, 2006), p. 135.
  5. The Best Medieval Films, from Medieval List and Paul Halsall

Further reading

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