Hollywood and the (in)accurate portrayal of medieval life

Let’s take a brief look at medieval times in the movies and a few films I feel have gotten some stuff right.  Here we’ll toy with the definition of Medieval quite a bit and perhaps replace it entirely by the time this ramble is through. I’m talking about those movies that not only grip you in their poetic throes, but do so with realistic costumes and historical accuracy. They’re few and far between as no film is completely historically accurate and no picture of history is absolutely complete. Also, people won’t sit for twenty minutes while King Richard II treats us to a Medieval French monologue while in the garderobe.

Did you know that some garderobes (a fancy name for a literal crap-hole carved into the stone over a longish drop to the bottom of a castle) featured iron bars just below sitting level?  Their purpose?  To discourage enemies from clambering up said crap holes for easy access to the current occupants.


We’re hampered a bit by the fact that Hollywood (and independent films) are more interested in reaching an audience then they are in historical accuracy. This isn’t really a bad thing when you think of the purpose of movies after all, these aren’t documentaries. It does mean that most movies won’t paint a historically accurate picture unless there is a sound artistic or monetary reason to do so.

Our first candidate is a movie that came from the 90s, and stars the now slightly wonky Mel Gibson. Braveheart is in one sense the quintessential medieval movie. It’s got star power, it’s got Scot power, it’s got a gritty feel about it.  Speaking as a partial Scotsman myself, I am not surprised.  We come to empathize with the Scots over the English because the English are just evil. Bad, naughty English!

But that’s not why I like it. I like it for the chaotic, extremely well choreographed and bloody battle scenes. Never before this movie had I seen an on screen battle depicted in a way that historical and archaeological records hold as true. Battle was a maddening, frenzied, bloody experience that could well get you killed. This movie is why I gave up any of my last pretenses of building a time machine and hopping back seven or eight centuries.  That and modern dentistry.


Braveheart as historical record jumps about quite a bit, stripping out decade wide swaths between major battles and giving historical credence to events which are most likely made up.  Which brings us to my next pick, although it takes place beyond what I would consider the medieval period, it’s still one of the more historically accurate films I’ve seen yet.

Rob Roy also takes place in Scotland. Released around the same time as Braveheart, it doesn’t feature any sweeping battles but does have a very accurate time line in place. Beyond that however, everything jives right. The costumes, the attitudes, the division between commoner and Scottish nobility which is at times a wide gulf and at others just a piss-pot away. I believe that Rob Roy captures much of what a seventeenth century Scot’s life would have been like, albeit a famous Scot who got into much more than a simple farm or a trade.  Again a film about Scotland and those who call it home and grittiness.  There’s something about the history and legends that have come out of that land that are appealing.

Let’s leave Scotland for a bit and go on to a movie that, while decidedly English was actually filmed in Scotland. For this movie, we’re going to throw accuracy out the window, allow props and costumes that are so far from the reality of the times that they may as well be jeans and wristwatches. We’re delving now into a myth that makes up so much of the medieval English psyche that it can’t be Ignored. And a group of film makers who spent a great deal of time and energy researching this myth, so much so that when they make light of it, they get everything right. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an absolute must for any medievalist.


Even if you’re not a Python fan or just don’t get that British humor, you owe it to yourself to see this film if you’re at all interested in Arthurian myth. The foundations of English, Welsh and French world views can all be dug out from this script.

The Pythons have gotten everything right in this. A perilous quest, inspired by god, involving fools who must mature and live through countless otherworldly tests and threats. Finally our heroes acquire the ultimate quest object, the Holy Grail, only to have it snatched away from them again in the end. The grail is timeless, and not likely to be available to mere mortals for any length of time.

The Holy Grail makes lampooning these cornerstones of the mythical universe seem effortless, when in fact if you’ve read extensively on the subject, you’ll find they’ve incorporated every major element of Arthurian myth into their tale and many minor ones as well. They’ve done it so well that the unaware public has no idea they’ve just received an extensive education in Arthurian myth.  Plus you get to see a young man dressed as an old woman beating a cat against the side of a wattle and daub hut. Now that is film making.

There are many other films that deal with the medieval subject, many of which are pure Hollywood drivel which may be fun for a night out or a night on the couch but don’t do much to satisfy my need for a wonderfully accurate movie. A few others that I will mention in brief:

The Name of the Rose: Umberto Eco strikes again, this time with the movie created from his novel of the same name. Here we have an accurate microcosm of the medieval world recreated for us. According to Mr. Slater, he lost his virginity on film in this move. Worth the watch for everything but that but more worth the read.

The Kingdom of Heaven : Ah, the crusades. Love them or hate them, they’ll always be the subject of films. This movie may not be a great movie in its own right, they’ve gotten the costumes spot on, as well as the locations. They’ve also done a half-decent job of showing the Muslim populations of the middle east at that time as not savages but as an educated (far better than their western counterparts) people who did much to advance western science. Saladin is portrayed not as an evil villain, but as a leader in both the military and social sense. In this, Kingdom of Heaven does a good job.

Excalibur: What can I say about this film. Accurate? Absolutely not. Epic? Hell Yeah. It’s the first (and hopefully the last) time I’ve ever watched a sex scene where at least one of the   participants is in full armor. For all it’s faults however, it is a great retelling of the Arthurian myth. It’s got the grand scale that I suspect many a medieval mind felt when reading the works on  Arthur in their own time and for this alone is worth watching.  Add to that about seven hundred pounds of aluminum armor, epic battles, the best played Merlin ever and Captain Picard.  Now you’ve got one hell of a mess but it’s pretty to watch and fun.

Coupled with the books I’ve recommended in an earlier article, these items are sure to get you into the proper mindset for such enjoyable tasks as being repressed, getting stoop backed hoeing crops or longing for the day when you can get bled before you die of the plague.

[tags]medieval, movies, film, arthurian myth, python, monty, excaliber, braveheart, rob roy[/tags]

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