By Paul B. Sturtevant
PhD Dissertation, University of Leeds, 2010
Abstract: This thesis examines the understanding of the Middle Ages among the UK public and the impact that popular big-budget films which depict the period have on that understanding. Three films released between 2000 and 2009 are chosen for detailed study, their selection being determined by success at the UK box office as a measure of popularity: Lord of the Rings, Return of the King (Jackson, 2003), Kingdom of Heaven (Scott, 2005) and Beowulf (Zemeckis, 2007).
Ten focus group interviews were conducted with nineteen participants, all between eighteen and twenty-six years of age, none of whom had studied the Middle Ages at GCSE level (age 14-16) or higher. In these groups, participants discussed their knowledge of the Middle Ages, were shown a film, and then discussed what they had seen. Participants were asked open-ended interview questions to encourage them to respond in their own terms and define what was important to them. As a result, topics ranged widely. In preliminary discussions, participants discussed how they understood the period, their academic, experiential and pop-culture sources of knowledge, their definitions of the similar terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ and also their ideas about medieval culture, religion, warfare and crusade. After the films, participants discussed what they had seen usually in the context of what they already knew, sometimes constructing false memories of what they had seen which fit with their previous knowledge. Often they used the language of historical veracity to criticise the film for other related reasons (like poor filmmaking or inappropriate accents). They found support for many of their historical misconceptions in the films, but, rather than accepting all they saw as historical truth, they engaged in a complex critical discourse with what they were shown.
The findings of this thesis have implications for medieval (and medievalism) studies, public history, and for the delivery of history in primary, secondary and higher education.
The Middle Ages are open to interpretation. They have been articulated and rearticulated by academic, political and popular culture since the idea of ‘Middle Ages’ arose in the fifteenth century. Each new configuration reflects and revises what the Middle Ages are understood to have been. The Middle Ages have been regarded as backwards-seeming ancestor or source of passion, beauty and inspiration. They are seen as both opulent and filthy, sage and barbarian, playful and sombre. They are the source of many of Europe’s national histories, identities, myths and legends. They are used as a justification for the present or a warning for the future. They are both our real history and our collective fantasy playground. These articulations of the Middle Ages, whether they are academic or popular, serious or playful, are called ‘medievalism’. A full history of medievalism has yet to be written, if ever one could be.