By Richard Utz
Have we reached a point where “medieval” has become a brand in itself?
In a few days, on September 9, 2022, a new movie will be released. It will be the most expensive Czech movie ever made, and it will include a cast of international stars, among them American Ben Foster, Australian Sophie Lowe, Britain’s Michael Caine, and Germany’s Til Schweiger, clearly aiming to attract a worldwide audience. The movie’s trailers and other PR materials proudly proclaim the film’s authenticity, its being “inspired by true events,” based on the story of “one of the most fearless warriors in history.” One of the trailers’ narrating voice speaks of two trinities: “power, tyranny, violence,” and Europe being engulfed in “war, plague, and famine.”
The trailers’ legends, interspersed among scenes of grimdark slaughter and battle, promise a superhero: “One man – will command the fate of an Empire,” and that hero is allowed to self-characterize by saying a) “we don’t kidnap women” (think: chivalry), and b) “If you choose to fight, you may die, but for your cause, and that is a good death” (think: heroism and altruistic warrior values). One of the trailers ends by touching on an audience’s expected desire to be on the side of progress and the people, against oppressive and unjust premodern rulership, stating: “Kings may be chosen by God, but they still make the mistakes of men.” One of the movie posters adds another trinity of terms: “For honor, for justice, for freedom.” Does anyone else hear Mel Gibson let go a Braveheart-rending scream for (Scottish) “Freedom”?
I will not here attempt to do the painstaking work of traditional historians and focus on the details of the movie’s plot and their relationship to historical reality. The film is based on the biography of the legendary Hussite commander Jan Žižka, a successful military leader in 14th-century Bohemia, who is said never to have lost a battle. His military genius and resistance against overwhelming enemy forces led multiple Czechoslovak military units to proudly carry his name during both World Wars, and his equestrian statue looks out over the Czech capital Prague from the top of Vítkov Hill. Among director Petr Jákl’s declared objectives with the movie is to promote the history of his country, the Czech Republic, hence the selection of one of the most widely known Czech national heroes as the protagonist. Another ingredient in the Medieval recipe: Jákl is a former stuntman and actor who appeared in the Prague-shot Hollywood movie Alien vs. Predator.
If we review the totality of terms used to advertise this movie, and if we add to this the images chosen to attract audiences on posters (raised swords, a castle under siege, flaming arrows raining onto a huge battle, and a super-manly protagonist who has lost an eye in combat), we understand why the director and producers thought it would be smart to go with a minimalist title for the movie, “Medieval.” After all, the story has all the ingredients most members of a global audience will expect from any cultural artifact supposed to depict life in medieval central Europe c. 700 years ago. Thus, while the movie is historically situated in what today is the Czech Republic and revolves around events happening in 1402, this historical specificity – and any concomitant claim to historical authenticity – seems less important than its fit within the general horizon of expectations that current audiences have of what we call the Middle Ages.
If the movie makers had named the movie after its Czech hero, Jan Žižka, as did the 1956 Czechoslovak precursor movie directed by Otokar Vavra, global audiences might not watch (or dare pronounce the title). After hundreds and hundreds of medieval-themed movies since the early twentieth century, this one openly acknowledges that we no longer need to call a movie by a specific protagonist (Alexander Nevsky, Joan of Arc), a specific event (Conquest: 1453, The Last Duel, The Black Death), or a fiction or legend (Die Nibelungen, Ivanhoe, King Arthur). We have reached a point when, after sampling enough medievalist media, simply calling a movie “Medieval” will be enough to conjure up the usual suspects among the features that will make any cultural production look recognizably connected with the one-thousand-year period we have been sandwiching between Classical Antiquity and the alleged rebirth of that Classical Antiquity during the Renaissance.
Therefore, I will claim here and now that, with the advent of the 2022 movie “Medieval,” the term has finally and officially become a brand name, similar to Google, which is used by millions of people worldwide as a generic term for all search machines, and even as a verb, to describe the act of searching the internet; or Kleenex, which is a widely used generic term in several countries for disposable tissues. When we hear or read “Medieval” or even a close enough variant spelling such as MediEvil (the action-adventure hack and slash video game), this elicits a host of immediate associations, including the ones with which the movie Medieval advertises itself. Inversely, even when a (nonhistorical) fantasy narrative displays enough brand features, such as swords, knights, castles, and jousts, it will automatically be categorized as “medieval.”
This brand expectation and recognition are why George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series Game of Thrones have been identified by their audiences as taking place in the medieval world of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE. Martin has declared that the fictional societies he creates are grounded in history and intended as a corrective against the “Disneyland Middle Ages” replete with princes, princesses and knights in shining armor. However, unlike history-based or history-adjacent narratives which fictionalize identifiable historical persons, eras, events, and geographies, Game of Thrones does not offer such authenticating anchors. Rather, it displays a self-contained world, with its own cultures, geography, languages and an unmistakably nonhistorical temporality – a place completely “Neo” if you will. Instead of creating traditional kinds of historical authenticity, it displays a simulacrum of the Medieval, neither an original nor a copy of an original, including an adequate number of cultural references to make it belong to and reinforce the brand: Medieval.
We know who created the Google and the Kleenex brands, and we understand the business interests driving their public relations campaigns. But who created the brand referenced and targeted by the makers of the movie, Medieval, and why?
Tom Shippey has opined multiple times at medieval conferences that all we know about the Middle Ages ultimately originated with academic scholars or their antiquarian precursors. While most detailed knowledge about the medieval world certainly originates in some kind of scholarly effort, we have known at least since Walter Scott’s dedicatory epistle prefacing his 1819 novel Ivanhoe to the fictional Reverend Dr Jonas Dryasdust that painstaking research usually excludes “the manners and sentiments which are common to us and to our ancestors, having been handed down unaltered from them to us, or which, arising out of the principles of our common nature, must have existed alike in either state of society.” Scott sheepishly admits here to the kind of presentism that still leads to heated altercations among 21st-century historians, and he points to an important truth: Scholars like the studious Dr. Dryasdust or their 21st-century descendants write mostly for their own peers and in publications inaccessible even to the educated general public, and they claim that only studying the past from a distance yields reliable scientific results.
For all these reasons, only certain versions of some of their work ever trickle down, via education and media, to non-academic readers and viewers, who triage them guided by powerful social forces, namely the very continuities between the medieval past and our contemporary lives Walter Scott mentions.
These continuities are sustained by veritable memory and identity machines like religion (a vast amount of current Catholic dogma originates with Thomas Aquinas), nationalism (most modern European nations trace their origins to the Middle Ages, and nationalism was complicit in establishing medieval studies as a subject at modern universities), language (most current regional and national languages and their metaphors and expressions include a large medieval reservoir), ritual and cultural traditions (carnival, courtesy, chivalry, feasts), sports (martial arts, reenactment), craft (metalwork, fashion, bread making, falconry, weaving), architecture (cathedrals, castles, and a host of other medieval buildings dominate European and Europeanized town and city centers), institutions (universities, banks), names (many of today’s first names, last names, and place names first appear in the Middle Ages), law (think: Magna Charta), and government (constitutional monarchy).
In addition to these and countless other practices and traditions, what has made the brand more flexible than “Renaissance” (backward looking to Classical Antiquity) or “Early Modernity” (forward-looking to our own present) is what Elizabeth Faye has called the Janus-faced quality of medievalism, “always looking back even as it looks forward, anachronistically replaying and revising history even as it proleptically installs a modernity we now recognize.”
The Medieval brand offers an opportunity to look backward and forward at the same time, to experience, on the one hand, joy about having overcome what modern cultures and civilizations tend to view as their childhood illnesses: violence, misogyny, barbarism, religious obscurantism, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, dungeons, torture, dirt, stench, might is right, absence of social mobility and life-saving medication, etc. This joy is based on a basic belief in humanity as perfectible, capable of continuous improvement and progress in a foreseeable future, and that we all have come a long way.
On the other hand, those engaging with the Medieval brand can also feel pleasure about yearning back and imaginatively returning to a less regulated premodern life devoid of materialism, laicism, industrialization, oppressive bureaucracy, government control, restrictions on individual freedom, and various other ‘burdens’ of modern civilization (including technology). This pleasure is grounded in a belief in humanity as profoundly the same or at least similar over extended periods of time; and it includes the nostalgic (sometimes downright reactionary) notion that many things actually may have been better in such an imagined past.
Whenever scholarship and science have tried to amend the brand, as in the mountain of learned essays and books that debunk the ius primae noctis (Right of the Lord’s First Night) as a targeted political invention, the brand swiftly readjusts, as when the movie Braveheart made the Right into the major motivating factor for its hero’s actions. I am already wondering how long it will take for the Medieval brand to absorb the fascinating notion, recently advanced based on genetic evidence, that what we refer to as “Vikings” were not a homogenous group of people, but mixed individuals with ancestry from both Southern Europe and Scandinavia, or even a mix of Sami (Indigenous Scandinavian) and European ancestry. Could this kind of enlightening research prevent another Anders Breivik?
It sure looks like Medieval, the movie, is simply making a public relations virtue out of a long-standing social and cultural tradition. The movie is the brand, and the brand is the movie. That’s all we know, and all we need to know, right?
Richard Utz is professor of medievalism studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is editor of Medievally Speaking, an open-access review journal encouraging critical engagement with the continuing process of inventing the Middle Ages, aka Medievalism.
Top Image: Image © The Avenue or related entities.