By Danièle Cybulskie
Yes, I’m talking about the 2001 movie starring the late Heath Ledger. Was it really just a sports movie set in the past? Yes. Was it edited until the plot seems a little less-than-coherent? Yes. But are there things we can love about it? Absolutely.
1. The Politics
If you look closely at The Black Prince’s outfit and the canopy under which he sits, you’ll see both the leopards of England and the fleurs-de-lys of France together. These exemplify the belief that King Edward had the right to rule both England and France itself – the basis of the ongoing Hundred Years’ War. Also, when the Black Prince knights William Thatcher, he chooses to create an “ancient royal” heritage to legitimize him instead of rewarding a commoner for elevating himself above his station. This keeps the social order neatly in place, something the royal family would be very concerned about at this time.
2. The Relationships
Keeping with The Black Prince for another moment, we see him watching a tournament with a date, presumably his wife, Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. The interplay between these two is happy and affectionate, and we have every reason to believe that their actual relationship was, too. The relationships between Thatcher and his friends show one contemporary demonstration of friendship that stands out, as well. If a person, like Thatcher, was placed in the stocks, he would have to rely on his friends to keep him safe from a mob as best they could. Thatcher would have been lucky to have these friends around.
Ok, so this knight’s tale is nothing at all like Chaucer’s, but there are some nerdy Chaucer details that are worth a mention. Chaucer did spend time wandering around France (presumably clothed) on diplomatic missions. It’s also been theorized that he had a gambling problem of some sort, since he was forever asking for money (and even wrote a poem complaining to his purse). Finally, he really did eviscerate a pardoner and a summoner in The Canterbury Tales, since they are written as loathsome right down to their bad hair and skin. Their descriptions are some of the most fun to read.
4. Periphery Details
While the vision for the movie is a modern take on a medieval pastime, there is a lot of good detail to notice, like the layout of the cities or a traveling entertainer telling Bible stories to children outside of Paris. It’s also worth watching the skill with which the horseman playing Count Adhemar jousts, since it’s rare to see jousting these days. Take a look.
5. The Spirit
While there is a lot to criticize about A Knight’s Tale, what I love about it is the spirit they’ve captured. From the chanting and clapping at the opening of the movie, to the statements about old armour starting a new fashion, this movie speaks to the similarities between our time and the past. Not only does it suggest that people from the Middle Ages loved sports and fashion, but it also points to the fact that, rather than everyone accepting the status quo, there were people who believed in moving toward change. They may not have taken William Thatcher’s route, but change-makers did, indeed, exist.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.