Many examples of medievalism appear to look historical, however, more often than not medievalism does not meaningfully teach accurate history, and simply changes into different versions in order to conform to the society that is its audience at modern eras and contexts. It shows more than just an aesthetic background and social system that is much older than the present. Medievalism is a carrier of discourse about the unchanging aspect of human nature and interaction, as well as varying political agendas. Though it is mistakenly viewed as simple time due to a lack of technology and complications that exist in the current world, many medievalist media of this day have their own equivalent of the modern technology- and are a near-perfect mirror to contemporary society and its issues.
In contemporary society, medievalism is a concept often encountered on media forms such as films, books and television. It is utilised as a convention in which aspects of it are changed according to society’s values and emerging political agendas to feed to the mainstream audience (Glencross 117). This is even more prevalent in late 20th and 21st century medievalism, with feminism, social justice and race as very typical topics handled in medievalist media texts such as BBC Merlin, Game of Thrones, The Lord of The Rings and Robin Hood (2010), among many others. Gender, especially feminism and the prominence of strong, independent female characters in a medieval setting is now relatively prevalent. Notable figures include Galadriel from The Lord of The Rings, a female high elf powerful enough to be a keeper of one of the Rings of Power- Nenya, and is a guide and friend to Gandalf, having saved him from his imprisonment at Celebdil (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies). Another is Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, a burly female knight and skilled warrior who was formerly part of King Renly’s Kingsguard and eventually defeats The Hound (Game of Thrones, ‘Garden of Bones’). Galadriel represents a powerful feminine character, while Brienne is a somewhat masculine epitome of physical strength. Both represent a feminist discourse- that power does not rely on aesthetic looks and gender, women can strive in their own ways to show their equal might and authority in a male-dominated medievalist context (Tolmie 146).
Postmodern multiculturalism is also an agenda clearly demonstrated in promoted in such media. In shows and movies with a medieval background there is a rise in actors of different racial origins playing traditional characters that are original or otherwise normally played by Caucasian individuals. BBC Merlin’s Guinevere is unusual compared to other Guinevere characters before her, played by British actress Angel Coulby. While many other Guineveres before her were played by Caucasians, she has a South American, Guyanese background (Merlin). Additionally in Game of Thrones, two originally Caucasian characters from the books, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the King of Qarth and Salladhor Saan, a leading Lysene pirate are both portrayed by black actors (GoT, ‘What is Dead May Never Die’). Though there is a question of whether more racially diverse characters are being cast due to talent or to appeal to a multiracial demographic, the intent is there to present a more multicultural reflection of modern society. Multiculturalism and race is a modern concept if compared to actual Middle English History, and its application onto medievalist media is proves that the creators’ aim to conform this to a 21st century politically liberal notion (Jordan 169).
Other liberal notions are also present in older, 20th century medievalist media, such as The Lion in Winter, a film in 1968 tackling the life of Richard Lionheart. There are obvious homosexual inclinations depicted in the movie, with Richard and his supposed lover Phillip Augustus making a heavy reference towards a past time spent in lovemaking or intimacy in dialogue in one of the scenes (The Lion in Winter). This is an emphasis by the movie makers based on historical concepts of Richard’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality, especially in relations to Phillip, due to Richard’s cold marriage with Berengaria of Navarre and difficulty in her bearing children (Brundage 257). There is also a historical account of Richard supposedly engaging in homosexual acts stated in a confession according to the 12th century chronicle Roger of Hoveden (Roger of Hoveden 356-7). In terms of context, The Lion in Winter’s success and popularity is relatively close to the Stonewall riots that kick-started the LGBT movement in America. It is interesting to note that the depiction of homosexual inclinations in the film may reflect and anticipate a developing liberal political agenda in favour of the LGBT cause.
Concepts such as the strong female in a ‘medieval’ time and even open homosexuality are taboo in real historic context, the Middle Ages. Then, women had limited power and freedom in a patriarchal society and due to the church’s strict control over the populace homosexuality was condemned as sodomy in accordance to religious doctrine.
Medievalism, though in many instances heavily inaccurate in historical detail, continuous to portray a pristine image of human nature and its negative aspects that have not changed through time. The themes of power, lust and cruelty, as well as oppression caused by the rich are often found in medievalist texts. It is a way for contemporary audiences to look upon the unchanging nature of man, consistent throughout history and medievalist texts can serve as a backdrop to this re-examination (Eco 65). Game of Thrones is ripe with these themes, with the main driving force of its narrative being a conquest to seize the Iron throne by several powerful families in Westeros to be the ultimate ruler of the land (GoT). Their attempts at the throne are always accompanied with violence and bloody resolutions, such as the dreadful poisoning of King Joffrey Baratheon by Olena Tyrell in order to protect her granddaughter Margaery and sway the Iron throne to the Tyrells’ favour (GoT, ‘The Lion and The Rose’). This would result in Margaery’s next husband and king being Tommen, whom she could easily manipulate due to his tender age. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is also centred on the theme of power, and its ability to corrupt. The rings of power ultimately changes its owners into dark beings such as the Nazghul and Ringwraiths, who become the vassals of the evil Lord Sauron (The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). In many ways, this is a metaphor for power and its ability to corrupt humans since the beginning of time, turning kings into tyrants and showing that an excess of authority leads to oppression.
Medievalism frequently explores the savage side of human nature; the capacity for cruelty and violence even between family and loved ones, which is most of the time caused by desire and covetousness for power (Kilgour 28). The murder of King Joffrey is a gut-wrenching poisoning that malignantly discolours his body (GoT, ‘The Lion and The Rose’) by his own grandmother-in-law. In The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, Frodo, due to his fixation on the ring, nearly kills his best friend Sam in Osgiliath when he had mistakenly assumed Sam wanted to take the ring, holding a sword at his throat (The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers). Violence and aggression towards close family and friends caused by power is a perennial human condition in history. King Henry VIII had one of his wives, Anne Boleyn, executed and Mary, Queen of Scots also conspired to assassinate her cousin, Queen Elizabeth for power, either for usurpation or succession. Medievalist texts mirror this timeless element of human nature, which does not change no matter the time period, and explores it through a medievalist setting for modern audiences to learn and appreciate.
There are also other elements explored and used in a medievalist setting to a modern audience, which is a feeling of nostalgia towards the ‘medieval’ past and its values. Contemporary audiences search and reminisce for a ‘simpler time’ and stronger principles in a medievalist society that are perceived to be long gone (Finke and Schichtman, 296). However, these values, which can include chivalry, bravery, loyalty and monarchy, as well as a non-industrial, basic way of life are highly eschewed and inaccurate (Eco 64). This is mainly due to a misconception of the Middle Ages that is presented in medievalist media, with usually has little to no actual historical detail. Their main purpose is to simply entertain, aesthetically appeal and sometimes serve as a platform for political themes.
This was the case with the movie Braveheart, which had an alarming number of inaccuracies to the original Scottish history. William Wallace was born of Scottish aristocracy, in contrast the William character in the film that was set in an impoverished background as well as the wardrobe usage of kilts, which weren’t part of common male clothing until around four hundred years after Wallace’s time (Braveheart). These two are among many other historical errors. Furthermore, Braveheart’s medievalism was merely a tool to endorse the political agenda, serving to give a sense of Scottish spirit and culture to push Scotland’s independence referendum in 1995 in a positive direction (Watson, 130). This can explain the film’s popularity, especially in Scotland at the time, despite all its errors and shortcomings. Another factor is that the film had an all-star cast and Mel Gibson was a famous actor, which only boosted its fanbase and exposure.
If Braveheart and other similar medievalist movies were portrayed to be much more accurate to the Middle Ages, they would lose their ability to serve political agendas and plenty of their appeal. The actual Middle Ages was a time ripe with extreme hardships. Plague was a constant threat that could decimate entire populations in a short amount of time and life-threatening diseases were rampant (Scott 12), wars were excruciatingly long. The life expectancy was at approximately fifty years of age, if one lived past twenty five for the common masses (Scott 9). Though in many ways, life was ‘simpler’ in historic medieval times due to a lack of technology and the absence of industrialism, this is replaced by a poor quality of life, especially for those who were not of the upper classes.
In recognition of this, there are now forms of educational media that try to remedy this misunderstanding and misplaced nostalgia, such as shows like BBC Medieval Lives and the famous children’s series, Horrible Histories (D’Arcens 140). These shows delve into remarkable and at times gory detail into life in the Middle Ages and has received a popular response, which shows a curiosity of the modern audience to learn about the period with historical accuracy. Thus, accurate knowledge of the Middle Ages can then be easily available to the public in the media.
While medievalist movies and other media are loosely based on the Middle Ages, plenty of their fictional elements are a mirror to modern society. In this manner, such texts can explore modern discourses with more ease in a medievalist background, due to modern elements having a medievalist or fantasy-like equivalent. In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, there is a mixture, Moon Tea, which parallels modern birth control and abortion, working to prevent or disrupt pregnancies (Martin 190). Through the availability of Moon Tea, certain characters in the series, like Margaery Tyrell and other women, can practice more freedom in their sexual lives, which is empowering to women and very reminiscent of feminist values. There is also the Far-Eye, an advanced telescope that is used to view the stars, when in actuality, the earliest concept of the telescope was not developed until the 17th century (Martin 545). In many instances, the people of Westeros in the series can identify the risks of infection in wounds and take that into consideration when applying medical aid, which was not a modern medical development until the invention of antibiotics in World War Two (Iglesias). Additionally, the series also features the Milk of the poppy, which is their equivalent of a morphine or anaesthetics, which eased pain in general and the suffering of the dying (Game Of Thrones, ‘You Win Or You Die’).
These instances allow plot and character direction to have futuristic capabilities, which then in turn would result with a very modern narrative in its core, despite having a very medievalist aesthetic. Without the Middle Age’s historical restrictions on matters such as women and their sexuality, or even technology and modern medicine by substituting it with magic or mystical herbology, the characters can then lead lives that are more contemporary than from the Middle Ages. Women can be sexually liberal, the life expectancy is increased and more scientific discoveries are possible in a medievalist backdrop.
In many cases, medievalist texts are not at all medieval or true to the Middle Ages. Usually, they serve as a historical-style aesthetic that can be a backdrop for expressing a variety of contemporary elements such as political agendas and modern idealisms, utilising fantasy-like characteristics to imitate modern technology, resulting in a modern narrative discourse. In 21st century medievalist media, feminism and race seem to be some of the most prominent features, while in some 20th century works political agenda is more commonly used. Additionally, nearly every medievalist work explores the perennial human condition, especially how human nature always has the capacity for violence and an insatiable hunger for power that enables it, causing grief and destruction.
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-The Musing Mestiza, 3rd Year