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Our Dirty Middle Ages

So, this is the first blog post of the society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages. With that said, though I am the founder and (current) organizer of the society, I do not want to be the sole provider of content for this. As such, I’ve asked (and will continue to ask) many of the charter members to contribute their own posts as time goes along, because this little project we’re undertaking is nothing if not communal.

Tomorrow I am set to give a brief lecture introducing Lancelot Du Lac at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the University of York. I watched the film again last night (and finished it this morning) and had a few thoughts. I’ll likely be spending the remainder of the day coalescing these thoughts into something coherent and mildly entertaining.

First: I am not a very good ‘film buff’– I like the ‘hollywood style’ (if such a thing can be said to exist). This film bucks ‘hollywood’ by using strange camera angles, amateur actors and, for me the most jarring thing, draining all the emotion out of the dialogue such that everything is delivered at an even deadpan. I’m not sure if this is a commentary by the director on the Middle Ages or just part of his greater style– having not seen any of Robert Bresson’s other films I can’t comment (though some of the literature I’ve read on the film seems to be divided on that question).

The film is often noted for its gritty, dark, and pessimistic style.  While some films prior to this one (The War Lord, The Vikings and even El Cid spring to mind) used a grittier, darker aesthetic, this one took the depiction of the Middle Ages into a whole new realm of fountains of blood. And while those other films also use grit and darkness, they did so while depciting ‘the Dark Ages’– whereas this story feels either High or Late medieval. That said, to what degree the average viewer would differentiate between the Dark Ages and the Late Middle Ages is something to be explored. Perhaps this film is notable as a first attempt to ‘darken’ the later-medieval Arthurian cycle.

Furthermore, Lancelot du Lac doesn’t follow the usual ‘hollywood structure’– there is no redemption, no narrative arc. It feels less like a Shakespearean tragedy and much more like an absurdist play like Waiting for Godot— though this may be the lack of emotion talking. But for the grit and blood, it seems that this has become our stock way of indicating historical realism; if it’s nasty, then it must be realistic. This has been taken to such extremes that, in a film about the Viking discovery of America seen at the Leeds Film Festival two years ago, Severed Ways, a Viking was depicted defacating in the woods and being raped on screen.

Now I am not advocating in a ‘kids, get off of my lawn’ sort of way for a return to the Camelotesque brightness and cheeriness which is being explicitly countered by Lancelot du Lac. But the dirty, bloody, even shitty Middle Ages has become so pervasive that the research I have been doing for my PhD indicates that mud, blood and disease have become, to the public, icons of the Middle Ages in a way that it does not seem to be for the Romans, the Early Moderns or the Victorians. The Middle Ages has become a gravity well of awful stuff (or offal)– non-medieval things which are a similar sort of awful sometimes get mis-recognized as ‘medieval’. My favourite amongst these (sort of) is torture– torture is associated with the Middle Ages, yet it was only during the Early Modern period, when people began to get a real grip on anatomy (pun intended) that torture turned into an art– or worse, a science (thinking of Count Rugen from The Princess Bride here).

Again, I reiterate, I am not here to complain about the misapplication of ‘medieval’ in our world, since that applies the (by me, much hated) ‘historical accuracy’ model of thinking about medievalisms to the whole world. But with that said, the dirtying of the Middle Ages is an interesting phenomenon– one to which Lancelot du Lac has certainly contributed.

~Paul

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