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Saturday Morning Medieval: Medievalisms and Children’s Television Programming

This paper was presented on May 11, 2012 at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan for the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages 10:00 am panel entitled Growing Up with the Middle Ages: The Influences upon Children’s Ideas about the Medieval World.

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This paper could alternately be called medieval puns, or how many ways can you replace the word night with knight.
. . .

In the episode of Spongebob Squarepants, 1999 -, entitled “Dear Vikings,” Mr. Krabs has introduced new Viking size drinks to the Krusty Krab. If you buy a Viking size, you get to wear the cardboard Viking helmet Mr. Krabs found in his attic. This prompts Spongebob to ask “What’s a Viking?” Krabs send Spongebob to know-it-all Squidward, who summarily dismisses Spongebob with his fake description:

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“The Vikings were a race of scholars and scientists who lived even before Mr. Krabs was born. They are believed to have discovered ketchup, and enjoy dressing up their pets as chunks of masonry on the weekends. Their favourite movies are in black and white, and grown Vikings are known to collect socks, which they display and trade at monthly conventions called Sockengarten.” When Spongebob still has questions Squidward prompts him to write to the Vikings. When they get his letter, the Vikings descend on the Krusty Krab to enlighten Spongebob.

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The Vikings tell Spongebob that Vikings like to redecorate, which they demonstrate by destroying things. They say that they also like to appropriate, which they demonstrate by throwing the Krusty Krab cash register on to their ship. Finally, Vikings apparently also like to liberate, which they demonstrate by kidnapping Spongebob and Squidward. Spongebob responds with “I can’t believe how much I’m learning.” The episode goes on to introduce every Viking as Olaf, except the leader, who is Gordon.

This episode uses the language of education to entertain. It is complete with violence, slapstick and bathroom humour, but it also uses the ubiquitous semiotic system for Vikings, cartoon or otherwise, including dragon ship, beards, axes, rough clothing and the horned Wagnerian helmet.[i] But most interestingly, having the description of Vikings come from supposed Vikings themselves, especially when compared to Squidward’s clearly made-up description, makes the depiction seem authoritative.

Cartoons may be (mostly) intended for children, but they are created by adults.[ii] When analyzing the text the analyzer must ask is this cartoon intended to entertain or to educate, or what balance is it striking between the two? What is it adults wish to impart to children? Education doesn’t just mean imparting values and teaching lessons, it can also mean adults sharing with children their conception of childhood, or at least child appropriate entertainment.

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For example, take the animated cartoon Animaniacs, 1993-1998. This is clearly meant to entertain children, but it is also a tribute to earlier Warner Bros. cartoons – an embodiment of the wish of adults for children to have the same experience and relationship with cartoons that they had. You can market Animaniacs to adults and children because nostalgia is one of its key elements and because slapstick has universal appeal. When marketing an adult friendly version of childhood, it helps to pull forward tales that caught adult imagination when they were children. This is part of the appeal of the romantic and legendary interpretation of the Middle Ages into the twenty first century.

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Adults will recognize the ‘Middle Ages’ at a glance. And through repetition of imagery, actions and characters, as well as through parental recognition, children come to that same recognition. Serialized animated cartoons shown on American television share certain signifiers of the European Middle Ages with other mediums. Each individual text uses the signifiers for different purposes, depending on the relationship between the institution producing it, the text and the audience.[iii] However, the signifiers that are used on American television seem to be a rather homogenous whole.[iv] Part of the richness of the cartoons that depict the Middle Ages, or that use these signifiers, is that without having to spend time on explanation, an animator can manipulate one symbol, like a castle, or action, like having characters joust, and in that one element imply a wealth of cultural precedent. The medieval history implicated in the cartoons Americans watch is so different from scholars understanding of the Middle Ages because the history of the interpretation of the Middle Ages is more important than medieval history itself. To create a world that is rich for children, either rich with education or with entertainment, producers of animated cartoons readily mix literature, fantasy and medieval history, drawing upon and manipulating a folk understanding of a mythical world called ‘the European Middle Ages.’

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Reception of an animated Middle Ages

Over the last sixty years North American society has realized, after much debate, it is hard to define how much cartoons influence the thoughts and behaviour of children. A question like ‘how much do television cartoons shape children’s conception of the medieval?’ must ultimately be open-ended. In the media, the image from television cartoons competes and is complemented with that from video games, live action television, film and books.

But the ability of television to impact or mirror societal values, to sell products or to educate has already been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Producers aiming television at a younger viewing audience learned quickly that cartoons were an efficient means of accessing that audience, as live action series aimed at children did poorly in re-runs and were often ultimately less cost effective.[v] Cartoons consistently brought in ratings for the big network. The network competition for the Saturday Morning Cartoon viewers, not to mention the cultural weight of the phrase Saturday morning cartoons even in an age of ubiquitous access to any kind of television, sheds light on the power of the cartoon with young viewers.[vi] For the television generation animation became “the visual language by which it was assumed children were addressed. The television generation only essentially understood ‘animation’ as ‘the cartoon’ as it had been produced for children and for the children’s demographic.”[vii] Even in the last few decades, with the proliferation of cartoons decidedly not aimed at children, those programs are still more popular amongst younger audiences than live action programs also aimed at adults. Successful adult cartoons create meaning by perverting what we would expect to see in a cartoon aimed at children and playing on the public’s understanding of the cartoon genre.[viii]

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That kind of humour is mirrored in Spongebob Squarepants when they pervert an adult medium for communicating with children, education, and use it for entertainment.

So while we can’t determine the exact nature of the impact of cartoons, we can agree that it is part of what forms children’s understandings of the world they live in. It was the importance of cartoons in my life, and even in my choice to study the Middle Ages, that led me to this topic. And I will say that before I started university, my understanding of the Middle Ages looked mostly like these cartoons.


What constitutes the corpus of cartoons depicting the European Middle Ages? The Middle Ages itself is a time period spanning a thousand years and an entire continent. In addition, theatrical cartoons of the 1930s and 40s became a staple of television programming from the beginning.[ix] In 1949 the very first made for television cartoon was Crusader Rabbit.[x]

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Since these very first cartoons, medieval or medieval-esque themes have captured the imaginations of children, animators and cartoon producers. So we are looking at a large corpus of cartoons from at least the last seventy years. In the last few decades, the proliferation of channels and ways to watch serialized television cartoons has resulted in an even greater body of work.

So do we count every instance of when someone is referred to as a King, a Prince or a Princess as a medievalism? In my sample I have included any cartoon which portrays a world that is both feudal and chivalric. Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh in their introduction to Race Class, and Gender in ‘Medieval’ Cinema note that early texts “that labelled the European Middle ages as Feudal, Christian, and chivalric” have been discredited in favour of histories that are more specific to geographic localities and time periods.[xi] Producers and directors of newer media are not unaware of this, but the short hand that has been developed is based on that earlier interpretation, one still taught in many elementary schools as a basis upon which students or teachers can build on if they so choose. So anything that is openly feudal or chivalric, with a system of knights, compounds our understanding or at least portrayal of the Middle Ages.

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And, as Chuckie says in Rugrats, 1991-2004, episode Faire Play, set at a Medieval Faire, “if they got castles and horsies and knights then they probably got dragons too.” We see the Middle Ages through the lens of all the intervening centuries, and all the literature, art and folk tales that have cropped up in the mean time. The semiotic system that includes the knight must include the dragon, even though the savvy kid is likely to know that that is fantasy or literature. Unless it was obviously referencing the Asian tradition, like American Dragon: Jake Long, 2005-2007, if the cartoon includes a dragon I include it in the list of ‘medieval’ cartoons. To create this list I started with the 2009 edition of The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons, by Jeff Lunberg, which details all the animated cartoons shown on American television stations, including imports from other countries. I looked for cartoons that had a medievalesque setting. Next I went through and tried to pinpoint ones that may have had a ‘medieval’ episode. The sample was limited to depictions of the European Middle Ages. This then raised the question of what to do with depictions of the Middle Eastern Middle Ages because of the obvious overlap with the European Middle Ages. While I could still be swayed either way, I decided not to include those depictions. So while I would include the episode of Disney’s Aladdin, 1994-1995, Dune Quixote, when Aladdin has been convinced that he is a knight that has to slay a dragon, I would not include the whole series.

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The result for depictions of the universal Middle Ages is a semiotic system that represents a general ‘medieval’ period, with kings, knights, serfs, damsels, princesses, castles, chivalry, etc., etc., incorporating specific legendary and literary characters, and a separate semiotic system for ‘Vikings’ (never Norse), with few instances of appearances by legendary figures.

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No medievalist would divide the whole continent and thousand year period into two groups of people, but a cartoon that includes overt and recognizable medievalisms is very rarely trying to teach us about medieval history.

Here is an instance of the problem with the definition of animated ‘medieval’ cartoons. A few cartoons that are trying to actually show children what the European Middle Ages were really like include educational shows like Time Warp Trio, 2005-2006, TheTime Squad, 2001-2003, Histeria, 1998-2000, or Horrible Histories, 2001-2002. But again, historical education is very rarely the goal of the animated cartoon. Often, they manipulate the images in different ways to create different effects or rich settings, replete with their own built in cultural weight. Take the example of “Knighty Knight Bugs,” the 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon.

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Bugs must go to the castle of the Black Knight to bring back the singing sword for the King and the Knights of the Round Table. The cartoon’s use of knights, kings, dragons, shields, castles, armour and a sword reinvents a medieval tale using signifiers that are already familiar to its audience. It is also referring to a story that its audience would understand as medieval, that of King Arthur and the Round Table. Even if the audience wasn’t aware that the origins of the tale are medieval, most audience would recognize the setting of those stories as ‘medieval.’ In fact the tradition surrounding the interpretation of King Arthur and his Knights informs much of the semiotic system. But then what about Disney’sAdventures of the Gummi Bears, 1985-1991?

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It also uses knights, kings, dragons, shields, castles, armour and a squire, classic signifiers of the medieval, to create an entirely fantasy world where teddy bear like creatures use their ingenuity, teamwork and magic to help good humans and battle bad ones. The imagery and language used in the two different cartoons is extremely similar. The cartoon’s indebtedness to the media’s interpretations of the Middle Ages is clear. It is hard to count the Bugs Bunny cartoon and not count the Gummi Bears just because it doesn’t purport to represent a real Middle Ages, or a tale from the Middle Ages, because the Bugs Bunny one doesn’t really either. The signifiers are saying these events, while we have made them up, could have been long ago and far away in a world not entirely unlike our own. Ok, so we’ll count Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, but what about He-Man: Mastersof the Universe, 1983-1985, and She-Ra:Princess of Power, 1985?

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At first my instinct told me yes, as did the internet, who when you ask it what are the best medieval cartoons, gives you the top ten medieval/fantasy cartoons. And yet, the grotesque villains, the space age technology, the brightly coloured fantasy worlds, the eighties hair cuts and sexualized cartoon characters suggest nothing particularly medieval. But if we compare He-Man to “Knighty Knight Bugs” there are surprising similarities.

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Michael N. Salda, author of the article “Northern Lite: A Brief History of Animated Vikings,” notes that the singing sword in the Bugs Bunny cartoon is derivative of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, about a displaced Nordic prince who arrives at King Arthur’s court and the sword that is only awakened by its true master.[xii] In this case Bugs Bunny is the sword’s master. He-Man is indebted to the same tradition that Prince Valiant and MerryMelodies are drawing on when he draws power from his sword to become He-Man. He-Man’s sword is given to him by the mysterious sorceress of Castle Grayskull, calling up images of the Lady of the Lake and a sword symbolizing someone’s right to rule. He-Man also uses a version of castles, kings, armour and sorcerers. Most medievalists would agree that He-Man makes frequent and regular use of medievalisms, but does it count as a ‘medieval’ cartoon? This is the heart of a debate on neo-medievalisms that is unlikely to be resolved here. From a modernist perspective, I don’t think the creators set out to make something self-referentially medieval, they just drew on adventure stories that appeal to children. From a post-modernist perspective, is it perceived as medieval? All three cartoons draw on a semiotic system that represents the Middle Ages and all three cartoons are contributing to that system. He-Man contributes to our understanding of castles, kings, kingdoms, chivalry and powerful swords, all signifiers that have been used to mean Middle Ages for the last seventy years. So I have included it in my lists of medieval cartoons, but to make my arguments stronger in this paper I use examples that are more evidently and self-referentially medieval.

The animated Middle Ages

So according to this list, what does the European Middle Ages look like?

It’s very muddled. But all we have to do is look at the conference program to see that the signifiers of the medieval have become the signifiers of fantasy, not least of all thanks to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and the ease with which ‘questing’ lends itself to the narrative style of role playing, table top and video games.

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Cartoons do nothing to ease the confusion. Deriving their settings from the historical, literary and fantastic Middle Ages that have come before it, animated cartoons often intentionally, and for different purposes, confuse history, literature and fantasy. Take for instance the episode of TeenageMutant Ninja Turtles, 1987-1996, called “Shredder’s New Sword.”

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The Turtles are in England visiting a museum. In the museum they see paintings referring to the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The setting of a museum, implying historical authority, would seemingly confuse the legend with history, but they explain in the context of the cartoon that King Arthur was just a story. Michelangelo exclaims: “You mean none of these knight dudes were real? Total bummer!.” Yet later, Shredder goes in search of the ‘real’ Excalibur, taking it from the ‘real’ graves of Arthur and Gwenevere. Shredder’s use of the sword causes the Middle Ages to be brought into the present. Leonardo says “people seemingly from medieval times have started to appear.” The drama of finding out that a legend is real (in the context of the internal reality of the television show) dictates the actions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the reaction of the audience to the legend become reality. When Arthur is brought to the present, so is his castle and court. The Turtles meet outside of Arthur’s castle, put on knights’ helmets and participate in a tournament with Shredder, Rocksteady and Bebob, complete with colourful tents and jousting equipment. Compare this image to others depicting the Middle Ages. When Leonardo calls what we see on screen ‘medieval’ he is lending authority to this interpretation of the Middle Ages. This authority is corroborated by the repetition of these signifiers in other cartoons and other media. In this episode legend and literature (King Arthur) is blending with history (the Middle Ages) in a world that accepts fantasy (magic swords and dragons) as a given element of the Middle Ages. It doesn’t matter that the whole setting of the show is fantasy (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), because in the internal reality of the show even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles acknowledge that this kind of fantasy is particular to the Middle Ages.

Likewise, in Peabody’s Improbable Histories, 1959-1964, Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman use the Wayback Machine to travel through history.

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In the course of their travels they visit Marco Polo, Richard the Lionhearted and Leif Ericson, but they also visit King Arthur and Robin Hood. Yes, it is possible that King Arthur and Robin Hood both had real origins, but Peabody and Sherman are definitely visiting the legends, which is confusing when we imagine that he is only visiting historical figures. Robin Hood is more like the Sir Walter Scott Robin Hood than any likely candidates for the real Robin Hood. The line between literature, legend and history is blurred.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman are not alone. Approximately 75% of the cartoons that have a recognizably medieval theme depict or reinvent aspects of the King Arthur or Robin Hood legends. This includes series where the only part of the legend left are some of the names and a ‘feudal code,’ like Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, 1995-1996. This shows indebtedness to, and fascination with, these particular tales increases our sense of the Middle Ages as a legendary time. It seems also that depictions of these tales are self perpetuating. The more times King Arthur is portrayed, the more is implied by the reinterpretation of the legend. For instance, the series Blazing Dragons, 1996-1998, is clever because King Allfire and his knights of the square table are all dragons that must defend the kingdom from evil humans. The more we understand cartoons to be for children, the funnier it is when they are perverted for adults. Likewise, the fact that there are hundreds of classic portrayals of King Arthur and his Knights means that much of the humour of Blazing Dragons comes from the perversion of those classic portrayals. And yet, by implication, the series assumes that the signifiers are well known and ingrained in their audience. The pervasiveness of these tales, which overlap with literature, relates back to the idea that children are being brought to know the tales their parents enjoyed in ways adults will think are enjoyable for them. The first King Arthur cartoons would remind adults of the books they had read, and direct reference to this literature is made in the opening of Crusader Rabbit and in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Knight Mare Hare,” 1955. Newer cartoons relate to the literature and to the earlier cartoons.

Similar signifiers, like castles at the end of winding roads, suits of armour and dragons serve different functions in cartoons depending on the intention of the cartoon or the relationship between the cartoon and the audience. For instance, we can look at the way that the Scooby Doo cartoons, over the years, have used the same symbols to accomplish different things.

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The very first Scooby Doo Where are You?, 1969 – 1973, was called “What a Night for a Knight.” When a suit of armour goes missing from the museum the gang learns the legend of the Black Knight, who comes to life when the moon is full. The gang has a long chase scene with a black suit of armour with the red plumage on the top. The medieval here imparts gothic creepiness, and the hanging of shields and banners in the ‘medieval wing’ of the museum gives the legend a sense of history. In this first Scooby Doo series there is always some sort of internal logic used to explain how these American kids stumble upon this medieval imagery. The medieval imparts creepiness but also roots the legends in believability, so we see how the gang might believe there really was such a ghost.

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Fast forward to the Scooby Doo Show, 1976-1978. In the episode “Scared a lot in Camelot” the gang visits Shaggy’s uncle, who has brought the Camelot castle stone by stone back from England. So, there is a rational explanation for a castle in the United States, and Velma lends authority to this as an ‘accurate’ depiction of Camelot, calling it a “famous medieval court,” and saying that the inside “looks a lot like Camelot.” The villains dress themselves up as the Black Knight and Merlin. In this series they draw more freely on the same legend (both series make use of the Black Knight). The intent of the medievalisms is still creepiness and rooting the monster in a recognizable legend but the intensity has been increased.

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Skip ahead to the Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo shorts, 1980 – 1982. In “Sir Scooby and the Black Knight,” no longer looking for a mystery, Shaggy and Scooby stumble on the medieval castle that they mistake for their hotel. The Black Knight appears again, but they mistake him for the hotel manager. In this edition of Scooby Doo it really is the Black Knight and spooky things do actually exist. So instead of grounding it in reality, in this case the medieval signifiers help establish a realm where magic may exist. But the images of the castle have not changed much. Likewise, in the episode “Excalibur Scooby” the castle is back, but this time we have the real Merlin, who needs a dog to complete his spell to get Excalibur back. Merlin may be wearing a different colour, but he looks similar to his earlier incarnation.
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TheNew Scooby and Scrappy Doo show, 1983 – 1984, has an episode entitled “Wizards and Warlocks.” This time there is no real danger, except that the same imagery is now linked to a gaming world that Scrappy is a part of, supposedly a tribute to Dungeons and Dragons. The show is reflecting how the medieval imagery is used in the world outside of television, so Merlin and the castle mean the world of fantasy gaming, even though the imagery has not changed.

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In the 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, 1985, “Scoobra Kadoobra,” the same imagery is used again, but this time for an entirely fantasy world. The villain is the ‘Dark Ages Warlock’ Maldar the Malevolent, who is one of the fantasy creatures that Scooby, Scrappy, Shaggy and Dahpne have to catch. There is not even attempt to root the imagery in the real world, as there was in the early shows when they offered the explanation that they traveled to Europe or that the castle was brought over.

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In What’s New Scooby Doo?, 2002 – 2005, in the episode “Large Dragon at Large” we have the same imagery again, but this time it is at a medieval faire. Velma, our source of authority, tells us that “the Glasburgh renaissance fair is the only fair held at a real medieval castle, it’s totally authentic.” This is a ridiculous statement to medievalists, and also to the animators, who juxtapose this statement with a ‘Chaucer’s Churros’ wagon. There is a tongue in cheek jibe here at our current fascination with the concept of ‘authenticity.’ The world of medieval interpretation offers its own setting for mystery. The images, however, are still similar, but there is a self-reflexivity to their use not seen in the earlier series.

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The gang returns to a medieval faire in Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated, 2010 – , for “The Grasp of the Gnome.” In one of the cleverest appropriations of medieval imagery, someone is taking out people who have gone to the medieval fair dressed as pirates, instead of knights or damsels, because they are taking away from the historical accuracy of the fair. From my point of view it was a hilarious way to re-appropriate the medieval shorthand that had been used in Scooby Doo cartoons over the last fifty plus years.

I would hesitate to read the cartoons linearly, seeing development of an increasing sophistication in cartoon depictions of the Middle Ages over seventy years, because arguably the Improbable Histories are just as self-referential and self-deprecating as the last example of a Scooby Doo episode. What cartoons do do is represent aspects of the time in which they are produced. And as time progresses each cartoon has more animated precedents to draw upon. With the proliferation of television, and now internet channels, what we have are endless options to draw on, and a proliferation of ways to use the medieval imagery.[xiii]

This was a very general overview of a very large corpus. Much more can be done by looking specifically at many of the texts mentioned here. Modern audiences enjoy lists, so I hope to finish this one to the best of my ability and post it on my blog and then more widely on the internet where it can be added to or subtracted to as the collective will sees fit. Many things can be learned by combining these cartoons in different ways and by making more specific comparisons. Likewise, I have looked at cartoons shown in the United States. It could be interesting to compare this with what has been seen in other countries, or continents to see if there are any differences. Comparisons of the images between the countries that are producing the cartoons could also be very fruitful.

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Animated cartoons use assumptions about the Middle Ages, or conventions of the interpretations of the Middle Ages to generate meaning in several different ways. A whole other paper could be written on the way they have been used to construct or deconstruct images of gender. That the shorthand for the Middle Ages was developed using literature, fantasy and folk tales as well as events and artifacts from medieval history means that the signifiers of the Middle Ages are particularly useful in generating literature, fantasy and loveable cartoon scenarios.

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This Fall, 2012, the Cartoon Network is producing Dragons, a series based on the popular Dreamworks animated film How to Train your Dragon, 2010, showing the ongoing legacy of the ‘medieval’ cartoon on American channels.

What is definitely being passed on on American children’s television is a love of the Middle Ages, and frankly the more that it is mixed with fantasy the more this seems to be true. And I believe, as it did in my case, cartoons are going to continue to have a role in shaping a base or folk understanding of what the Middle Ages were.

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[i] Michael N. Salda, “Northern Lite: A Brief History of Animated Vikings”, in The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, ed. by Kevin J. Harty (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011) 180.
[ii] David Buckingham, “Introduction: The Child and the Screen”, in Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 6.
[iii] Buckingham 11.
[iv] Salda 191.
[v] Paul Wells, “‘Tell me about Your Id, When You Was a Kid, Yah!’: Animation and Children’s Television Culture” in Small Screens: Television for Children. ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 65.
[vi] Jeff Lenburg, The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. Third Edition (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009) 11-12.
[vii] Wells 67.
[viii] Helen Nixon, “South Park: Not in Front of the Children” in Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 96.
[ix] Lenburg 8.
[x] Lenburg 9.
[xi] Tison Pugh and Lynn T. Ramey, “Introduction: Filming the “Other” Middle Ages”, in Race, Class, and Gender in “Medieval” Cinema. 1-14. Ed. by Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 2.
[xii] Salda 180.
[xiii] Julian Sefton-Green, “Cementing the Virtual Relationship: Children’s TV Goes Online”, in Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 185.


Big Cartoon Database.

Bromley, Helen. “Pandora’s Box or the Box of Delights? Children’s Television and the Power of Story”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 208-226. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Buckingham, David. “Introduction: The Child and the Screen”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 1-14. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Buckingham, David. “Child-centred Television? Teletubbies and the Educational Imperative.” In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 38-60. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Elliott, B.R.. “8. Guides to the Medieval Worlds”. In Remaking the Middle Ages. 192-205. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2011.

Griffiths, Merris. “Pink Worlds and Blue Worlds: A Portrait of Intimate Polarity”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 159-184. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Haydock, Nickolas. Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008.

Internet Movie Database.

Lenburg, Jeff. The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. Third Edition. New York: Checkmark Books, 2009.

Lury, Karen. “A Time and Place for Everything: Children’s Channels”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 15-37. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Nixon, Helen. “South Park: Not in Front of the Children”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 96-119. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Pugh, Tison and Lynn T. Ramey. “Introduction: Filming the “Other” Middle Ages”. In Race, Class, and Gender in “Medieval” Cinema. 1-14. Ed. by Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Salda, Michael N. “Northern Lite: A Brief History of Animated Vikings”. In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages. Ed. by Kevin J. Harty. 178-192. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.

Sefton-Green, Julian. “Cementing the Virtual Relationship: Children’s TV Goes Online”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 185-207. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

Wells, Paul. “ ‘Tell me about Your Id, When You Was a Kid, Yah!’”. In Small Screens: Television for Children. Ed. by David Buckingham. 61-95. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.

International Congress of Medieval Studies: Kalamazoo 2012

The society’s panel at Kalamazoo this year, entitled Growing up with the Middle Ages: The Influences upon Children’s Ideas about the Medieval World turned out to be a great success. I can’t entirely speak without bias, as one of the presenters myself, but I do think that we had some superior papers.

A great thank you to all of those who came to the panel. Part of the appeal of this year’s panel is that, without exception, all adults were children once, and for many medievalists there was something in our childhood which drew us to the study of the Middle Ages later in life. And so we discussed the impact of nostalgia, but also indulged a little in it ourselves.

Much of what we, the panelists, discussed, and the discussion generated after the presentations, focused on how teachers can use these preconceptions in a classroom and where children are actually learning about the Middle Ages.

A special thanks to my fellow panelists for such well thought out and insightful papers.

Many thanks to Whitney A.M. Leeson, from Roanoke College, for her paper “Jousting Knights and Tournament ladies: Children’s Understanding of Reconfigured Gender Relations in the Modern Sport of Jousting.” In fact, as often happens, her research actually took her out of the realm of jousting, as she analyzed, through interviews and freelisting, what a group of children involved in a special program about Middle Ages really thought about that time period. By examining what that group of children considered to be medieval movies, books or video games and through personal interviews she was able to perceive real differences between the way that boys and the way that girls perceive and interact with ‘medieval’ media and things.

Thanks also to Dawn Cunningham from St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto, for her paper entitled “Kids and Castles: The Moat between Medieval Art and Contemporary Consumption.” Throughout her paper she was able to demonstrate the simplification of the Middle Ages for children by examining ‘medieval’ products aimed at children. By looking at the ‘medieval’ toy and looking at what medieval art was its inspiration we see the removal of much of what would be the medieval context and intention behind the original piece.

My paper was entitled “Saturday Morning Medieval: Medievalism and Children’s Television Programming.” I looked at the use of ‘medievalisms’ in cartoons shown on American television and tried to see how these animated programs constructed and then used ‘the medieval.’ I concluded that to create the ‘medieval’ animators draw on pop culture, literature, history and fantasy, so that when they use the signifiers of the medieval in the context of the cartoon it can simultaneously mean something historical, fantastic or something from literature or pop culture.

Thanks to everyone who attended the business meeting afterwards. The Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages has sent out a call for papers for next years ICMS at Kalamazoo and IMC at Leeds. See below for that Call for Papers. If you have any ideas for blogs please submit them to us, we welcome all contributors.The Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages will continue to bring together scholars, Public History professionals and interested people to discuss the ways that the public understands the Middle Ages and how and why they act on that understanding.

Call for Papers: ICMS and IMC 2013

Here are the calls for papers we have devised for the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages at the ICMS, Kalamazoo and IMC, Leeds in 2013.

We invite abstracts for the following sessions at the 2013 ICMS and IMC. Abstracts (between 250 and 500 words) should be submitted electronically to to the attention of Paul Sturtevant and Megan Arnott, and should indicate clearly your mailing address and phone number. If you need special equipment for the talk (digital projector, etc.), let us know when you submit your abstract. All abstract submissions are due by 15th September, 2012.

ICMS Kalamazoo, 2013

The Middle Ages in Modern Politics

ImageWhat the public does with the medieval past is as important as their understanding of it. One of the many ways that the public’s understanding of the Middle Ages is used is through political discourse. The Middle Ages offers a powerful precedent for a variety of causes—anything from the Anglo-Saxon democratic ideal to the religious conflict of the Crusades can, and has been, used by politicians and political groups in the present to promote their agendas. We invite any papers pertaining to issues where ideas about the Middle Ages have been used to further a political agenda.

IMC Leeds, 2013

The Public Understanding of the Middle Ages Gone Wrong

The public is often said to hold distorted views of the Middle Ages, based on nostalgia, fantasy, or antiquated scholarship. But why does this matter? One answer to this important question is that the Middle Ages can, and has been used for negative purpose in the public sphere. Ideas of the medieval past have been employed to justify atrocities, promote antipathies, give credence to conspiracy theories, encourage divisions and more. The Nazis’ endless fascination with the Middle Ages is the most infamous example, but only one of them. We invite papers addressing any topic where ideas about the Middle Ages have been used to negative purpose in the modern world.

Why study the public’s understanding of the past?

This is a work in progress, and will serve to hash through, in very short form, some thoughts I’ve been working on for the book project I am currently writing. The reason why I bring it here is that it is a large and difficult subject, but speaks to the heart of this society’s existence. This society, and the field it represents, is part of a new(ish) approach to public history.  Public history has, in the past, largely addressed questions of how the past is presented to the public. In the UK it is often elided with museum studies, public archaeology or other academic approaches to the heritage industry—though less so in recent years.

What this society is dedicated to is the flip side of that coin; studying how the public understands and receives the past and, ostensibly, what they do with those understandings. Studying the form of instances of public medieval history (whether they be in museums or in the form of Victorian buildings, TV shows, poetry editions, or show-dog-names) is useful and important, but of primary interest here is what those instances do.

Or perhaps, as a better way of looking at it what people do with them. Purely theoretical examinations are good and useful but can sometimes overlook things. A hammer is, theoretically, a tool used for driving and removing nails. But, theoretically, it is also can used as a weapon, a paperweight or a percussive adjustment device for an unruly washing machine. But that is hardly all. Until seeing how hammers are actually used by people, it is impossible to know to what degree the theory applies universally.

Putting aside the hammer metaphor, the past can be approached similarly. History, theoretically, is useful to the public (in which I am including myself along with everyone) in a number of discrete ways, all of which have been explored by scholars before.

History gives us narratives. This is the importance of the ‘story’ in history. On one hand history gives us ripping imaginative fodder which can be didactic or purely entertaining (or, at its best, both). It gives us heroes and villains who engage in epic struggles.  And even further, history gives us settings in which to place fictional stories which make them seem more real. Making fiction historical is a powerful tool. Historical settings can be as realistic as a video showing us yesterday or as vague as ‘once upon a time’.

History tells us who we are. History plays a, I would argue, central role in identity formation; it tells us where we come from and what it means to identify ourselves in the way we do. Being American is, on its face, a simple thing: I was born in the United States and hold US citizenship. However what it means to be American is far more complex and loaded with history, both recent and less so. Similarly, what it means to be British. Or Chinese. Or working-class. Or female. History can define how we understand our town, neighbourhood, and family. This is history in the first person. History gives meaning to our identity, no matter how we define it.

History tells us who they are. Similarly, history tells us what it means to be a group that we do not consider ourselves. This can be useful in terms of building understanding and bridging the gaps between ourselves and others, or it can be destructive when used to promote prejudice or validate antipathies.

 History can help us build empathy. Related to the two above (but I feel its own category), studying history can allow us to understand people separated from ourselves—whether they by time, space or both. This is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of the humanities: seeking to overcome the gaps between ourselves and others. While it is important not to assume that people from other times and cultures are like us in every way, it is equally important to understand that what separates us is almost exclusively cultural. If done well, this can inform us as much about ourselves as it does about others.

Pyramids of Giza

History gives us perspective. When confronted with the great swath of that-which-has-come-before, it is difficult not to feel one’s own life is insignificant. However, when confronted with the stories of the great people who lived before, it reminds us that we do have efficacy, that we can change the world. And history can make us feel less alone—our actions, no matter how small, are part of something far greater than ourselves. Whether that gives our lives meaning is a question for philosophers, but the simple fact is that we are making history every moment we live.


History tells us what (and what not) to do. You all know the George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is pithy, and in some ways true, and is thus useful at cocktail parties when justifying to hostile combatants why history departments should retain their funding. But using the past as a predictive for future action is problematic in the least. Does the history of World War II mean we should intervene in Syria? What about the history of Somalia? Or the American Civil War? Or Iran? History gives us examples of what to do and what not to do, but I fear that the weight of history has given us too many examples which can be used to justify a host of positions– right or wrong– in the present. 

All of these are good and important uses of history. But they do not exist in a moral vacuum. Each can be used for negative purpose, to promote hatreds and divisions, to justify atrocities or apathy in their face. One does not have to look very far into the past to see how history can be manipulated to suit a dangerous political agenda.

The question thus becomes, how is history understood, how do those understandings develop and change, and how are they used? In this very public realm, the historian’s focus can shift from ‘is it accurate or inaccurate?’ to ‘is it for positive or negative effect?’  And moreover, these are only some of the ways history might be used. The list is surely not exhaustive. Nor is it sophisticated—it does not indicate how often it is used, and how actively. Some of these uses may exist purely unconsciously, whereas some motivate us to action (whether that be to take our children to a historical site, watch a particular TV programme or join a revolutionary movement). The only way to understand these questions is to study them, not only with theory and conjecture, but using rigorous empirical methods.

  • Note: Apologies for the advertisement which I have only just been informed has taken up residence at the bottom of this page– I will do what I can to remove them, however from a cursory exploration, it seems it will cost on the order of an extra $30 a year to do so.

Dragons, Romanesque and Parliament: Medievalisms at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as expressions of power

Situated in the heart of Toronto, Queen’s Park has been the site of the Ontario Legislative Assembly since 1893. If you stand in the centre of the park, with the Legislative Building in front of you and the University of Toronto all around you, you find yourself in what is arguably the most medieval-esque area of the city. Medieval-esque is a frightfully vague word, but in its vagueness describes that feeling we get when we sense that something is inexplicably medieval. Then again, maybe it’s not that inexplicable.

A medievalism is a number of things. The way we think about the Middle Ages changes as we change, so even when we study the Medieval period that is a medievalism, because we have to interpret the past through our own eyes and our own version of historical events. However, it is also a medievalism when we use elements of what we think the Middle Ages were to create something new. Likewise, we can also call it a medievalism when elements have continued on from the Middle Ages and we use those elements in our own, modern way. A medievalism is anything where the Middle Ages is being interpreted and transmitted to a more modern audience. All of those versions of medievalisms are present at Queen’s Park.

There was no European Middle Ages that occurred geographically here in Toronto, so the medievalism we encounter all around us in the architecture at Queen’s Park is where people use symbols from the Middle Ages to create something new. We’re next to the Gothic structures of U of T, including the awe inspiring Trinity College.

Gothic and Romanesque are two quintessential Northern European Medieval Architectural styles. At Queen’s Park the central figure is the massive Romanesque Revival structure. So, built in 1893, why did Canadian Victorian society decide to refer to medieval precedents when constructing their civic structures?

In the early Victorian era medieval and not classical elements are sometimes chosen in Canada to emphasize the Britishness of the cultural influence, which is in opposition to their U.S. neighbours, who want to skip Britain and go back to classical or continental roots (see some of the conclusions reached in the project Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier). That is in play here, especially in the structures of U of T which are referencing the medieval university traditions at places like Oxford, or Cambridge with their Gothic style. But I don’t think that is the whole explanation. I think in this time, approx. 1870-1885, they use a medieval style of architecture only in part to emphasize Britishness, but mostly they see this as an appropriate symbol for power. It can’t be wholly to separate themselves from the United States because this is a uniquely American form of Romanesque.

Richard A. Waite, British-born Buffalo architect, was given the contract to design the building. This was after as a member of the selection committee he had decided that the Gothic design (the other most recognizable medieval architectural style), proposed by Darling and Curry was unsuitable. The architectural style Richardsonian Romanesque was developed by Henry Hobson Richardson , and it was perfected in New England. When they were designing the civic structures in Toronto they favoured this Richardsonian Romanesque style. E.J. Lennox designed Old City Hall in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, and R.A. Waite chose the style for these, the Ontario Parliament Buildings. These buildings are associated with power. So at that time Richardsonian Romanesque, this Medieval style tempered with American influence, was how Torontonians, as well as New Englanders, expressed power through a structure (City Hall, Ontario Legislature).

The carvings on the building reflect the Richardsonian Romanesque style. They are largely floral and whimsical, though there are some allegorical. For instance, the building is covered in gargoyles. Some of them look like they should be spouts,which would have been part of their function on Romanesque cathedrals, but is not their function here. They reflect the medieval tradition of the gargoyle, which adorned medieval Romanesque and gothic structures of power. Gargoyles protect the building, and keep evil from it, while at the same time they are whimsical.


The rose window with the Gothic tracing that can be seen on the southwest corner of the central structure of the building was not part of the original plan. Originally it was supposed to house a clock, but during construction they ran out of funds and so the clock was never built. But the carving around the window reflects the original intent to put in a clock and reflects an homage to medieval traditions. The signs of the zodiac were placed around the circle as they were in medieval calendars. It shows a conscious effort on the part of the architect R.A. Waite and possibly chief carver William McCormack, to build a Romanesque building while referencing the Romanesque roots and time period.

A Romanesque cathedral might have figures of apostles or saints, figures which are meant to lend power to that location, and give that power spatial representation. Here it is no different. On either side of the building are important political figures who, in a very similar way, give power to the activities that go on here. These figures say that Canadian politics is represented here in this building. What they give to the abstract concept of politics is a spatial representation. Politics and civic power has been represented as having monumental importance.

Dragons recur throughout the building, inside and out. Here are the dragons at the base of the pillars on the first floor of the east wing. In the Middle Ages the dragon represented the ‘other.’ The knight defeating the dragon was conquering the other – restoring order. In this case the placement of the dragons at the base of the pillars shows, in a similar way, the wild creatures being subdued. Likewise, the tops of those pillars, on the third floor east wing, have dragons adjacent to the ceiling, so that dragons appear on both ends of the pillars. Not to take away the element of whimsy, but in British culture the dragon has special meaning because of St. George, patron saint of England who slew a dragon, and is it is pervasive as a popular symbol in keeping with the medieval style of the building. The moral is: Victorians like dragons! But there are reasons as to why they like dragons.

For the art and architecture a medieval style was chosen, but when we look at the debts and carry-overs in the parliamentary tradition from the Middle Ages we can see why medieval symbols are appropriate to help represent a British Parliament.  For instance, there has been a perceived continuity to the British monarchy since 1066. In fact, our concept of Britain, the nation, as we understand it took shape during the Middle Ages.

The signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 made the King subject to the law and redefined where authority was derived from (that is a basic statement, since as one of the West’s favourite documents it is also one of the most debated, but for arguments sake lets take this classic view). It was signed by King John, but it was King John’s son Henry III who first referred any matter to a ‘parliament,’ meaning he is the first British monarch to also use the word ‘parliament.’ Parliament is related to the French word parlement (remember the French origins of Britain’s rulers since 1066), from the Latin parliamentum. Basically it means discussion. He was also the first king to ask his subjects for regular taxation, as the revenues from Crown lands were no longer enough to run the realm. Many of the first members were barons, who were asked for taxation, but eventually they had to ask for taxes directly from representatives of towns, clergy and counties. Length of sessions were based on need. Most of the time they met in Westminster, but they could meet anywhere. The commons emerged in the 14th century as a group distinct from the barons, but they were still usually knights and burgesses. The parliament was also considered the highest court, as people could bring their issues and petitions that they would like to have answered. (For more information see the BBC’s History of Parliament).

The medieval borrowings in the building and the Legislative Chamber are then really appropriate, because it is from those traditions that our modern form of government has developed. If you look around the Chamber, in addition to inheriting the parliamentary traditions, there is again a conscious use of medieval style.




For instance, there are actual gargoyles around the Chamber being subdued or contained at the base of pillars. We could interpret this as representations of power, in addition to forces of chaos or nature being subdued.





Resting under the Clerk’s table is the Legislative Mace, which is placed on the table when the House is in Session to symbolize Ontario’s Parliament’s authority to make it’s own laws. But, as young grade fives are quick to point out, the mace starts out as a medieval weapon, carried into battle by fighting members of the clergy who are not permitted edged weapons. Its use by important people causes it to be used as a symbol of authority.

By the 1200s, the times of the first real parliaments, the mace is being carried by the sergeants-at-arms who protect the king. In time it comes to stand for the authority of the monarch. All British/Commonwealth parliaments still have them. The mace conveys authority, derived from the monarch, to the parliament.

In the Chamber there are examples of heraldry, standards derived from the Middle Ages. For instance, the Royal Coat of Arms behind the Speaker’s Chair, which includes the three lions of England, the harp of Ireland and the lion of Scotland, is derived from the symbols used during the Middle Ages. For instance, the three lions go back to the symbol used by Richard I and has endured as a symbol of England.

The question is do we still perceive those symbols as something medieval? I do, but I study medieval things. Do most people just see it as tradition, from a non-descript past?

One thing that is striking is that medievalisms at Queen’s Park – the parliament, Romanesque, dragons, the mace – all incorporate the medieval as symbols of power. The parliament is the decision making body, the grandeur of the Romanesque is seen as appropriate to be associated with sites of power, the mace confers authority on the parliament, and the dragons are both a power that has to be subdued and represents the power of Britain. So the sense that we get that we are surrounded by the medieval is because we are, though we are also well aware that this is an interpretation both by Canadian Victorian society as well as by modern society. The medieval elements we decide to use in our culture tell us a lot about how we view the medieval, but they also show how our distant medieval past influences our present.

Arthurian Medievalisms and the Public Understanding of the Past

Guest Blog Entry by Laurie Rizzo, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library

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Studying Arthurian legends is like a labyrinth in which the closer you think you’ve gotten to solving the maze the more you realize that you have so much more to explore.  There are several reasons why Arthuriana presents such an enigma.  For one, Arthuriana is arguably the largest body of literature revolving around a central character. Secondly, the stories’ origins are ambiguous. Arthurian legends are a complicated, intertwined web of oral tradition, legends and historical facts. Untangling it all is not easy, but that’s what makes it so fascinating to me.   Throughout hundreds of years, authors have shaped and molded the legends influenced by their own time, their patrons/patronesses, and their culture. Many medieval authors’ identities are just as mysterious as Arthur’s himself.  Arthurian legends are essentially an entire body of works akin to fan fiction, except without a single definitive source.

Arthurian legends are a part of our popular culture, depicted in every contemporary medium, from comic books and video games to television and cinema. There have been more than one hundred Arthurian legend-themed films.  Arthuriana has been repeatedly adapted to film since the inception of moving pictures despite the fact that the films rarely do well in the box office. Each time a new film is released there are high expectations both from the filmmakers and from the audiences who go to see the movies. People have high hopes that the next film version will be better than the last and be more well received. The films continually fail because the expectations of how the legends should be portrayed in film have not been met.

Audiences have specific expectations of Arthurian films which can be discerned through the analysis of metatexts. Film reviews act as a metatext to the film.  Reviews are often the first point of contact people have with a film, playing a major role in how a film is perceived and interpreted.  Thus, it is not the film itself that sets the standards for the subgenre, but rather it is the interpolations of film reviews that influence what audiences come to expect as the paradigm of these types of films.  Analyzing film reviews can provide insight as to the reasons behind a film’s appeal.

For a paper I presented at the 2011 International Congress on Medieval Studies I examined the reviews of fourteen Arthurian films, set in medieval times which were produced between 1967 and 2009. I looked for the critical discourse, perception and meaning in the reviews, as opposed to simple binary classification into favorable or unfavorable judgments. By analyzing reviews across these films, I identified several significant trends in expectations and interpretations, which I classify into the following six categories: 1) Primary sources, 2) Missing elements, 3) Character portrayals, 4) Theme, 5) Film medium and 6) Time period.

Readers of this blog may be most interested in the last of these — the film’s representation of the Middle Ages. In assessing the accuracy of the films’ representation of the time period, critics generally focused on four aspects: the scenery, the costumes, the battle scenes and the dialog.

The scenery seemed to be the easiest expectation to satisfy. Often the films major success is that the locations are beautiful, but most critics are in agreement that pretty scenery is not enough to make a good movie. Additionally, in order for the film to be realistic the scenery can’t be too immaculate – as was the case in First Knight (Dir. Jerry Zucker, 1995) which was criticized for Camelot looking like something out of Disneyland.

With costumes there was less of a consensus. Should the costumes reflect a specific time period? Or should it be historically ambiguous? Whatever the choice, the costumes should feel authentic and consistent to the chosen time period.  Costumes should not be too silly, too dirty, or too clean-looking. If the costumes are too manicured, it comes across with a ridiculous feel.

Even prior to Braveheart, battle scenes were expected to be epic, exciting, bloody and coherent. However, after Braveheart and Lord of the Rings, the bar has been raised as to what can be accomplished in filming warfare. Too often the battles in Arthurian films are confusing, boring and bloodless. Blood was often considered essential for being able to follow the action as to what is happening and who is being defeated. Too much one on one fighting during warfare such was the case in King Arthur (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2004) is considered unrealistic and boring. Additionally, if the audience doesn’t care about the characters or their cause there is no reason to care about what happens during the battle.

The dialog should not sound contemporary, it should feel medieval, not cliché or anachronistic.

Regardless of audience’s level of familiarity with the medieval Arthurian literature or the medieval time period, there are important aspects of the legends that are expected to be maintained. No matter what time period the film is set in, audiences desire consistency in look and feel. Arthurian films do little more than allude to the middle ages, setting their tales in a muddled, indistinct time period rife with anachronisms of time periods and speech, with confusing warfare. In spite of all these flaws in the films, reviews demonstrate the relevance and significance of Arthurian films to our modern culture, regardless of each film’s popularity.  It is the discourse that follows a film that dictates how future films within the same genre will be constructed. Thus we see that each director’s cut of the Arthurian legends is fundamentally not an adaptation of the literary sources, but rather a new installment of the timeless tale.

Extended: Call for papers, IMC and ICMS

The final deadline for abstract submissions for our sessions at IMC and ICMS has been extended until Wednesday, 28th of September. Now is your last chance to get involved in what looks to be a great pair of sessions! As ever, details can be found here: