Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World

By Kelly, Kathleen Coyne | Arthuriana, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World


Kelly, Kathleen Coyne, Arthuriana


ANDREW B.R. ELLIOTT, Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2011. Pp. x, 275. ISBN 978-0-7864-4624-7. $38.00.

In Remaking the Middle Ages, Andrew B.R. Elliott takes a structuralist approach to analyzing films set in the Middle Ages, allowing him to survey a substantial number of films within two overlapping grids: first, the medieval notion of the estates, in which people are categorized by their social function; second, semiotics. Elliott argues, 'If we are no longer able with any certainty or authority to connect with the referents, or material objects, of the Middles Ages...then we are no longer able to summon up a direct signifying link to our medieval past' (44). The lack of a link, of course, has not stopped historians or film-makers from manufacturing several links, or signifiers-what Elliott calls 'iconic recreations' (3). Elliott traces out icons (knight, king, priest, peasant) across films from different eras and countries; as he demonstrates, icons travel remarkably well, and not always chronologically. Elliott's analysis of visual signs that may or may not be historical or accurate demonstrates that such icons, nevertheless, come to register as authentic through their references to other films as well as to other media. He coins the word 'historicon' (analogous to Sergei Eisenstein's 'ideogram' and François Amy de la Bretèque's 'iconogram,' and which, in another ironic-iconic context, is the name of the annual convention for miniature war-gamers), which is 'an indicator of a historical period...[an] object, item, character, gesture or historical reference' (210-11). Elliott also analyzes the various strategies of film-makers who make the past intelligible through comparison to a modern equivalent, whether a genre (the Western) or an ideology (heroism). Elliott calls such appropriations 'paradigmatic representations' (3).

Part I, 'Problems,' is divided into two chapters ('History, Historiography and Film' and '"One Big Medieval Mess": Accessing the Middle Ages'). In the first, the author offers a useful survey of the historiography of the Middle Ages, reminding us that history-its documents, artifacts, and, most important, its post-hoc narratives-is itself open to question and interpretation. …

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