Medievalism and Convergence Culture: Researching the Middle Ages for Fiction and Film

Article excerpt

'I did a ton of research, then basically took what I wanted and threw the rest away, trying not to be a slave to it. At the end of the day, it's kind of a fantasy world. It's Medieval, but that's the beauty of movies--you can create your own world'. (2)

In the slew of interviews he gave about his 2001 film, A Knight's Tale, Brian Helgeland repeatedly deploys the same trope: 'I did a ton of research, then ... took what I wanted and threw the rest away'. From a different interview, for example, where he speaks about William Marshall as 'the Michael Jordan of jousting', he comments, 'Hey, I did my research on this. Eventually I threw it all out, but I read about Marshall'. (3) With a degree in English literature, Helgeland makes a virtue of having his cake, and eating it too: he knows how to do his own research; but he also knows how to make entertaining movies, how to build his own world. (4) Two different imperatives struggle for mastery here: the desire for scholarly authenticity; and the desire for the narrative pleasure of world-building. Unsurprisingly, the latter is victorious: the demands of art will always trump the demands of history. Helgeland appears to be master of both disciplines, equally at ease with both. He is positioned at the intersection, or we may say, the convergence, of a number of traditions and imperatives: scholarly, cinematic, and commercial.

Recent studies of 'convergence culture' emphasize the changing patterns in the way narrative, informational, and visual content circulates. Henry Jenkins describes

   the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the 
   cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory 
   behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search 
   of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want. Convergence is 
   a word that manages to describe technological, industrial, 
   cultural, and social changes depending on who's speaking and what 
   they think they are talking about. (5) 

This circulation of media content is driven only in part, according to Jenkins, by technological change. Rather, convergence 'represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content'. (6) The concept of convergence culture is a very productive one for medievalism studies, when we come to consider the circulation of knowledge, ideas, and impressions about the medieval period across a variety of media, from conventional forms such as poetry and fiction, film and television; to community-based forms such as online games, social networking sites, fan fiction and discussion groups devoted to, or drawing on medievalism. Pedagogical and institutional contexts also make an important contribution to this convergence.

Information and knowledge about the Middle Ages is circulated much more readily than for previous generations, and this is affecting traditional hierarchies of knowledge and expertise. Academics with a specialism in medieval literature and history might once have flattered ourselves that this expertise sets us apart from film-makers and historical novelists, even elevates us above them. That is certainly the position from which much criticism is levelled at creative works for their inaccurate portrayal of the Middle Ages. But there is a growing current of feeling, apparent in both the commentaries and the creative practice of many artists, that assumes that 'research' is not solely the province of academic professionals and scholarly experts, that finding out about medieval history, literature and culture is, frankly, not all that difficult.

Medieval settings are one of the most popular historical frameworks for fictions and films that want to explore the nature of pre-industrial communities and societies. The feudal structures, dynastic struggles, and most typical narrative forms of medieval literature (the romance, the quest) can easily be lifted out of historical context and generalized into the allied forms of fantasy and science fiction. …