Sewing the Scene: The Uses of Embroidery in Medieval Film
By Valentina S. Grub
Paper given at the Borderlines XIX Conference at Queen’s University, Belfast on April 12, 2015
Introduction: Well before any of us went to school and learned about the Middle Ages through academic text books, our conception of the era was probably established through more non-academic means, namely literature and film. It is impossible to know with the precision needed to create a film what the Middle Ages actually looked like. Thus, filmmakers more often than not, fall back on inaccurate tropes that we have come to equate with the Middle Ages, but which are really romantic constructs of the 19th century.
And it is this very type of ahistoricism, according to historian Arthur Lindley, which obscures the reality of the Middle Ages and sentimentalizes it in a way that denies it any real independent existence. Filmmaker Andrew Elliot also noted that scholars are upset with Hollywood because, as he describes it, of the ‘filmmaker’s audacity to infringe on the serious scholarly domain of the Middle Ages.’ But if this is the way most people are exposed to the Middle Ages, then it behoves us to acknowledge medieval film as an important area of scholarship.
But is there really such a thing as a ‘medieval film’, and if so, what defines it? In her book, Filming the Middle Ages, Bettina Bildhauer argues that medieval films should be considered a genre unto themselves, sharing a portrayal as a time of monks, death, sexual repression and violence; this demonization has its origins in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But the accuracy (or lack thereof) of events and scenery aside, there are three characteristics which define a medieval film; non-linear time, a visual rather than a literate culture, and an anti-individualism that Bildhauer calls ‘pre-individualism’. This is relatively broad criteria for medieval films, and encompasses everything from The Name of the Rose to Robin Hood: Men in Tights.