British Universities Film & Video Council

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Filming the Middle Ages

Filming the Middle Ages by Bettina Bildhauer (Reaktion Books, 2011), 264 pages, ISBN: 978-1861898081 (hardback), £25

About the reviewer: Dr Lesley Coote is a lecturer in medieval studies, medievalism and early modern studies.  She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organisation (MEMO), the Studies in Medievalism group, and the International Association of Robin Hood Scholars.  She is a member of the University of Hull’s Marvell Centre, and of two editorial boards for Brepols publishers’ series: Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, and Medieval Identities in Socio-Cultural Spaces (MiscS), of which she is Chair.  She regularly acts as a reviewer and reader for a variety of journals, including Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, Review of English Studies, Arthuriana, Modern Language Review and the Journal of Gender Studies. She is a member of the advisory board of the online review journal, Medievally Speaking, to which she is also a contributor.

To begin with, I love the cover illustration of this book.  It conveys the impression of the cinematic medieval (the image, we learn later, is from Murnau’s 1926 film Faust) with which Bettina Bildhauer seeks to engage, and which she analyses in some depth.  This skeletal image of Death as ‘future’ and as ‘past’, when severed from its context (from its mise-en-scène) has the medievalist look of a ‘dark glass’ and the futuristic look of an astronaut’s visor.  Like medieval images of the Dance of Death, it invites and attracts, yet distances, challenges and threatens the viewer – one of the main themes which Bildhauer is about to explore.  In this case, the book does not disappoint the expectations generated by its cover.  Refreshingly, it discusses medieval film as film, not as an accessory to medieval studies, although Bildhauer is also a practising, and published, medievalist.  Her introduction discusses (and defends) medieval film both as a terminology and as a genre, within a wider context of writing on the subject.  It also addresses claims that cinema revives a medieval visual culture and its methodologies, together with the seemingly endless debates regarding historical accuracy and the need for it (or not).  There is, as Bildhauer states, no concrete answer to this, as true accuracy is impossible.

… medievalists and historiographers will find this book extremely useful for research and as a teaching resource.

The rest of the book is divided into three main sections arising from cinematic treatments of the medieval; the problematic of time (which includes death and destiny), the use/function of the written word, and conceptions of society, including the nature of leadership and heroism.  These are, incidentally, also the standard themes into which medieval studies teachers working with film frequently divide their class or programme plans, so these divisions have a very practical use for medieval studies and historiography teaching.  The first section, on time, examines the medieval film’s disruption of linear time, and the implications of this, including its queering effect, with the implications this has for the presentation of themes (such as gender), also medieval film’s association with fantastic tropes such as the vampire and the ‘undead’. Bildhauer engages with the idea of the medieval past engaging with us, and how we are affected by it even as we seek this engagement on our own terms. In her second section, she examines the contest for authority and authenticity between the written word and the visual or experienced world.

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