Beowulf on the Big Screen: Good, Bad, and Even Worse

I don’t want to make you jealous or anything, but at least once a year I get to teach Beowulf.

I know, I know. You probably skimmed it once in some first-year literature survey class and you didn’t like it and … friends, you’re missing out. Beowulf is amazing. There’s a damn good reason that J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated with it his whole life.

(True story: I spent days in the Tolkien Archives poring over his handwritten translations of the poem, annotations, and lecture notes. The recent Beowulf volume put out by the Tolkien Estate does not do the professor’s work justice.)

First page of Beowulf in the manuscript. Being able to read this is tremendously good at parties, I can assure you.

The thing is, though, that most people don’t really get how deeply and powerfully resonant Beowulf remains—over a thousand years since monks wrote our ...

My Favorite Medieval Film Is A Knight’s Tale

If you’ve been following this column at all, you know that I enjoy teaching folks about the history of the real Middle Ages by pointing out the real issues with the reel Middle Ages.

This often leads to the misconceptions that I don’t “get” that many movies are meant to be “just fantasy” or that I hate most medieval movies. To such keen criticisms, I would reply that I totally get that fantasies aren’t meant to be historically accurate (though they clearly utilize that history and, fantasy or not, “teach” audiences about it), and oh my god I totally enjoy most medieval movies.

No. Scratch that. I adore most medieval movies — even the ones that cause me to roll my eyes at their historical inaccuracies.

When I’m asked what my favorite medieval movie is, though, my answer is always the same: A Knight’s Tale (dir. Brian Helgeland, 2001). Largely ...

The Medieval Origins of Christmas Traditions

I’m smelling mulled cider on the stove, seeing mistletoe in the entryway, and hearing carols carried upon the wind. It’s Christmas time, so let’s talk about some of the origins behind my favorite holiday.

I know, I know. The holiday is about the birth of Jesus. And sure enough, “Cristes maesse” is first recorded in English in 1038 for “Christ’s Mass,” the mass held to honor of the birth of Jesus. “He’s the reason for the season,” as the church signs often say.

Except … maybe not this season. The Bible doesn’t give any actual date for the birth of Jesus. About the only biblical clue we have about the date is that, according to Luke 2:8, the shepherds were still residing in the field. Not much to go on, though our earliest recorded dates for the birth of Christ fall in line with more likely times for shepherds to ...

A 17th-century Ukrainian icon. I love the shepherd doffing his cap. Such a gent!
Antoine Callet, 'Saturnalia' (1783)
Chi-Rho page of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
I love this.
gates-hell

Pilgrims and Rocks and the Origins of Thanksgiving

I intended to write an “origins of Thanksgiving” post last year, but the release of The Gates of Hell and day-job matters got in the way. I promised in a subsequent “Origins of Xmas” post that I’d do it next year, which a reader has reminded me is now this year … so here we go!

When we think of the historical origins of Thanksgiving, we tend to get an image like the one above.Praying Pilgrims and helpful Indians, amirite? By now we’ve distilled the images even further into simple symbolism that pre-school kids can craft in construction paper. For the pilgrims: black hats with buckles upon them. For the Indians: loincloths and feathered headbands. Turkey with gravy on the table, and nostalgia about peace amid a religiosity of thankfulness.

It’s all lovely, and I quite like Thanksgiving, but its important to distinguish our modern conceptions from ...

Getting Medieval on Medieval Times

What do you get a medievalist for his (mumble)-second birthday?

A trip to the Middle Ages!

…Ish.

That’s right. My awesome wife—ahem, sorry, my lady—took me to Medieval Times, a dinner and entertainment show with “knights” and “swords” and … well, every noun in this article will probably need to be in quotation marks if I keep this up.

First off, I have to tell you that I had a blast.

The authenticity is real, people.

I mean, part of that was because my wife is mega-amazing and totally out of my league—hell, I don’t think we play the same sport—but also—

Go Yellow Knight!

Okay, yeah, I know, it’s ridiculous. Medieval Times is incredibly non-historical, and the action is essentially fake knights doing WWE choreography of pulled punches and planned swings. Oops, I fell over! Oh, I fell over again!

Seriously, there was so much flopping I felt like ...

History, Fantasy, and Weird Armor: Ladyhawke

I ran a poll a few months ago about which medieval movie folks wanted to see me to take on next, and the answer (by a thin margin) was Ladyhawke (1985), the classic fairy tale reimagining with Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer, and Matthew Broderick. Thank the gods y’all didn’t set me onto Braveheart.

First, you should know that I’m not going to analyze this film’s deeper meanings. That’s not my shtick here. Leah Schnelbach already gave you just such an article, and it’s amazing.

This will stick to historical criticism, and we’ll still have plenty to talk about. Sorry/not sorry.

When I watch a movie for these articles, I take notes as the film proceeds. For Ladyhawke, my notes start off like this:

Medieval cells aren’t built like this at all.

Jeez… these outfits. Patches of mail. Fashion or could they not budget for more?

That’s a very nice ...

The Medieval Roots of Halloween

We’ve been knee-deep in pumpkin spice for weeks, now, which means (1) Starbucks may be part of a secret cabal intent on world domination through tasty means, and (2) Halloween is nigh. We all know what Halloween is these days—costumes and candy, pumpkins and fright nights—but that doesn’t mean the holiday makes sense. Sure, it’s fun to play dress-up and eat buckets of candy, but how did such a strange tradition start? Why do we do it on the same day every year? In short, where did this whole Halloween thing come from?

Well, like most awesome things (the medievalist said with all the bias), it begins in the Middle Ages.

How? Let’s start with the word and see: Halloween.

It’s a funny-looking word when you think about it, and it’s been spelled that way since at least 1785, when it appears as such in the poem “Halloween,” ...

"The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs" by Fra Angelico (c.1423-4)
And it works on zombies, too!
Dia de Muertas.
Mmmmmm … soul cakes!
Semi-skeletal, no?