What is History For?

Asking the big questions about the uses and purpose of history.

Film and TVWhat is History For?

The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination

Read more about film and popular perceptions of the medieval past in Paul’s new book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism! As a special for readers of The Public Medievalist, if you order your copy from I.B. Tauris Publishers, use the coupon code MIDDLE30 and receive 30% off the hardback price! It is also available as an e-book on Amazon and Google Play.


Whenever I ask people—academics and non-academics alike—what they think the public knows about history, the answer almost always comes back the same: “NOTHING!”

There’s a snobby cynicism that lies at the heart of that answer—that without academic training, we are all just dunderheaded simpletons stumbling through the world. This idea has been cultivated and exploited by journalists and politicians over and over again. To take just one example, in 2013, Education Secretary of the United Kingdom Michael Gove went on a tear about the state of the education system in his country:

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

“Survey after survey?” One teacher made an official request to know what these surveys were. The official answer from the Department of Education cited marketing surveys conducted by a UK cable TV channel (UKTV Gold) and a hotel chain (Premier Inn) where individuals were given pop-quizzes about historical facts. Gove then used the results of these marketing exercises to bash the UK education system and call for reform.

This isn’t the first time people have used sloppy methodology to make a point. Many of these surveys use research tools that would make a sociologist cringe, and all of them are biased. They intend to trap participants into getting wrong answers so that they can present the results as a “shocking” display of public ignorance.

Take, as an example, this survey, conducted by the BBC in 2004:

Q1 Which one of the following conquered Britain?

  1. a) Germans; b) Spanish; c) Romans; d) Americans; e) Don’t know

Q2 Who won the Battle of Hastings?

  1. a) Napoleon; b) Wellington; c) Alexander the Great; d) William the Conqueror; e) Don’t know

Q3 Which of the following fought men [sic] in the English fleet against the Spanish Armada?

  1. a) Horatio Hornblower; b) Christopher Columbus; c) Francis Drake; d) Gandalf; e) Don’t know

Q4 Which famous battle is marked every year on July 12 by the Orangemen in Northern Ireland?

  1. a) Boyne; b) Stamford Bridge; c) Bulge; d) Helmsdeep [sic]; e) Don’t know

Q5 During which war did the Battle of Britain take place?

  1. a) Hundred Years War; b) First World War; c) Second World War; d) Cold War; e) Don’t know

How many did you know? How many of you were tempted to choose “Gandalf” for 3, and “Helmsdeep” for 4, just because you’re a Tolkien fan? (I know I would have been.)

Despite being a marketing exercise explicitly intended to sell their Battlefield Britain TV series, the news media took this as evidence of shockingly widespread ignorance. The BBC presented their results in breathless tones:

Almost half of 16 to 34-year-olds questioned didn’t know Sir Francis Drake fought in the battle against the Spanish Armada […] One in five 16 to 24-year-olds said it was the explorer and discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. Horatio Hornblower, the fictional commander in the CS Forester books, was the answer from one in five 25 to 34 year olds. And Gandalf, the wizard from The Lord of the Rings, was the choice of more than one in twenty 16 to 24-year-olds.

An article in The Guardian used it to bang the drum for a return to “traditional” history education. In an article reporting on the survey (entitled “Gandalf finds a place in British history”), they interviewed Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, who said:

“It clearly shows that our state education system has got a lot to answer for. A grounding in national history is essential for all young people in order to understand the present. This is extremely shocking.”

Another example, this time a front-page headline from the New York Times. Note the date.

The problem is that, at their core, these surveys assume understanding history is fundamentally about memorizing historical facts. If you don’t know those specific facts (almost always about supposedly “Great Men” or supposedly important battles, like in the BBC survey above), then clearly there was something wrong with your education, and thus, something wrong with you.

But history is about so much more than the rote memorization of names and dates. It is about how we understand ourselves as people. It is about learning to appreciate the differences and similarities of cultures different to our own, learning how all cultures change over time, and learning to see ourselves in people from other times and places. And it is so much more.

How can a survey study all of that?

That is exactly the topic of my new book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination. The study at the center of the book is fundamentally about how people use film as a way of learning about and engaging with the medieval past. Instead of using surveys that can only scratch the surface of what it means to learn history, I talked to people and really listened to the answers. I wanted to find out how people understand, learn about, and use the past in their daily lives. And I wanted to find real answers instead of just confirming my own preconceptions.

With Apologies to Mr. Bloom…

Orlando bloom with a sword strapped to his back and a prayer shawl on his shoulder, from the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.
So pretty. So medieval?

To give you a taste of the results, let’s look at the case of Orlando Bloom.

I showed four groups of students—recruited from across the University of Leeds campus—three medieval films each, and interviewed them before and after viewing the movies to see how film influenced their ideas about the Middle Ages. Two of those three films, coincidentally, starred Orlando Bloom: in Kingdom of Heaven he stars as Balian, a blacksmith who goes on Crusade and ultimately leads the Kingdom of Jerusalem in its final clash with Saladin. And in The Return of the King, of course, he plays Legolas.

To say that the participants disliked Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven is a bit of an understatement.

First of all, students did not feel that the plot of the film, with its rags-to-riches narrative, was at all realistic in a medieval context. But students also rejected Orlando Bloom’s masculinity. They complained that he did not match their expectations of heroic medieval men. One participant said:

Orlando Bloom is known as a celebrity and a bit of a dish […] a little bit too glossy […] you see Orlando Bloom and you make a snap decision that he’s a pretty boy.

Other participants in the groups reiterated this discomfort: “[he] just seemed a bit… wimpy,” or “he doesn’t have the voice for it, he doesn’t have the gravitas for it,” or, “[he] didn’t seem to have the power behind him to suggest that he could lead people.” When they were asked who might be a better medieval hero, several pointed to Liam Neeson (who plays Balian’s father in the film). He, they said, had the age, the gravitas, and the power to be truly medieval.

The fact that several individuals across the groups flagged Bloom’s masculinity as “anachronistic” lends credence to the idea that this was not only one person’s perception. Rather, it points to a wider cultural perception of medieval masculinity. These students expected medieval heroes to be butch and aggressive, first into the fray. Leadership ability was signaled by a deep voice and the impalpable quality of “gravitas.” And perhaps most telling, their use of the word “dish,” “glossy” and the phrase “pretty boy” imply that Bloom’s youthful features makes him attractive to the wrong sort of people: young women and gay men. To them, Bloom was more boy-band than battlefield.

Ray Winstone in his performance capture suit, flanked by Beowulf, on his left, and the "golden boy", on the right. He plays both characters in the film Beowulf (2007).
Ray Winstone in his performance capture suit, flanked by the characters he plays in Beowulf (2007).

By contrast, I also subjected participants in my study to the 2007 CGI version of Beowulf. Beowulf was played by Ray Winstone, who himself does not have a body type typically associated with Old Norse heroes. But, thanks to the magic of CGI, the filmmakers digitally stitched Ray Winstone’s voice and performance onto two other bodies—those of actor Alan Ritchson and fitness model (and alleged #metoo scumbag) Aaron Stephens.

Alan Ritchson, one of the two actors who provided the face, body, and presumably oiled abs, of Beowulf.

In effect, they digitally Frankensteined a “perfect” medieval hero out of a voice, a face, and a body that they chose.

And despite the high-tech, artificial nature of Beowulf’s medieval masculinity, participants had none of the same negative reactions to his character that they did to Orlando Bloom’s Balian. The stitches were invisible, but the expectations of authentic medieval masculinity were as plain as day.

A High-tech Middle Ages

Despite their acceptance of Winstone/Ritchson/Stephens’s medieval masculinity, study participants had other problems with the movie Beowulf. For instance, everyone is filmed in motion-capture, and every object, stitch of clothing, and piece of scenery is rendered by a computer. Beowulf wasn’t even filmed (if you can even call it that) using traditional cameras; dozens of infrared sensors bounced light off the actors and reconstructed them as wireframes in computers.

For filmmakers into tech, it’s very cool. But for the viewers of these groups, it was creepy as hell.

Participants thought the movie felt like a video game (it does), and that characters fell into the Uncanny Valley (they do). Several also contrasted this specifically against a familiar medieval aesthetic. For example, one participant noted:

Whenever I think of medieval, I always think of Robin Hood and crappy, really crappy effects. And, I don’t know, that kind of vibe about it makes it seem more medieval. Whereas if it’s computer generated and all sparkly and polished, it’s too new.

Another then added, “It’s not a very sparkly and polished time, is it?” Interestingly, co-writer on the film Roger Avary agreed with them, writing: “It was a strange way to be making a film that should be dirty and muddy.”

Again, this has nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. Travel to the countryside or even a park after a rainstorm and you’ll see just how muddy and dirty our contemporary world can be. Instead, this idea comes from a combination of our perception of medieval people as being filthy and plague-ridden, exacerbated by some of the most successful films and TV shows set in the Middle Ages. Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail is a classic of both the muddy and the aggressively badly-made (but wonderful) Middle Ages.

Beowulf didn’t have that “medieval” feel. That’s not because Beowulf was set in a pristine, gleaming version of the Middle Ages—Beowulf gets plenty dirty. But the fact that the mud is not real (and that, in fact, nothing in the film really is) makes it unsatisfying, unsatisfactory. The CGI, while enabling the filmmakers to do whatever they wanted, became an interfering layer for an audience hungry for a more low-budget, “authentic” medieval experience.

Medieval Orcs and Elves

Scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King drawn in a quasi-medieval style, by Jian Guo: https://breath-art.deviantart.com/gallery/

On their final meeting, each group viewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I wondered whether they would see this film as “medieval.” Obviously, a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings isn’t “medieval” if you think of that word only in reference to a period of real history. But Tolkien was drawing on medieval mythologies, social structures, technologies and aesthetics when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and the filmmakers followed suit. Would the average viewer pick up on that?

As it turns out, there was disagreement on that point. Some felt that because Return of the King depicted a fantasy world, comparing it to actual history was ludicrous: “It’s too much of a fantasy to learn anything historical about medieval times from it.”

Others took the opposite tack, with one saying that it “probably depicted medieval England better than Beowulf did.” Importantly, he added, “I don’t know if it did, but in my mind it seemed to gel.”

The most interesting part, to me, is the way the second participant talked about it—speaking from the level of intuition and inductive reasoning rather than as a simple recollection of facts. Many of the participants talked this way—with hesitation and groping for their answers—because these were subjects that they had learned long ago and by consuming popular culture.

But that was not the same as not knowing anything. My study showed me that these students knew quite a lot about the medieval past, but that they did not have much confidence in their knowledge. The participants had fairly wide-ranging knowledge, and a remarkable amount of expertise in particular subjects that they were interested in. For example, one participant was very knowledgeable and interested in medieval social dynamics and material culture as a result of her being a fan of historical novels. Similarly, several others were well-versed in the technology of medieval warfare as a result of being connoisseurs of medieval war games. Moreover, most participants were fully aware of the gaps in their understanding, and aware that some of the things they did know were derived from sources—like films and other popular culture—which are not to be trusted.

That could be seen in the way that others talked about Return of the King. Though many did not label the film “medieval,” they were more than happy to compare it with the other, genuinely-medieval, films they had seen (as well as their experience with the Middle Ages in other pieces of pop culture). The battle of Pellenor Fields, for example, was cited as an excellent example of a medieval battle, and the quest for the ring was productively compared to a crusade. So while Middle Earth is not the Middle Ages, in many ways it was very, very medieval indeed.

You Know More than You Think

Despite what the newspapers tell you, everyday people know a lot about the Middle Ages. Yes, many people harbor incorrect ideas about the Middle Ages, but those frequently have nothing to do with an inability to remember dates and names of famous men or battles. Instead, misconceptions came from incorrectly applying knowledge too broadly.

Sometimes scholars pick on people for making grand pronouncements that the medieval world was an objectively terrible place, or projecting their understanding of the world today backward onto the Middle Ages. This certainly happened during my study—for example, several participants assumed that the Crusades played out similarly to the war in Iraq, and assumed that the conflicts that exist today in that region must have been the same in the Middle Ages.

These mistakes are a natural part of how our minds fill in gaps in our knowledge—not just of history, but any subject. But identifying and complicating these mistaken assumptions is an essential part of the learning process. Because, as we have sought to explore here on The Public Medievalist, medieval people were more like us in some ways than we might like to admit. But in other ways, they, and the world they inhabited, were fundamentally different from ours. The trick is in learning which is which.

But that is a far cry from not knowing anything at all. So, the next time someone tries to tell you that people know nothing about the past, you have my permission to tell them to stick it in their ear.

read more
Fantasy vs. RealityPast and PresentWhat is History For?

This Conspiracy will Put Medievalists Out of a Job! (No, it won’t…)

Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.

But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.

One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:

“What if it’s all a lie?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.

He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.

This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.

It’s a fascinating load of crap. (more…)

read more
Games and The InternetWhat is History For?

Facebook and the Value of Forgetting

Several years ago, I became good friends with a woman who had been abused by her previous partner. Abuse is shockingly common; her experience is not all that unusual. She confessed to me that she would wake up bolt-upright at 3am, shaking from night terrors. Things that would remind her—even just a little—of her previous partner would send her into a tailspin. Even saying his name could overwhelm her and give her a full-blown panic attack.

Her story is, sadly, not that unusual. But what made her experience particularly bad was that she had an exceptional memory—something approaching either what psychologists term an Eidetic memory or Hyperthymesia, where one can easily recall with great precision images and events from your past. Being able to remember everything from where you put your keys to the little wrinkles around your first child’s eyes may sound like a dream, but for her, the experience was a waking nightmare.

For her, counselling and therapy helped her to eventually make the memories—if ever present—less intrusive in her daily life. It allowed her, if not to forget per se, to choose what to remember on any given moment.

And perhaps ironically, that is one of the chief ways in which we, as a society, use history: we use it in order to decide what to remember and what to forget. (more…)

read more
Museums and HeritageWhat is History For?

There is No “Average” Person

There’s a common idea floating around that needs to die. It’s common enough that I have heard it several times in the last months, both in professional contexts (in the mouths of august and eloquent professors) and non-professional ones. That is the idea of the “average person.”

The idea of the “average person” takes the form of the “average public” when discussing what people think about the medieval world, “average student” when in the mouth of a professor, or the “average visitor” when it comes to the museum. In common parlance we even have snappy phrases for the idea—“John/Joe Q. Public”, “John Doe”, “Tom, Dick and Harry”.

Let me be quite clear. “John Q. Public” is not real. And even if he were, we have absolutely no reason to pay any attention to him. He is, at best, a sly cover for the speaker’s ill-informed views, and at worst, a rhetorical trick designed to reinforce the status quo and the tyranny of the majority. (more…)

read more
Museums and HeritageWhat is History For?

American Medieval

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am an American. Having just returned to the USA for work after an extended life abroad, this little fact is very much on my mind. My American-ness obviously passes without notice or comment on my current continent, but I was simply not accustomed to that in Europe. There, no matter how long I stayed, my nationality and accent always set me slightly apart.

Among my friends, my American-ness usually either went without comment or elicited a bit of gentle ribbing. It simply was one aspect of my life. But some of the most push-back that I fielded when living and working abroad had to do with my profession– and why I, as an American, chose it.

Essentially, some were surprised that an American would devote their life to the study of the medieval world.

Academics weren’t the culprits, if nothing else than because of tradition; today there are as many (if not more) American medievalists as there are European ones. American scholars have been among the leaders in the field ever since the field began.

But to some others there remains a certain confusion of why, in the great Venn Diagram of life, the “American” circle would overlap with the “medievalist” one.

America: A land without a Middle Age

Lanse aux meadows
The American Middle Ages in its Totality

The confusion is understandable. Aside from a damp corner of Canada, there simply was no Middle Ages in North America. I am aware that this may be surprising or even controversial– even among historians– but it is important to recognize that “the Middle Ages” is not just a temporal category, but a geographically- and culturally-specific one.

The idea of the Middle Ages was conceived by Italian humanists in the fifteenth century as a way of setting themselves apart from what came before. They wanted to distance themselves from what (they argued) was a time of darkness that engulfed the gap between the glories of the Roman Empire and their glittering present in the fifteenth century. (This is, by the way, rubbish on a wide variety of levels but that is the topic of another post…)

And while there is argument over exact dates, causes and effects of the Middle Ages, contemporary historians usually maintain that same rough paradigm: the Middle Ages is bookended by the Romans and the Renaissance; between empire and nation, between the beginning of hegemonic Christianity and it’s fragmentation.

Defining the Middle Ages this way is different from simply saying “the tenth century AD”, which, though counted differently in each of the world’s calendars, provides a global chronology which is the same everywhere, more or less. But “the Middle Ages” is a term just as culturally to specific as “the Meiji period” in Japan or “the Vedic period” in India. Similarly, it is just as absurd to discuss the “Chinese Middle Ages” as it would be to discuss a “European Seven Warring States period”. Thus, there is no Middle Ages in the Americas, outside perhaps a fleeting Norse excursion in Vinland.

And it’s for that reason that I can understand why I often field puzzled looks at dinner parties where Europeans ask, “the Middle Ages? Why did you decide to study that?” It belies a feeling that the Middle Ages is theirs, not mine. In honesty, I suppose I might wonder the same question about an Indonesian person who was an expert in the American revolution.

But this mindset only illustrates just how ingrained in us is a nation-centric conception of history, and the peculiar limits of what is “our”  history versus “your” and “their” history.

I recently attended a conference of history education scholars from around the world. And there, I was intrigued to find that one of their chief concerns, no matter what country they called home, was deconstructing the idea that history’s purpose ultimately is to socialise people into their particular nation. Many, if not most of the scholars there rejected wholly the idea that history’s purpose is to create good citizens who all think about history in roughly the same way.

I was raised in an educational system that privileged national history, but I can see the power and appeal of their idea. Who is to say that “our” history extends only to the history of our nation? Isn’t the history of all humanity all our history? Sure, we instinctively as human animals are inclined to care more about our kin-groups than those outside them. But extending this idea out to the nation is a far bigger sell. Nation-states have a very vested interest in inculcating a sense of collective identity and history in their populace. And they have done so by dictating education curricula, days of commemoration and other ways of rendering the past into a coherent identity. Thus, “our history” implicitly ends at “our borders” in the same way that “our land” and “our people”, and “us” do.

But is that wholly true of the Middle Ages in the USA? Is it really so true that the Americas are so devoid of the medieval? Americans have had, and continue to have a peculiar relationship with the Middle Ages that does not fit within the usual chronological or cultural.

Give us your poor, your tired, your medieval…

Part of the American love affair with the Middle Ages relates to a collective and individual desire among white American people to see themselves as a product of a complex immigrant past. In the USA as in across Europe there was a revitalization of interest in the medieval world at the end of the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth. In Europe this worked in tandem with nationalistic movements which used the Middle Ages to define new identities for themselves. Perhaps not coincidentally, this period also saw a significant influx of immigrants to the USA, and also heralded the birth of the mass media.

John D. Rockefeller and other industrialists of the early American twentieth century famously felt that America was devoid of “culture”, and so they looked to Europe in order to acquire some. In Rockefeller’s case, this led to the importation of significant portions of five medieval abbeys, which were reconstructed as The Cloisters on the northern tip of Manhattan (which I will be talking about at greater length in a few weeks). The result of this was not just to define an American identity, but to argue that America’s common heritage is a European, medieval one. This is obviously a complex and thorny issue that I will be exploring in the coming weeks. But the overarching point here is that even though the USA might be mostly-devoid of its own Middle Ages, it is replete with medieval art and architecture collected or shipped from Europe wholesale. The Cloisters in New York. Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. The medieval manuscript collection at the Library of Congress. The Royal Armouries, USA (at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, KY).

Or the medievalesque imitators built here, made of stone, brick or plastic: The Chicago Water Tower. The Smithsonian Castle. Hearst Castle. The Biltmore Estate castle. White Castle. Cinderella’s castle.

The Real American Gothic
The Real American Gothic

Add to those the thousands of churches built as imitators of European styles. And standing above them all, the National Cathedral, resplendent in its late-fourteenth century English Gothic style.

And those don’t even count the ways in which Americans most typically engage with the medieval past today: through reenactment, playful pastiche and popular culture. Faux-medieval Renaissance Faires. Medieval Times theme restaurants. HEMA groups. Films. TV shows. Video games. The SCA.

It may be odd to be a medievalist in America. But for a public medievalist, it’s just fine.

read more