The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds by Larisa Grollemond & Bryan C Keene; The Middle Ages and the Movies: Eight Key Films by Robert Bartlett - review by Thomas Shippey

Thomas Shippey

Merlin, Magic & Mel Gibson

The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds


J Paul Getty Museum 134pp £25 order from our bookshop

The Middle Ages and the Movies: Eight Key Films


Reaktion 288pp £16 order from our bookshop

One of the useful concepts introduced by modern literary theory is that of an ‘imaginary’ (adjective used as noun), by which is meant a collective picture of an era derived from books, films, television and so on, very generally recognised. The most obvious example in the modern world is the ‘Wild West’, created by scores of B-movies and hundreds of episodes of The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and Bonanza, and consisting, as we all know, of gunslingers, wagon trains, stagecoaches, saloons and, of course, ‘cowboys and Indians’. One of the features of this imaginary, and indeed of most imaginaries, is carelessness about dates and background: things changed a great deal in the Wild West between 1830 and, say, 1870, but the changes are rarely reflected on screen.

Is there, likewise, a ‘medieval imaginary’, and if so, what are its features? Larisa Grollemond and Bryan Keene’s The Fantasy of the Middle Ages contains all the materials required to form an answer, but it is not an issue which appears to interest them. Indeed, they seem cautious about approaching the Middle Ages (as commonly understood) in any way at all. The authors declare on page two that it is a ‘misperception’ that the Middle Ages are about and for ‘fully abled, white, wealthy, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender men’, effectively repeating this list on page fourteen (films about the Middle Ages are ‘masculinist, heteronormative, non-magical, and whitewashed’) and again on page seventeen (medieval fantasy is often ‘white, heterosexual, and cisgender, among other exclusive categories’). Concentrating on everything that does not fit such lists is fair enough as a goal, but this means the authors leave out a great deal, in fact the great majority, of modern images of the Middle Ages.

In a way, this hardly matters. Grollemond and Keene’s book, published by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is essentially a large-format picture book, the collections of that museum and many others being used to illustrate nearly every page. It also has a preface by Michele

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