Myra Seaman and Erica Carson

College of Charleston

34th Annual Meeting: Southeastern Medieval Association

Saint Louis University

BABEL Panel: The Place of the Medieval in the Present

American Interventions in the Medieval Present


Our talk reflects work Erica and I recently performed with the support of a grant from the Summer Undergraduate Research with Faculty program at the College of Charleston. Erica wondered why chivalric narratives, with their fundamental elitism and sexism, seem to speak so loudly to mass audiences in America. We read many medieval chivalric romances and watched a number of relevant films in an attempt to grapple with that question. Today, we will be presenting some of our conclusions, through discussions of 1985 film Ladyhawke (with Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Rutger Hauer), Dragonheart from 1996 (with Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery), and the two 2001 films A Knight’s Tale (with the late Heath Ledger) and Black Knight (starring Martin Lawrence).

Audiences across America this summer responded with great enthusiasm to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, making it the second-highest grossing film in American history. As the film’s title indicates, it makes the caped crusader into a Dark Knight, mingling two powerful heroic figures—the modern superhero and the medieval knight. The movie’s representation of Batman participates in both heroic traditions. As Commissioner Gordon explains in the movie,  the hero is “a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.” In this film, the medieval is brought to the modern, fused with the story of a troubled city’s defender--we call this a medieval intervention in the American present. [pause] In many another American film, as our title indicates, the modern intervenes in the medieval. It brings to an imagined Middle Ages a faith in capitalism, individualism, and social fluidity that it presents as comfortably coexisting with the chivalric ideal. The present is then itself shaped by its medieval encounter, improved by the incorporation of distinctly medieval qualities such as truth, loyalty, and honor.

The films Dragonheart and Ladyhawke demonstrate how apparently traditional representations of the medieval past make room for American ideals without seeming to shake our expectations of the Middle Ages. Both movies deploy, without irony, the medieval material milieu: a faraway setting of kings and knights invested with the magic of legend and myth.  Both narratives revolve around a representative of chivalry whose idealism has been lost in the face of a brutal anti-chivalric reality; each former hero needs to be reminded of his commitment and encouraged to restore the proper chivalric balance.  In both films, this gap provides the opportunity for those typically marginalized by chivalry due to their status or gender to be included. These figures are in fact wholly invested in the courtly values being cast aside by those who should be preserving them. In this, we see a modern “correction” of medieval hegemony: the presumably universal values it is shown to have rightly promoted through the ideal of knighthood are no longer sourced in aristocratic blood but rather in individual character independent of social hierarchies. This produces for modern audiences a more socially palatable image of medieval chivalry, replacing class-based nobility with a system of individual morality, while maintaining the ideals of honor, justice, and self-sacrifice.

The film Dragonheart situates its medieval as a mystical realm complete with flying dragons and a paternally guiding disembodied voice of King Arthur. Yet it portrays a society where the existing monarchy is corrupt and no longer promotes what the film cryptically refers to as the “old code.” Though inexplicitly defined, this “old code” sounds suspiciously like the chivalric code of Arthur’s Round Table. The social contract constructed by the “old code” promotes a fundamental respect for life that strongly implies an equality among all socio-economic levels. Emphasizing this value, the film incorporates marginalized social groups, both women and peasants. It goes so far as to include what had traditionally been the enemy of the chivalric knight: the dragon. In the mythology of Dragonheart, with the turn away from the old code, dragons fell from a place of reverence and trust to hunted prey. Things have devolved to the point where Bowen, a former dragonslaying knight who was previously so honored that he was mentor to the prince, is in desperate cahoots with the last living dragon, Draco: they develop a scam to cheat villages out of money by performing a staged dragon kill. The “old code” has given way to a society in which those who previously worked together to pursue the social good are cheating one another of what little is left to them by the corrupt king.

The film’s de rigeur merry band of heroes is produced when a rebellious peasant woman, Kara, can no longer convince her fellow peasants to try once more to defeat the wicked king. Desperate, she urges Bowen to take up his sword and champion the intangible idea of the “old code”—a quest she herself has already singlehandedly undertaken, though to succeed she needs the assistance of other believers. The film’s final battle affirms the necessity of the peasantry to the heroes’ success. Though even the most glorious of medieval knights needed assistance during their quests, their help appeared from within the aristocratic realm, in the form of lions and enchanted rings or weapons gifted by ladies. Modern films are not limited to a closed realm of aristocratic symbols and instead take the opportunity to include non-aristocratic assistants to the knights; they create a limit on the knight’s ability that can be compensated for by the efforts of ‘common’ people. A sense of collective achievement is derived from the marginalized individuals’ necessity to the hero’s achievement of his quest. In fact, the masses ensure their own fate, making the victory their own rather than that of a single commanding leader. This democratization of the heroic speaks directly to an American audience’s desire that the heroic be attainable by all. In medieval chivalric narratives, peasants appear only very rarely, and most commonly peasantry is used as a guise (deliberate or unintentional) for a young noble seeking to earn his knighthood and display his true nobility. Modern films fulfill their audience’s expectation of basic equality and potential for individual greatness among the masses by sharing greatness well beyond those of noble blood. In many cases, such as Dragonheart, the most aristocratic are in fact the most fundamentally corrupt. In addition, heroic knights are more fully humanized through their embodiment of an undeniably flawed version of the medieval ideal.  Modern audiences are reassured that even the greatest of men, the great knights of legend, are still men.

In the medieval fairy-tale world of Ladyhawke, those in power abuse their improperly acquired power. While Dragonheart focuses on the political balance of power in a world that has lost its heart by turning away from its former courtly code of conduct, Ladyhawke focuses directly on the heart itself: it investigates the way political corruption can displace courtly love. Here, the marginalized figure appears in the form of a single peasant who joins forces with the betrayed nobility to remind them of their central identity. Isabeau and Navarre, two noble lovers suffering from a curse placed on them by their political enemy, are aided in their quest by Mouse, a lower-class thief who regularly injects American views into a romantic medieval world. Mouse, though indigenous to this world, is a figure for the American viewer with his surprise at the various conventions of the time and at the chivalric romance genre he inhabits. His practical, no-nonsense approach to the conflicts he encounters with Navarre and Isabeau are shown in contrast to their noble ideals, which are utterly idealistic and elevated—and regularly self-defeating. While they are tragic and intense, and even fatalistic, Mouse remains happy-go-lucky and optimistic. The contrast is, on the one hand, rooted in their class distinctions; but Mouse’s ability to play different roles, particularly to take on different class perspectives as the moment requires, aligns him with modern social mobility. This feature is highlighted by shifts in his accent and register to suit his class environment. When needed, he puts on airs, waving money around and speaking in what to modern American ears sounds a rarified universal British English. Otherwise, unlike his comrades, he indulges in a distinctly contemporary American twang, and when he speaks directly to the viewer, as he regularly does, he’s all American. Finally, he injects modern American notions of romantic love into a conventionally medieval romance setting: he chastises Navarre for cherishing his family sword (and his family, and his own personal success and reputation) more than he does Isabeau and the relationship with her; Mouse insists that this should be (in the modern version of courtly love that Mouse assumes for them) Navarre’s primary focus. In this case the American corrective to the medieval chivalric system is to maintain the focus on the individual—on the love shared and created by the two lovers, rather than on duty to family or reputation. The ideals that heterosexual attraction served to inspire and uphold, knightly valor and social concern, are, in this American revision, problematic obstacles to personal romantic fulfillment.

While Dragonheart seems especially invested in championing the non-aristocratic and thus “everyman,” Ladyhawke’s appeal to American audiences comes in terms of its praise for a rare love. The medieval emphasis on personal satisfaction through fulfillment of duty is explicitly replaced with emotional fulfillment. Indeed, the American representative in the story injects the narrative with the emotion that, from a modern perspective, seems ironically to have been removed from the medieval story. As Angela Jane Weisl observes, Mouse “experiences the wide range of feelings [the hero and heroine] seem to eschew” (176). As the reader of their story who narrates it and thus determines its meaning, Mouse supplies the affect that is often missing in this (like many a medieval) romance. Indeed, when Navarre remains focused on his vengeance quest, Mouse translates his words of determination into those of love. Even Isabeau refuses the legitimacy of Mouse’s reading of Navarre’s words, but for the modern American audience, Mouse is saying exactly what we expect to hear of a medieval romance. In this role he perhaps most immediately reveals what continues to speak to modern tastes: an overtly masculine narrative that makes an emotional appeal.

Dragonheart and Ladyhawke are driven by a desire to make space for American ideals within an ideology that appears to exclude them, by revising aspects of the medieval world, especially by presenting previously marginalized characters as the saviors of the true medieval virtues. In contrast, A Knight’s Tale and Black Knight create a new medieval realm that fundamentally assumes American values, in particular a pro-capitalist world where class fluidity and the autonomous individual are givens. In Ladyhawke Mouse is unique in seeing his identity as a commodity in a capitalist system: while collecting wood and feeling disrespected by Navarre for his manual labor, he insists, “I’ve got prospects!” as only an American really can. In that film, he alone views the world from this perspective; in Black Knight and A Knight’s Tale, the medieval world represented is one that has been improved by the importation of a modern consumerist orientation; this orientation is embodied in those previously marginalized, the commoner and the woman. 

A Knight’s Tale is a hybrid of past and present, coherently meshing medieval images and concepts with distinctly American values in the journey of William Thatcher. William is the son of an artisan who finds a way to “change his stars” (to use the film’s tag line) and in doing so becomes a knight purely by proving his worth at tournament. An opportunist in the “rags to riches” tradition, William seizes his moment to joust for prize money in his recently deceased master’s armor. At this point in the film he is not a knight, only a man in ill-fitting borrowed armor. Jeffrey Cohen points to the body of a knight as comprising not simply a man but his equipment and mount as well; essentially, a knight is not a fully defined entity without his armor (57). The knightly body is an extension of the body of a man, incorporating metal and animal into a single, fluid, identifiable form. William’s use of his master’s armor is thus an act of fraud that extends beyond the impersonation of an individual; it is the attempt to transform the body of a peasant into the body of a knight, each human form alien to the other. The knightly body emerging from William thus grows from unique—and modern—foundations. His armor is supplied to him by a widowed farrier, Kate, who designs sleek, fitting armor that has a modern appearance and sports a proto-Nike® swoosh; this touch further promotes the capitalist and individualist spirit in the film. William’s knightly body is a social byproduct, a means to an entrepreneurially driven end, that of “chang[ing] his stars.”

Similar American ideals—in the form of an actual American—are literally inserted into the Middle Ages in Black Knight, where the imagined medieval world is presented with tongue firmly in cheek. Like Kate in A Knight’s Tale, Jamal manifests capitalist America’s perception of the modern world as defined by the market. Jamal, working at a run-down medieval themed amusement park in South Central LA, Medieval World, finds himself transported to fourteenth-century England and thrust in the middle of political intrigue. His response to the undernourished peasants and self-satisfied aristocracy he discovers there? Develop his own line of basketball-style fashion for the knights and draw up plans for ubiquitous Jamal-in-the-Boxes to feed the masses. The medieval folks he encounters eat it right up, presumably sharing Jamal’s faith in the market forces that, at the start of the film, are shown to have done Jamal and his neighbors no favors in 20th century America. There, we see the nasty side-effects of modern competitive corporate culture: the moat at the castle where Jamal works is littered with rusty bikes and fast food bags—castoffs of the consumption-driven economy. The owner-manager of the amusement park, Mrs. Bostick, despite her twenty-seven years in the community, enjoys no loyalty from her workers. Indeed, one has sprayed graffiti on the castle itself, and Jamal and his co-workers speak enthusiastically about going to work at Castle World, the new corporate medieval theme park being built nearby (and distinctly not in South Central). Yet wherever he sees injustice or inequality in his medieval surroundings, Jamal finds a quick panacea in capitalist consumption. Even medieval misogyny can be fixed with an indulgent afternoon at the salon having a bikini wax.

As in Dragonheart, the corruption of the king is revealed by his mistreatment of the peasantry, typified in the execution of a peasant who stole a turnip from the castle garden to save his family from starvation. Jamal is outraged, and the king is positioned as deserving of overthrow. The rebels are led by the homeless man Jamal met upon his arrival in the Middle Ages, and it appears that justice is served by the uprising of the workers. However, this is no peasants’ revolt: the homeless man is actually the aristocratic defender of the improperly ousted queen; her return is procured by the rebel aristocrats spying at the court of the false king. The egalitarian urge implied by Jamal’s initial surprise at inequities in his new medieval environment is revealed to be something more cynical: he is surprised that the leadership would be so blatant in its disregard for public opinion, such a concern in the modern American marketplace. Neither the medieval peasantry nor the modern workers should, it is clear, be “in charge”; rather, their rulers (or, bosses) should take care not to appear tyrannical.

Medieval England is, however, less overtly changed by its encounter with modern America than is Jamal’s LA by his time among the aristocrats. Upon his return to his contemporary urban world, Jamal brings with him a medieval set of ideals, centered on notions of loyalty and honor, which encourage him to stand by Mrs. Bostick as she takes on her new competitor. Rather than running away to the apparent sure-thing of Castle World, he helps his leader figure out how to refurbish and take on the corporate challenge. He has become a devoted servant to his lord, and they both benefit as a result—as we are assured by the promise that here, back in his world, because of what he has discovered on his journey, he deserves the girl. In Black Knight, the play space of the medieval world is one where the American learns to bring universal ideals espoused by chivalry back to the entrepreneurial modern world and become a greater success as a result. 

As much as the modern intervenes in these recreations of the medieval, the medieval resonates in the modern characters and ideas within the films and without. Modern audiences are presented with narratives promoting American values in the guise of the medieval, but the guise is what allows for the ideal potential of the American. Consumerism and capitalism are promoted, but they are laced with a sense of honor and morality newly found through the medieval—and, it seems to be assumed, unavailable within contemporary American culture itself. American individualism is similarly infused with the passion of working together for a greater common cause. The dialogue between the modern and medieval, constructed a variety of ways in these films, is reciprocal, each employing the other to supplement and perfect core values.

Works Cited

A Knight’s Tale. Dir. Brian Helgeland. Perfs. Heath Ledger, Mark Addy. Columbia Pictures, 2001.

Black Knight. Dir. Gil Junger. Perfs. Martin Lawrence, Marsha Thomason. 20th Century Fox, 2001.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Medieval Identity Machines. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003.

The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perfs. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger. Warner Bros, 2008.

Dragonheart. Dir. Rob Cohen. Perfs. Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis. Universal Studios, 1996.

Ladyhawke. Dir. Richard Donner. Perfs. Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer. Warner Bros. 20th Century Fox, 1985.

Weisl, Angela Jane. “The Hawk, The Wolf, and the Mouse: Tracing the Gendered Other in Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke.” Race, Class, and Gender in Medieval Cinema. Eds. Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 169-82.