History of the World According to the Movies: Part 10- Life in Medieval Europe


I couldn’t post anything about medieval France without posting a picture of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc of 1928 by Danish director Theodore Dreyer. This is a very historically accurate film yet also a very emotionally intense one as well. Definitely one of the last masterpieces in silent film.

Finally, the Middle Ages, I’d like to devote this post to medieval life as well as to history in other medieval countries. Whenever medieval movies, don’t take place in England, they’re usually set in France, since England has history with it. However, unlike medieval Scotland, which is presented fairly inaccurately on the screen, movies on medieval France don’t have as many historical errors on screen. Of course, Joan of Arc is a popular subject who existed in the later Middle Ages (where the medieval outfits and weaponry are depicted more accurately) and that much of the script for Joan’s trial is usually taken from the actual transcripts. Still, there’s also a movie called The Advocate which recalls the story of pig being accused of murder during the 15th century, which actually happened. In Medieval Spain (which you wouldn’t call it yet), you have the subject of El Cid, one of the great Spanish heroes played by Charlton Heston. Also, in this post, I’ll talk about the historical errors in movies on medieval life, which have been shaped by popular perceptions in the media.

Medieval France:

King Philip II Augustus was hot. (Sorry, Lion in Winter fans, but he in no way resembled Timothy Dalton. He was hunchbacked and ugly. However, unlike his handsome but ineffectual dad, he was an admirable warrior and wily politician who annexed to France most of Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine’s lands. In Lion in Winter, it’s correct to assume that Philip II is spending Christmas with the Plantagenet because he knows that once Henry II dies, his sons won’t measure up to him, making it the perfect time to take over their lands, which he did. Also shared a bed with Richard the Lionheart, but this doesn’t prove anything about their sexual orientation since bed sharing was a common historical occurrence.)

Giles de Rais was one of Joan of Arc’s companions, an all-around man’s man, and a successful soldier. (Yes, but he was also known as a serial rapist and killer of children which did him in at the end and was an inspiration for Bluebeard. However, some historians claim he was framed though.)

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a witch. (Officially she was burned at the stake for relapsed heresy like cross-dressing and even though she agreed to wear a dress, her captors stole her skirt and replaced it with pants as part of a set up. In reality, she was burned by the English {the English side, she was actually burned by the Burgundians} because she led the French to victory during the Hundred Years’ War, so the English were just looking for any excuse.)

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the English. (She was burned at the stake by the Burgundians. However, the heresy charges were very much trumped up.)

French King Philip Augustus tried to invade England. (Actually his goal was to retake French soil from the English. Thus, unless you count the French lands England occupied at the time, he didn’t. However, his son did when King John broke the terms of the Magna Carta.)

Notre Dame had a full flight of stairs from the square to the front entrance. (It has always been level with the square.)

Joan of Arc’s gender was her downfall. (Her downfall was political and would’ve happened whether she was male or female. Being a woman just made it easier for her enemies.)

Horseshoes were used in France in the 12th century. (They were first used in France a century later and shoeing horses didn’t become practice until the 17th century.)

Charles VII was a foppish prince who fought at Agincourt. (He actually didn’t fight in Agincourt and wasn’t really a fop or mocked by a constable of France behind his back. Also, he’s the one who enlisted Joan of Arc so he was probably doing something right.)

Joan of Arc actually fought in battle. (Yes, she served on the front lines to rally her troops to victory but she never killed anyone as well as functioned more like a mascot than anything else. Still, she did help reform the army by expelling prostitutes and mandating confession {probably the closest thing her troops will ever have to therapy} and Mass attendance, banning swearing, looting, and harassing. She also played a major role in her army’s tactical decisions as well.)

When Joan of Arc was 8, she saw English soldiers burn her village as well as raped and kill her sister. (This is in The Messenger but this incident has no basis in reality. However, Joan’s village was raided in 1425 and 1428. The raid in 1425 was carried primarily by Burgundian soldiers in which they burned a church and stole some cattle. The 1428 raid forced the d’Arc family to flee to another village. Yet, as far as we know, Joan’s family went unmolested in both incidents.)

Joan of Arc was a borderline psychotic. (Joan may have been a saint but she wasn’t known for being polite since she was known to be rude to clergy, royalty, and military commanders alike. She was a teenage peasant girl after all. Yet, unlike her depiction in The Messenger, Joan was also brave, quick-witted, and charismatic. Milla Jovovich’s portrayal doesn’t show these qualities. Still, no one in the 15th century thought she was nuts.)

Joan of Arc was a true saint. (Well, as lovely as she was Joan wasn’t above threatening her enemies with massacres and actually carried it out on one occasion with hundreds of civilians killed in the process. Also, she told at least one woman to stay in the kitchen. And one of her confidantes would later become a famous medieval serial killer. No Mr. Rogers, but Joan certainly would qualify as a living saint by 15th century standards.)

Joan of Arc was pretty. (I think the Maria Falconetti portrayal is probably the closest to what you’d expect a 15th century teenage peasant girl to look like. However, she certainly looked nothing like Ingrid Bergman for she was said to be quite short with dark hair.)

Medieval Spain:

Alfonso and Urraca were an incestuous couple. (Historians still debate that. However, their father King Ferdinand did manage to have five kids who fought each other, made Muslim allies, shagged Muslim princess, hatched world domination conspiracies, and assassinated each other. So their family life was like Game of Thrones.)

El Cid was selfless and hostile to Muslims. (The historical El Cid was said to be more self-seeking and less hostile to Muslims than his legend. Actually he was willing to work for Muslims if they paid them he enough and actually fought both sides equally. Still, he was a mercenary who was more interested in establishing his own fiefdom in Valencia as well as cared more about being paid than in anything relating to Christendom and war.)

Navarre was a poor kingdom. (It gave Richard the Lionheart an impressive dowry when he married Berengaria, which wouldn’t have happened if it was poor. Also, Richard could always use the money.)

Castile and Leon were a united kingdom in the 1180s. (They were united in the 1230s.)

El Cid called victory for Spain. (Spain didn’t exist until the 1400s, and El Cid lived in the 11th century.)

Emir Yusuf al-Mutamin of Zaragoza wanted to conquer Castile and Leon. (He didn’t attempt to because he was at war with his own half-brother. Also, he didn’t give Rodrigo Diaz the nickname of El Cid and they didn’t become close until Diaz joined Yusuf’s army as a mercenary.)

Dona Jimena hated Rodrigo Diaz for killing her father but she married him anyway. (This may not have happened but it’s in the poem about El Cid, so I’ll forgive the filmmakers for it.)

El Cid took Valencia by giving bread to its people. (Aw, that’s sweet but it’s bullshit. He actually ransacked the surrounding villages, starved the city, took it by assault, and seized all its riches. Still, he didn’t offer the crown to Alfonso but ruled the area himself.)

El Cid died in agony on the battlefield. (He died in 1099 during peacetime of some unknown cause.)

Yusuf ibn Tashufin was defeated at Valencia. (He managed to lead the Almoravids to victory at Valencia in 1102. Not bad for a 96 year old man.)

Medieval Scandinavia:

Flagellantism was prominent in Sweden during the Black Death. (It never made it there.)

Medieval Russia:

Gavrila Alexich participated in the Battle of Ice. (He was killed in 1241 while storming the fortress of Koporye.)

Alexander Nevsky refused to ally himself with Batu Khan of the Golden Horde. (He actually did enter into a controversial alliance with him, but only 10 years after the Battle of Ice. Of course, Sergei Eisenstein knew this and wanted to put it in, but the Soviet government wanted none of that.)

Alexander Nevsky clashed with the boyars over proletarian revolution and redistribution of wealth. (Yes, he did clash with the boyars but not over concepts that would be as authentic to them in the 13th century as electronics. Obviously, Soviet propaganda here.)

Holy Roman Empire:

Alberto da Giussano killed a boar just before it gored Frederick Barbarossa. (Alberto da Giussano was said to have been a great warrior of the Guelph faction leading the Lombard League to victory at the Battle of Legnano in 1176. That is, if he ever existed, which there’s no firm evidence for that.)

Frederick Barbarossa was an old man when he married his 13-year old wife. (Yes, he married a 13 year old girl but he was 34 at the time. However, in his biopic he’s played by a 65 year old man which makes the relationship much creepier than it really was.)

The Battle of Legano was a decisive battle. (It wasn’t. Frederick Barbarossa was considering a truce during it.)

During the siege of Milan Frederick Barbarossa strapped prisoners on the siege towers so the Milanese couldn’t attack him without killing their fellow citizens. (He actually did this but not at Milan. Rather it was at the siege of Crema in 1159. And he only did this because the Cremese were hacking imperial prisoners in front of his army.)

Medieval Life:

Medieval Europeans were dirty, smelly, and rarely bathed. (This is only true in towards the end of the Middle Ages when it was rumored that bathing mad e a person more susceptible to disease. Yet, for most of the Middle Ages, people usually washed their hands before and after dinner and took communal baths so they probably didn’t lead the most sanitary lifestyles but they didn’t smell like shit either.)

Life in the Middle Ages was nasty, brutish, and short and peasants worked nonstop for lords who cared nothing about them. (This only partly true considering the high child mortality, wars, and lack of medicine but if a person managed survive childhood and if other things didn’t kill him or her first, he or she could managed to live to his or her seventies. Also, peasants worked eight hour days and were off the third of the year including Sundays.)

Everyone except nobles and clergy wore rough brown clothing. (Actually, even ordinary people were skilled and knowledgeable in making clothes that some authorities had to ban certain dyes were only reserved for royalty and nobility. They were also well made, had buttons, and pockets.)

In the Middle Ages there were only two classes that consisted of nobles and royals and peasants. (The Middle Ages also saw the formation of a middle class which consisted of traders, skilled tradesmen, performers, artists, and investors.)

Women were treated as second-class citizens whose place was in the home caring for household and children as well as making babies on demand. (Though women weren’t allowed fight in battle, run for office, or become a priest, this didn’t mean that women were just baby making machines since most women did almost the same thing their husbands and fathers did and even ran estates and businesses. There was even a woman who ran England’s entire beer industry. They also became nuns which allowed them access to education that even kings didn’t have. Not to mention, they didn’t wear chastity belts either. Also, read the Wife of Bath’s Tale. Yes, people in the Middle Ages were sexist but not to the degree that is depicted in movies. Still, there was much more discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, and social class than on sex.)

People in the Middle Ages were prudes. (Actually, these were the days when a whole family would sleep naked together in one room and even little children knew where babies came from for there wasn’t much privacy at the time. Not to mention, most people would assume any couple living together was married whether that was true or not. Also, even though priests were expected to be celibate, most people wouldn’t be shocked if their priest fathered an illegitimate child with his housekeeper which was not uncommon either. Then we have Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which isn’t the most family friendly literature out there. Oh, and fart jokes are some of the oldest ones in the book.)

Real Men Don’t Wear Dresses. Costume designers often fear that actual male medieval clothing looks like a dress and will confound the gender expectations of their audience. Medieval tunics and robes can end up morphed into short jackets, smoking jackets (Knight’s Tale) and dusters (Timeline). Hosen tends to turn into pants (Knight’s Tale) and trousers (Branagh Henry V) [From A Common Place Book]

Bad Hair. The modern filmmaker is really reluctant to put their characters, and particularly protagonists, in hairstyles they think their audience will find unflattering. (Thus the unmedieval bangs in Timeline and the ’30s mustaches in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. Olivier’s Henry V and The Warlord show rare courage in putting their heroes in appropriate haircuts that look unflattering to many modern eyes.) [From A Commonplace Book]

The antagonists are Yucky. Cardboard Villains can be unattractive in other ways, to make them even less sympathetic. The Edward II in Braveheart is a weak and mincing effeminate. (The historical Edward II was physically strong, well-formed and vigorous, whatever his moral faults.)The Commodus in Gladiator was a dark, puffy faced dissolute. (His historical model was an athletic blond.) Alternatively, the Cardboard Villains can have bad teeth or other deformities. (The Messenger) [From A Commonplace Book]

Droit de Seigneur, the legal right to deflower unwilling virgins would have been a great way to be a Cardboard Villain if the institution had actually existed in the Middle Ages.  [From A Commonplace Book] (Well, if it did, it was called feudalism in which nobles and royals could do anything they wanted to the commoners. And no Lords wouldn’t claim any right to “rape” another man’s wife {saying this could mean excommunication and a peasant revolt}, they would just simply pressure the woman to have sex with them or he’d have her loved ones killed {which he could actually do}.)

The king had the right prima nocta which was the right to sleep with any man’s bride on her wedding night. (Actually, this may be true if it referred to his own right but he also had the right to screw any woman he wanted, regardless of the woman’s marital status. And women had no right to say no to him. Also, lords can do the same thing to their subjects.)

If you are a princess, you always have a favorite lady in waiting, and you always send her to warn the hero of the evil king’s intention just in time. [Movie Cliches List]

Corollary: the lady in waiting is never quite as beautiful as the princess; however, she still always catches the eye of the hero’s sidekick. [Movie Cliches List]

Horses never get winded, throw a shoe, etc., until the pursuing sheriff is right behind the hero. [Movie Cliches List]

Corollary: the wagon that breaks an axle or gets stuck in the creek is always the one carrying the king’s entire treasury, which he totes around with him every time he goes gallivanting through bandit-infested countryside. (Kings would never carry their entire treasury with them.) [Movie Cliches List]

Everyone in the Middle Ages lived in a lovely half-timbered house with two bedrooms and a stone fireplace.

Noblewomen were passive and were never taught how to fight. (Just because noblewomen were taught to stay at home didn’t mean that they were passive damsels in distress either. Noblewomen actually did learn the basics of combat and siege defense. You wouldn’t want the lady of the manor be unprepared in case the enemy attacked when the lord wasn’t around. So this means Merida and Fiona were more like real medieval princesses than Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Eowyn only deviates from the norm because she wants to fight with the boys in battle.)

Trial by ordeal was a common judicial practice in the late Middle Ages. (Since Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Council of the Lateran had banned clergy from participating in the practice, it had been in decline since 1215 as well as been used rarer and rare in the official capacity. Compurgation or “wager of law” was more often used in which an accused would swear an oath and get at least 12 people to swear that they believed them was more or less the standard practice in the Late Middle Ages.)

The Black Death first came to Europe in the 1300s. (Actually there were plague was behind many major epidemics in ancient times. So, there probably was a plague around the time of King Arthur.)

Almost every medieval state was a monarchy. (Venice was a republic while a good chunk of Italy was ruled by the Pope.)

Everyone in the Middle Ages was an uneducated moron. (Actually the reason for the lack of education was because most people in that time were peasants and books were expensive for they were copied by hand {making universal education almost impossible}. They didn’t have extensive trade and travel infrastructure either. Also, most people during the Middle Ages were just as smart as anyone else in any other time period of history.)

The Iron Maiden was a medieval torture device. (It was invented after the Middle Ages, and there’s no record on whether it was used even though Uday Hussein had one.)

No one ever had sex outside of marriage or before marriage. Also, that all marriage ceremonies — even of peasants in small outland communities– were performed by priests in a church. (Cohabitation was common in the Middle Ages that some couples got married in a church before middle age. Also, most women didn’t have any right to refuse sex from their resident lord if he wanted it regardless of the moral standards of the time.)

The drapery not only kept the draft out of the castle but was often used for people to hide behind while eavesdropping on a conversation which was usually about them.

Medieval outlaws were generous Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. (They were more or less self-serving rogues who caused a lot of trouble in their local towns and skipped trial. Still, many outlaws in England did manage to become knights. Yet, they usually came from all walks of life.)

Medieval people had no table manners. (From Medievalist: “While food was eaten with hands, spoons, and knives (forks weren’t popular in most of Europe until the seventeenth century – they were considered “too Italian” and effete), then, as now, eating was a communal activity, and (since people most often shared plates and cups) was not enjoyable if your companion had no manners. Entire treatises were written on correct etiquette, and encouraged things such as offering the best of the food on your plate to the lady, wiping your fingers on cloth, and wiping your mouth before taking a sip from your shared cup, so that you did not leave a slick of oil on top of the wine.”)

Men tried to control their women with chastity belts. (There’s no evidence chastity belts were ever made or used in the Middle Ages. Rather there’s no evidence of chastity belts until the 18th century.)

People used spices to cover up the taste of rotten food. (From Medievalist: “I suppose this might have been useful when there was very little food to be had (although, in that case, why would you have expensive spices hanging around?), but it was by no means the norm. Most people at this time were involved in agriculture – they knew when food was good and when it wasn’t. There was little point in eating food that had gone bad, since it was risking making yourself dangerously sick, or worse. It is much more likely that spices, if used for camouflage, were used to make staple foods more interesting (much like ketchup).”)

Druidism still existed in Western Europe during the 11th century. (Paganism had largely been eradicated by the 8th century there while druidism died out in Pre-Christian Imperial Rome.)

Paper was a standard medieval correspondence material in the 12th century. (It was invented in China in the 2nd century and didn’t make it to Europe until the 13th century.)

Syphillis existed during the Middle Ages. (Didn’t make its first appearance in Europe until 1494 and wasn’t coined until 1530.)

People in the Ages could accurately tell time. (Mechanical clocks weren’t around until much later.)

Condemned criminals had tomatoes thrown at them. (They didn’t exist in Europe until after Columbus.)

Some people in the Middle Ages wore glasses. (They were invented in the 16th century.)

Torches were used a lot in the Dark Ages. (From Policy Mic.com: “Torches were certainly used now and then, no doubt about that, but they were not used anywhere near as liberally as Hollywood would have you believe. First of all, most torches would not be able to be lit for more than an hour, ruling out having them lining the walls of castles to provide light. Secondly, having torches inside would be a terrible idea given the small issue of smoke.

“Most importantly, torches do not really provide much light. Movies are full of mobs carrying torches as they run through the darkness looking for someone, or people using torches to light their way. While a torch can certainly help you see the area immediately around you and cast light on large objects, it is not all that great for seeing more than a few feet ahead. If you were looking for someone outside in the dark, you would be better off ditching the torch, using the moonlight, and letting your eyes adjust to the darkness. If trying to get around your castle at night, a simple candle would suffice.”)

Medicine was mostly best on superstition. (Yes and no. Sure it was bunk, dangerous, as well as depended on humoral theory and astrology. But you also had some effective treatments and some of the first medical colleges.)

Executions were used for almost every offense imaginable. (From Policy Mic.com: “In reality, the Middle Ages typically saw the death penalty reserved for only serious offenders who committed the crimes of murder, treason, or arson. Torture was not really widespread. The most common forms of punishment included public humiliation and fines. Repeat offenders were usually exiled. The Middle Ages also maintained trials for those accused of crimes; verdicts were not strictly the decisions of kings and noblemen.”)

The most frequent form of execution was beheading. (From Policy Mic.com: “Beheadings were usually reserved for the noble classes and done in the privacy of courtyards rather than in the town square. Also, it was very rarely one swing and done; the typical beheading took 4 or 5 swings to decapitate the head. If the executioner was unable to kill the convicted by that point, the person usually just ended up bleeding to death.

“The most common form of execution in the Middle Ages was hanging. It was easy, it did not cost much, and you could let the bodies hang out for a bit as a warning to others. If a criminal was particularly hated, he would be hanged, drawn, and quartered, a very unpleasant form of punishment that popped up in 14th-century England as a penalty for high treason.”)

Turkey legs were a favored medieval dish. (People in the Middle Ages would know nothing about turkeys since they lived in North America. Diets usually consisted of eggs, bread, fish, cheese, oats, vegetables like cabbage and turnips, and ale.)

People in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. (No one in Medieval Europe ever believed this.)

People ate off of pewter plates and threw bones to the floor. (Peasants ate from wooden plates while nobles usually ate from silver and locked since it was a good way to carry if one needed to make a hasty departure. Also, no they didn’t throw bones to the floor for the dogs to eat.)

Blacksmiths made horseshoes and swords. (Most of the time, they’d be making farming implements.)

Most people didn’t eat rats in the Middle Ages. (This was a common meat among poor people.)

Noblewomen were sent as diplomats in the 14th century. (Royal women had little privacy even under the best circumstances and would certainly not be left alone with an enemy {unless they were her relatives, but still}. Of course, they were sent as diplomats {well, as marriage partners in political alliances} usually in circumstances where they’d be related to the family. As for noblewomen, they were more or less needed to take care of the home like protecting it from invaders.)

Nobles raised their own children during their school years. (The kids would normally be sent to somewhere else for their education like another noble’s home, convent, or monastery. Fostering was very common back then.)

Courtly love was a popular theme in the Middle Ages. (Yes, but so were stories of war, religious stories, and ones that may not be suitable for children. Also, medieval women also loved their filth, too.)

Feudalism was a hierarchical and harmonious way of living. (It was anything but because royal power was rather decentralized and the nobles usually fought amongst themselves. Also, it’s not unusual to put feudalism as another reason for the Crusades.)

Skilled craftsmen can end up impoverished if unemployed. (Skilled craftsmen had guilds to help them out and usually didn’t face much poverty. And if a master craftsman died, his wife may run his business for him or one of his journeymen might marry her.)

Primogeniture was the rule in medieval society. (Only in the later Middle Ages.)

Kidnapped women were often damsels in distress. (Sometimes women would arrange their own kidnappings to get out of an arranged marriage. Sometimes they may even do the kidnapping, which is how Robert Bruce’s parents ended up together.)

All servants were peasants. (High ranking nobles had high ranking servants, especially when primogeniture was the main inheritance rule. Many of these were younger sons of nobles. Also, they were overwhelmingly male.)

People ate with forks since the 12th century. (Only for a few Italy and in the Byzantine Empire, they were teased mercilessly for it. They didn’t become more in style until the 16th century.)

Medieval men wore practical and functional clothing. (Aristocratic men’s fashion of the era could get pretty ridiculous in the later years).

Cremation was a common practice in medieval Europe. (It wasn’t and in some place it wasn’t even legal.)

Inns were public houses with big common rooms below and rooms above. (It’s more complicated than that. Some inns had bars. Some didn’t. Some had only a single room with several beds that could fit 3 people each. Only upscale places had rooms with one or two beds. You also had alehouses where you can have some drink as well but no rooms. Yet, they can function less like the fantasy inns you see and more like the Mos Eisley Cantina. But a tavern can also be someone else’s home. People can even stay at other people’s houses or at a hospital.)

Medieval castles had bare stone walls inside. (A lot of castles had murals inside since nobles wanted to impress visitors with their wealth.)

Most people stayed home during the Middle Ages. (This is true for a lot of Medieval people. However, some did go on pilgrimages and participated in war. So that counts.)

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