The University’s new Medieval Film Club was kickstarted by the screening of The Little Hours. The film is a loose adaptation of the first and second stories of day three of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Unlike most films set in the medieval era, The Little Hours is humorous, irreverent, and sometimes downright inappropriate. Overall, the film, dinner, and commentary by Dr. Ingrid Rembold and Dr. Charles Insley marked a successful start to the club.
Dr. Ingrid Rembold is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Manchester with a primary focus on the Carolingian Empire. I spoke to her about her experience getting the club off the ground.
What gave you the idea to start this club?
Philosophy ran a film club last year, and it seemed like it was well-received by students. I thought it would be a good way to build up a sense of cohort around the module. I also hoped that it would help interesting conversations around medievalism, the misappropriation and interpretation, and the reception of the medieval world today.
One of the things that I love teaching about the medieval world is that almost all students come in having never studied the medieval past before. This means that you are really starting from a blank slate, in the medieval world, most people come in without any preconceptions.
The exception is those that are derived from popular culture, so students are not coming in having been formally taught in medieval material for the most part. The medieval world does play a large part in pop culture today, often in ways that diverge quite dramatically from that past. It can be interesting to problematize that head-on.
Why did you settle on The Little Hours as the first film screening?
It is a comedy which is unusual in terms of medieval films. It captures something about medieval discourse as it is based on a medieval source. So much of the medieval past is centered on war, violence, and death. It is nice to start on a different descending note which can serve to capture more of the wider medieval experience. Certainly, conflict tends to leave more of a record than peace. Our sources and historians often privilege conflict as well. Conflict is certainly not the sum total of medieval experience.
On a more logistical note, it links well with gender and power. The film is more of a reflection on medieval entertainment than medieval society as a whole. It does really go into some sexualised discourse that is applied to the period in general. Often women in power are judged according to their sexual behaviour, which applies to the same discourse we see in the film about entertainment being very much built around sexualised jokes and innuendos.
Do you think fair depiction is given to the medieval world in films? Or do you think it is misappropriated?
It is much more weighted toward conflict and violence. Of course, this was a feature of the medieval world but not the only feature of it. There is also a tendency to use the medieval past to be self-congratulatory to our own society. We often see in films characters being broken down into obvious ‘goodies v baddies’ and the ‘goodies’ are ones who hold the same kind of values we do today in the modern secular study.
This is not to say I disagree with these values but it can end up leaning towards some sort of complacent towards our own society if we are drawing out people who seem the most modern and progressive according to our own values and singling out the upright more actors in these films compared to the backward medieval counterpart. Firstly, this does not lead to sophisticated plotting or character development. Secondly, it is a reductionist about the different ways in which societies can construct moral systems.
What do you think should be the focal point of films set in the medieval world?
I would love for films to move beyond simply warfare. In my teachings, something I want to convey is the shared humanity in the medieval world and how they operated under quite different social and cultural values. Medieval films are really simplistic in handling cultural differences between the medieval world and our own.
Leaning into some of these differences and exploring morality along less black-and-white lines and in ways that are less self-congratulatory about the present could be really interesting. Although that may not necessarily scream Hollywood feature.
Is there a particular medieval aspect you wish there was a film on?
I would love for there to be a film about Einhard. Einhard was the biographer of Charlemagne. He was also a craftsman, architect, and prominent statesman, wrote lots of letters, founded monasteries, translated relics, and wrote a narrative about it that told an account of angry villagers chasing the translators with pitchforks.
Beyond all of this, through his letters, we have an interesting insight into his personal experiences. He was widowed and recounted in vivid detail his experience of bereavement that leaves this wonderful image of interiority that we don’t get very often from the middle ages. He is overall a really fascinating figure.
Do inaccuracies about the medieval world in films ever bother you?
Yes and no. My work focuses on Carolingian Europe which basically does not feature in films at all. When I see films with inaccuracies they are not on topics that I work on myself. There is a film on the Carolingians which is called Pippin which is entirely inaccurate and bothered me.
In general, I am less bothered by what we think of as factual mistakes and more with approaches that flatten out the complexities of the world and reduce it to a caricature that can be very complacent in our own world today.
The Medieval Film Club is open to first-year history students on the ‘Introduction to the Medieval World’ course.
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