At the time I was finishing the edits and proofs for my book Why Study the Middle Ages?, the trailer for the new film Medieval came out. I honestly at first thought it was a parody given the terse, seemingly satiric, generic title, but soon discovered that it is a cinematic version of the early life of the fifteenth-century Czech and Taborite national icon and general Jan Žižka. It was originally titled Jan Žižka or Warrior of God, which seem much more apt to the subject material, but Medieval is what will release in the United States on September 9th, 2022.
Watching the trailer, I sighed heavily and pulled out my mental “medieval trope” bingo card. I also began thinking how the film seemed to reinforce the need for my book, which is written as an introductory guide that gathers and organizes information, current events, and scholarship for non-specialists, including undergraduate students. Medieval’s director, Petr Jákl, has claimed, “Nejdůležitější pro mě je ve vyznění filmu ta podstata” (“The most important thing for me is the essence in the tone of the film”), hinting that historical authenticity perhaps was simply not the main goal, yet it is worth examining how the trailer reinforces some popular – and sometimes dangerous – misconceptions about the Middle Ages that I explore in Why Study the Middle Ages?. These are all the more significant given the film’s broad title that unwittingly seems to claim to represent the whole of the period!
Commenting on the Medieval trailer posted in the Significance of Studying the Middle Ages Facebook group, Laura Bedwell humorously related how her son jested that apparently, based on the film’s gloomy filter, “even color was not invented until the Renaissance.” Truly, if a vast percentage of films set in or inspired by the Middle Ages are to be believed, it was a “dark” time – quite literally. The sun clearly did not shine, and there was little color in any environment or landscape, let alone any architecture or textiles. The gray lens filter has possibly done more in the modern era of spreading the erroneous image of the pernicious “Dark Ages” coined by Petrarch in the fourteenth century than any other perpetrator.
While acknowledging that the story of Jan Žižka revolves around military exploits and a series of wars, so it would be unusual for a narrative about him not to include several battles, Medieval is once again a film set in the Middle Ages that emphasizes brutal violence, reinforcing the popular (mis)conception that there is little else going on in the period. In addition to the battles, there is also the storyline focusing on the kidnapping of the main female character, Katherine, perpetuating the (mis)understanding of the Middle Ages as always and exclusively promoting violence against women (even if at times it certainly did) and as a time when all women had little to no agency (even if at times they certainly did not).
These concerns aside, it will be interesting to see how they represent the disability central to Žižka’s life, which resulted from the violence of war. He lost one of his eyes during the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 and then the other in 1421 in the siege of the castle of Rábí, becoming fully blind. As this film is set during the first part of Žižka’s life, prior to the Hussite Wars (1419-c.1436), and given the bandage that appears across one of his eyes in part of the trailer, we can assume that it will cover the story of acquiring this impairment (Jákl has joked that, when he consulted experts about which eye Žižka lost first, “o pravé, nebo levé, byly jejich názory padesát na padesát (“the right or the left, their opinions were fifty-fifty”). The loss of his eye is an integral part of the historical Žižka who was popularly nicknamed “One-Eyed.” Reportedly undefeated throughout his military career, he is well-known for being an extremely effective general beloved by his soldiers until his death in 1424, providing an example of a medieval person with a disability who is noticeably neither ostracized, removed from their position, nor looked down upon for their impairment.
Besides the main character Katherine, the only female-presenting individuals in the trailer briefly appear in the background of two (one very blurry) scenes, and it isn’t obvious if they have any real roles in the story. Medieval’s IMDb page lists only four female-presenting actors, including Sophie Lowe, who plays the lead. To put it mildly, this film is male-dominated. Jákl has acknowledged that he added a love story to emphasize Žižka’s youth, but the lone woman adrift in a sea of testosterone only serves to emphasize that there is nominal female presence, presenting yet another tiresome image of the Middle Ages as aggressively male.
In addition to a shortage of female characters, there is also a noticeable lack of characters/actors of color. As a matter of fact, none of the characters present as anything other than white. As such, the trailer does not represent the reality of the Middle Ages as a whole (see more resources on race and medieval studies) or, more specifically, the multicultural description by the tenth-century Hispano-Arabic traveler Ibrâhîm ibn Ya’qûb (translated by Dmitrij Mishin): “The city of [Prague] is built of stones and limestone. It is the richest place in goods. Russians and Slavs come there from Karakwa with goods. Moslems, Jews, and Turks come there from the country of the Turks and bring goods and trade balances.” Whether the goal of this film is more to represent “the essence” of the story and the period, to adhere to “historical accuracy,” or to create a national Czech epic (to consider what is at stake in such an endeavor, see the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe 2020 evaluation reports on the Czech Republic), people of color should be present.
My book provides various ways to think about how the study of the Middle Ages is significant, doing so through two threads in particular: disability studies and diversity studies. That these two fields of study prove useful in analyzing the Medieval film demonstrates how meaningful and ubiquitous they truly are. The above observations are made exclusively from viewing the trailer, and I certainly hope that the film itself renders them irrelevant. But even in something as seemingly innocuous as the next medieval/Medieval film, it’s important to recognize these issues and not to support problematic myths. Hopefully, Why Study the Middle Ages? can help readers appreciate the (perhaps unexpected) complexity of the time period, find topics about which they are inspired to learn more, and become informed audiences of the medieval in modern encounters.
By Kisha G. Tracy
You can buy the book now here!
 #MedievalSoMuchMore: I want to acknowledge that the hashtags used here are inspired by the Twitter activism of April Reign and the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which has since led to many other movements.