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Stay Silent or be Damned! Modern Portrayals of the Medieval Cleric

The late medieval English cleric gets a pretty raw deal in film, TV and in popular histories. Where they appear at all, they are often ciphers, materialising merely to fulfil some dramatic function such as crowning a usurping monarch, or conducting the marriage of a pair of love-struck aristos.

Des 1
Friar Tuck experiences existential crisis

Those priests, bishops, nuns or friars who do get a speaking role, almost always appear as sinister and pretty unpleasant pieces of work. They are certainly not people you would have wanted to meet in the ale house! One notable exception of course is that deeply anachronistic character, Friar Tuck. He appears in all of those Robin Hood adaptations as a robust and comic foil to the noble Robin, and wanders around late twelfth-century England unaware that he cannot yet exist. The Franciscan friars made their arrival in England in the 1220s, decades after the demise of good King Richard.

One character who struggles greatly to make it on to celluloid at all, let alone into the era of the talkies, is John Morton, chancellor to Henry VII and cardinal archbishop of Canterbury. Morton was present at the notorious meeting of the royal council in June 1483 when Richard duke of Gloucester, soon to be the scoliotic king Richard III, had William Lord Hastings taken out for summary execution. However in a recent TV adaptation of this celebrated moment, a pair of unidentified clerics were portrayed as sitting in the room, saying nothing (as usual), and then being ignored while the action moved on. In real life, both Morton (then bishop of Ely), and his episcopal colleague, Thomas Rotherham, archbishop of York, were arrested and imprisoned, and it seems likely that only their clerical status saved them from an early visit to eternal life. But why would we want to hear from them? Morton subsequently went on to become archbishop of Canterbury after the death of the previous incumbent, Thomas Bourchier. There can be few more overlooked clerics than Bourchier.

Des 2
Elizabeth Woodville, the ‘White Queen’

In another great TV moment, Elizabeth Woodville, that famous White Queen, who was by now the sorrowing widow of the defunct Edward IV, was shown in Westminster Abbey where she had sought sanctuary with her younger son, Richard duke of York. The man who arrives to persuade her to give over young Richard into the tender care of his usurping uncle is, according to the TV script writer, Henry duke of Buckingham. The fact that it was actually archbishop Bourchier is clearly an inconvenient fact that cannot be allowed to get in the way of a good piece of ‘historical’ dramatisation. Bourchier gets it in the neck from academic historians: he has been described as the teflon archbishop for managing to survive at Canterbury despite being the man to crown Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. Little wonder then the poor public get no sight of him.

Des 3
Thomas Wolsey, Tudor villain

John Morton’s time at Canterbury takes us into the Tudor era, and by the reign of Henry VIII, the only cleric in existence seems to be Thomas Wolsey. Now there for once is a man who gets to say plenty in any film or TV adaptation, especially when his words condemn him as some self-serving, bloated windbag, ripe for a well-deserved downfall (hurrah for the Reformation!). As for all those sinister, foreign and clearly murderous Jesuitical characters who pad around movies of Elizabeth I, no more need be said.

Des 4
Janina Ramirez presents a popular past

But returning to the medieval period, there are times when even those who should (and may) know better succumb to the temptation to sex-up our silent clerics for the purposes of entertainment. In her TV series on the medieval monasteries, the frequently seen Janina Ramirez presented a very tired old narrative of those long-vanished religious houses. From their distant golden age when heroic monks tamed, or at least endured, wildernesses, she drew a contrast with the later centuries when the fat monks of Westminster chomped their way to a decadent and sclerotic monastic twilight. The feuding monks of twelfth-century Bury as recounted by Jocelyn of Brakelond must have been an aberration in Janina’s eyes. Also overlooked by her were the nuns of many Yorkshire religious houses who struggled on through the centuries, despite their grinding poverty.

Des 5
The mysterious ‘Bishop of the Black Canons’

To finish, we must look again to Robin Hood and to that mysterious churchman, the Bishop of the Black Canons. His appearance alongside the wicked prince John (played with glorious style by Claude Rains in the 1938 movie), shows us another clerical villain (none more devious and scheming!). The Augustinian canons of the time would have been surprised to learn that they had a bishop, never mind that he was so in cahoots with the princely John Lackland. The wicked ‘bishop’ confirms the rule that if a cleric speaks, he must be a very bad person indeed.

Des Atkinson, PhD student in History

Douglas Fairbanks, Robin Hood, and the Scop-Knopping Past

On Friday night I attended a screening of the 1922 film Robin Hood at the Barbican Centre in London. In addition to bringing a silent cinema classic back to the big screen, the event also showcased Neil Brand’s rousing new score for the film, which was performed live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The new music is certainly an improvement on the soundtrack attached to the film on Youtube, however, as with most film scores, it is the visual spectacle rather than the music that stays with you.

Robin Hood PosterRobin Hood was one of the most expensive and extravagant films of its day. It was an unashamed vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, as clearly indicated by the film’s official title: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. Fairbanks helped to adapt the story (he is credited under his middle names ‘Elton Thomas’) and gave himself, in effect, three roles to play: first, the Earl of Huntingdon, a virtuous, chain-mail clad knight; then his alter ego, Robin Hood, marked out by his hose, goatee beard, and bow and arrow; and, underlying both, the charming matinee idol version of himself. The latter is alluded to most obviously following his defeat of Guy of Gisbourne in the opening tournament, when it is revealed that the Earl of Huntingdon/Fairbanks is afraid of women. The physically imposing and jovial Richard the Lionheart, played with gusto by Wallace Beery, finds this hilarious – and encourages all the female spectators at the tournament to mob him. Poor Fairbanks is forced to dive into the moat to escape and, luckily, isn’t hindered by his stunt chainmail.

The pace of the film is somewhat surprising. The first hour and a quarter of the story is devoted to the initial set-up in which the Earl of Huntingdon falls in love with Marian, is wronged by Guy of Gisbourne, and then abandons the crusade to save England from Prince John’s tyranny. At this point, Robin Hood makes his first appearance and the final hour of the film gallops along at a much merrier pace: Robin’s outlaw band prance all over the screen as they save the oppressed people of England; Robin rescues Marian, brutally kills Guy (the new score includes a rather nasty crack as his spine snaps), is captured by John and saved from a Sebastian-like martyrdom by the arrival of King Richard. At the climax of the film, Robin and Marian marry – and poor Richard, who seems to think that, as their monarch and their chum, he is entitled to hang out with them on their wedding night, finds himself locked out of their chamber. There is much to raise the modern eyebrow in this film, not least the bromance of lingering looks between Robin Hood and Little John – particularly in contrast to the rather chaste and motherly relationship between Marian and Robin.



For the medievalist, there is also much to amuse. The films opens with the statement that ‘history – in its ideal state – is a compound of legend and chronicle’, which, while irking the purist, probably represents popular attitudes to medieval films both then and now. FranceThe same liberal approach is evident with regard to the sets. Robin Hood’s landscape draws on the extant architecture of the medieval past and the distorted structures of medieval illustration. When the camera follows Richard’s crusader army to France, Nottinghamthe audience is presented with an open plain and turreted castles perched on rocky outcrops, which seem culled from later medieval manuscript imagery. Back in England, Nottingham has been given similar treatment: it has the small, warped structures and large doorways of dwellings in manuscript-land. CastleFinally, the cavernous inside of the royal castle mixes the height, space and light of a Gothic Cathedral with romanesque arches that could never have supported such a structure – and is quite different to the pokey palaces of medieval reality. This strange world also finds expression in the intertitles, which are deliberately archaized to the extent that they are sometimes a little difficult to understand on first reading. There is also a classic piece of medieval-sounding gibberish textually uttered by Friar Tuck as he prepares to test the fighting skills of a mysterious stranger:

Scop 2Luckily, the context of the exchange gives meaning – “I’ll knock your block off” – to what are otherwise meaningless words (ah, the magic of cinema!).

So what did 1920s audiences want from Robin Hood and the Middle Ages? Well, above all, they wanted Fairbanks and they wanted him in an extravagant setting. Robin Hood was a high-end, lavish production that came hot on the heels of Fairbanks’ smash hits The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). The film offered a suitably strange and archaic ‘impression of the Middle Ages’, which both accorded with audience expectations and provided Fairbanks with the fantastic backdrop needed for his latest swashbucking epic.

Dr Helen Birkett

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