An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 13, 2017

G.B. Shaw: Saint Joan (Bedlam)

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan performed by Bedlam at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

Bedlam is known for staging multi-part plays using only four actors to play all the required roles—in this case Andrus Nichols as Joan, and Eric Tucker (who also directs), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe playing more than two dozen different characters and changing roles multiple times often in mid-sentence.  The result is mesmerizing theatre that trusts Shaw’s often problematic text to tell the story of a character whose life and legacy have always been the subject of, to use current parlance, alternate facts, and whose trail and execution were based on both extraordinary rendition and false equivalencies, and fueled by nationalism and its attendant concerns. Why do Shaw’s Saint Joan today? The answer is simple: the play’s relevance to contemporary events is more than apparent without even the slightest stretch.

Of the three Western European medieval figures who have continued to inform all of post-medieval aspects of high and low culture—Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Joan—it is perhaps ironic that only the real historical figure of the three should have the most complicated legacy.  Because of the surviving detailed records of the 1431 trial that condemned her to death and of the 1456 trial that exonerated her, Joan’s biography is among the most detailed of any person who lived before the twentieth century.  And the facts of her life have only been amplified by the way they have been interpreted to inform the Jehane cult and legend. Mark Twain would write of her in a book he considered his best:

“When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. The contrast between her and her century is the contrast between day and night. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was; she was a rock of convictions in a time when men believed in nothing and scoffed at all things; she was unfailingly true to an age that was false to the core; she maintained her personal dignity unimpaired in an age of fawnings and servilities; she was of a dauntless courage when hope and courage had perished in the hearts of her nation; she was spotlessly pure in mind and body when society in the highest places was foul in both—she was all these things in an age when crime was the common business of lords and princes, and when the highest personages in Christendom were able to astonish even that infamous era and make it stand aghast at the spectacle of their atrocious lives black with unimaginable treacheries, butcheries, and bestialities.”

Indeed, Joan, now co-opted in France by the Far Right and Marine Le Pen’s National Front as their role model and patron saint, remains variously virgin and whore, heretic and saint, mother of a nation and flashpoint for fascism, fanatic and madwoman, warrior and Maid of Orléans.  On the stage, she has attracted decidedly different treatments from, among others, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Zamora, Schiller, Brecht (more than once), Claudel, Maeterlinck, Anouilh, Mell, Anderson, Feiffer, and, of course, Shaw—who saw Joan as one of the first Protestants and the pioneer for rational dressing for women. (See Shaw’s preface to his play for further details.)

And Shaw’s Joan has become a rite of passage and benchmark for women actors in the way Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become for men. Among those who have played her on stage are Wendy Hiller, Uta Hagen, Siobhan McKenna, Sian Phillips, Zoe Caldwell, Sarah Miles, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, Lynn Redgrave, Eileen Atkins, and Roberta Maxwell.  And the challenges of playing Shaw’s Joan were clearly delineated by Winifred Lehman, the first to play the role, in an interview in the American (11 May 1924):

“Joan of Arc is an international religion.  It wasn’t just a sentimental song-writer who put into the mouths of millions during the war a song calling upon Joan.  He voiced a mass emotion. Something was needed beyond ourselves.  If we couldn’t all reach up to God, we could to one of His workers, Joan of Arc, her history, legend, idealization, root in our childhood.  Each member of the audience comes to the theatre with an ideal, not cerebral, but emotional.  This is why I say the actress is given an almost impossible task to fill. . . .

The lines the actress speaks show the girl wise, courageous, far-sighted, intensely human—but the lines themselves don’t show the saint.  The inner vision, the spiritual surge which lifts the role to the plane of the audience’s ideal are not in the lines but behind them.  To play the one and let the others shine through is the most difficult task in the world.”

But Andrus Nichols rises to that task.  Shaw’s Joan is not the Joan we may be familiar with from the screen who can play to the camera.  As Nichols shows, Shaw’s Joan can be self-assured; she can be cocky; she can even at times be funny.  And Nichols is more than ably supported by her colleagues who follow Shaw’s advice that both Joan’s her opponents and her supporters are not simply contrasting one-dimensional studies in black and white.

The production is done in modern dress, with some of the audience seated on stage.  This set up works much better in the second and third parts of the production, when the audience, seated in bleachers more clearly become observers as well as participants once removed in the action.  In the first part of the McCarter production, the audience sits on folding chairs on a stage that appears at first littered with random detritus, and the result is too much visual discord and disjunction.  And throughout the production, actors exit into and enter from the auditorium proper in a production that is a kinetic opening up of Shaw’s talky play, which does not include scenes easily staged as spectacle, such as the taking of Orléans, the Charles’s coronation, or the burning of Joan—all of which, Shaw averred in his preface, would only distract from the play and cause the audience to lose their train of thought..  The interaction between cast and the audience seated on the stage is most successful in Shaw’s epilogue, when the now rehabilitated Joan’s ghost appears to King “Charlie” and others, and the English soldier who fashioned a cross of wood for her to hold at the stake is given his annual day out of hell for this one act of kindness.  Shaw’s Saint Joan is a masterpiece, as the wonderful, engaging, and never dull Bedlam production makes more than abundantly clear.

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, January 13-February 12, in rotating repertory with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed by Bedlam at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ. Directed by Eric Tucker. Set by John McDermott. Lighting by Les Dickert. Fight direction by Trampas Thompson.  Featuring Edmund Lewis as the Dauphin, John de Stogumber and others; Andrus Nichols as Joan; Tom O’Keefe as Bishop Pierre Cauchon,  Bertrand de Poulengey and others; and Eric Tucker as “Jack” Dunois, the Earl of Warwick, and others.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University

February 4, 2017

Woods: The Medieval Filmscape

William F. Woods.  The Medieval Filmscape: Reflections of Fear and Desire in a Cinematic Mirror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 

Reviewer: Erin Lee Mock (

Writing about “period” film as “period film” is rife with difficulty as William F. Woods admits in The Medieval Filmscape: Reflections of Fear and Desire in a Cinematic Mirror.  Beyond the question of period itself, all studies of genre or subgenre present the problem of “quality,” and the “medieval filmscape” does so more than most.  A responsible scholar must attend to a variety of texts which include, to use Rick Altman’s term, the “semantic” elements of that genre, including many films which are frankly terrible.  Simultaneously, most scholars who undertake subgenre study do so to argue for its critical function.  Woods manages this problem structurally and through one major metaphor (the mirror), which is his greatest strength. 

Woods opens his introduction, “Our Lady of Pain: The Subgenre of Medieval Film,” by marking the breadth of the subgenre in terms which are both neutral and indicative of its variable quality.  “Blood-soaked epic, mystical sword and sorcery, legalistic monkish psychodrama—these are the medieval movies” (3).  Such a list brings to mind the subgenre’s possibilities: a committed film scholar can think of examples that run the gamut of grade and importance.  The remainder of the (quite comprehensive) introduction breezes through films like Christian Duguay’s Joan of Arc (1999), which was devastated by critics and a box-office bomb, but nonetheless typifies the subgenre.  Wood also acknowledges his own “guilty pleasures” and his enjoyment of a “gloriously bad movie,” which squares with his genial and reader-friendly style and lends credibility to his inclusive approach (26, 30). 

Wood then uses Part I to address three significant issues in the study of the medieval filmscape before transitioning to case studies in Part II.  This has become a familiar sequence for genre study, but Wood’s list of “issues” (Authenticity, Simplicity, and Spectacle) is not precisely about what is contained or addressed in the filmic texts themselves.  This choice is to his credit.  Rather than adopting what Rick Altman famously called a “semantic” approach to the subgenre, Wood’s three categories address important questions about the very existence of the subgenre: why it continues to exist, why filmmakers and viewers return to it again and again, what is at stake in its recurrence [1]?  His simple argument is that the viewer is better able to understand her own life and struggles through seeing their representations in a medieval context.

The chapter on “Authenticity” is the most difficult undertaking.  Woods announces in the chapter’s first page that “despite their mythic overtones and romance coloring, medieval movies, like medieval histories, have to deliver a convincing picture of life” and he connects this to “cinematic realism” (23).  Theories of “cinematic realism” abound and scholars and viewers have been discussing the topic since the origin of cinema itself.  Historical adaptation study is a field almost entirely concerned with fidelity and authenticity.  Sarah Salih’s essay, “Cinematic authenticity-effects and medieval art: a paradox,” alone would have done some heavy lifting [2]. Major monographs and collections on these issues appear to this day, but Woods consults only two of them.  A deeper sense of the field would have been to his benefit.

Chapter 2 on “Simplicity” is short, solid, and convincing.  The “mirror” argument—that we see ourselves in the medieval context—falls easily in line.

“Spectacle,” Chapter 3, is the strongest because it is the most original.  Woods expands the category of spectacle such that it is not the joust or the battle which suffices.  He reads royalty and religious figures as spectacles in themselves.  Because Woods presents a unique idea, he might have taken it further, perhaps exploring how such a reading might offer deeper critiques of institutions and hierarchies in both medieval and modern societies.  If these films are indeed mirrors, they supply abundant opportunities to reflect on the superficial, corrupt, and unsavory elements of modern power structures. 

Woods does, however, grapple a bit more with the potential for critique as he moves into Part II, his case studies.  Two of these chapters (three case studies) rise above the others for their ambition.  These first two chapters not only add nuance to Woods’s earlier themes, but regard films which are strange and aesthetically overwhelming.  

Woods begins Chapter 4 by considering The Advocate (Megahey, 1993), a rich and sophisticated text.  As Woods puts it, “[i]n perhaps no medieval film are audiences so insistently invited to scrutinize, evaluate, and go beyond the information given” (62).  Without a thorough knowledge of the subgenre, I’m inclined to agree.  The film portrays Richard Courtois (Colin Firth), a wealthy French lawyer based on Bartholomew Chassenee and is cynical nearly to the point of nihilism.  Courtois is an animal advocate and the film is rife with images of animals which are beautiful, but just as often disturbing.  Woods addresses this visual landscape as a backdrop for a what he calls “protocols,” rituals which make the experience more “real” for the viewer as they seem so particular to the world of the film (68-9).  While some of the connections he makes (Thoreau, for example) seem like non sequiturs, I admire his willingness to confront such a complex film.

Chapter 5 in Part II may be even bolder, taking on canonical films by canonical filmmakers, The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Woods immediately dispatches with this, moving immediately from their reputations to their purpose in The Medieval Filmscape, writing that “they are less interesting as icons of high modernism than for the powerful ways that they exploit the conventions of medievalism. . . . in each case an unrelenting focus on a spiritual quest that has never seemed so nakedly and humanly genuine as it does in these two films” (76).  He offers a consistent summary and description of The Seventh Seal, especially contemplating the opening scene, arguing as he has that the medieval context allows the viewer to ponder the merging of the “mundane and the transcendent” in our own lives, as our character Jof has one.  Regarding La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Woods makes the point, familiar to film scholars, that Dreyer’s close-ups create an intense intimacy with Jeanne d’Arc (Maria Falconetti). Woods’s mirror metaphor is most apt and powerful in this example (86).

Chapters 6-8 consider texts which seem less interesting to this cinema-minded reader, though a medievalist is likely to see their importance more clearly (i.e. lesser works by important filmmakers like Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le gallois and Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, as well as films by less well-known directors, including Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose [1986] and Daniel Vigue’s The Return of Martin Guerre [1982]).  For example, aesthetic quality aside, French Arthuriana more than merits a chapter.  I was interested again though by Chapter 9, in which Woods begins to apply his notion of the “mirror” to a more specific modern context, writing on Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005).  Here, Woods even mentions the filmmaking context: “Scott issued copies of the early script to historians and others whose opinions might carry weight with the public, it became apparent that the crusades themselves, let alone the Iraq war, had not ended” (155). Woods argues then that Scott’s script requires a “privileging of eastern culture,” even as it indulges in what is “unashamedly a celebration of Orientalism” (166).  Though Woods himself does not make this argument particularly, this Orientalism—the film sets up Jerusalem as a place for Balian (Orlando Bloom) to “find himself”—may in fact “mirror” American notions of the Middle East at the time (166).  Woods argues later that “the measure of ethical authority in this film is ultimately the culture of the East,” but that the East allows a sort of wealth that Balian ultimately rejects, and it’s hard not to see Scott imploring Western divestment from the conflicts—and the oil—of the Middle East (174).  This more explicit politics of the “mirror” elevates the metaphor as Woods nears the end of his argument.

Oddly, in the Epilogue Woods seems reluctant to put his finger on that which is reflected in the mirror, even as he gestures toward “the self-made man,” “the striver,” “the Pony Express,” “freedom and equality,” and “two political parties,” among other things.  Is it a version of modern American-ness that he is arguing is reflected or reflecting?  I suppose I wish he’d told us.  The end of the book however justifies its premise: the “mirror” is not the tautological or trite metaphor it may seem, but a way of thinking through “period” and genre which has the potential for multifaceted uses.

Erin Lee Mock
University of West Georgia

[1] “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Cinema Journal 23.3 (Spring 1984): 6-18.

[2] In Medieval Film, eds Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009).

January 25, 2017

Metzler, Fools and Idiots?

Irina Metzler. Fools and Idiots? Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Lauryn S. Mayer (

While both the figure of the court fool and that of the medieval madman have been the subject of numerous publications, research on medieval perceptions of intellectual disability has been relatively neglected. As Metzler notes in her introduction, “the overarching interest of historians has been in the more glamourous acquired madness rather than folly or idiocy” (2). Interest in the topic has also been hampered by the all-too-prevalent construction of the Middle Ages as simple, primitive, or childish, a place where intellectual disability would be inherently less visible among the populace, or by excessive caution in applying modern diagnostic criteria to a pre-modern phenomenon. Moreover, there are serious obstacles in doing hard analysis of instances of intellectual disability in the Middle Ages: since intellectual disability was seen as incurable, and the figure of the idiot was rarely deemed a danger to herself or others, there is a severe lack of medical evidence or institutional documentation of cases of intellectual disability. Given all these challenges, it is impressive indeed that Metzler has managed to craft such a careful, comprehensive, and nuanced study of intellectual disability in the Middle Ages. 

Metzler’s introductory chapter (“Pre-Conceptions: Problems of Definition and Historiography”) sets itself the task of defining what intellectual disability would have meant in the Middle Ages, and uses modern medical definitions as an entry point to examining their medieval counterparts, while acknowledging the care needed to avoid imposition of categories where they are not appropriate or justified. Her task is to try to distinguish types of intellectual disability that can be seen as primarily biological in origin, and thus less prone to charges of cultural relativism (the recent conflict surrounding the diagnosis in children of ADD or ADHD, sometimes simply from their inability to sit still for extended periods of time, is a timely reminder of the way a society may pathologize behavior that may, in another culture or period, be seen simply as natural or age-related). She therefore selects for her field of inquiry neurodevelopmental disorders as the kind of disorders that will provide the greatest stability for analysis; as she argues, “they are all developmental, in other words either congenital or connected to specific developmental stages of infancy, childhood, or adolescence – they all manifest before adulthood and then remain with the person for life” (4). Their application to the Middle Ages comes from the kinds of circumstances that produce these disorders: “genetic syndromes, congenital metabolic disorders, brain malformations, maternal disease, and environmental influences such as alcohol, toxins, and teratogens” (5), circumstances which, as she argues, “would have been likely risks during the medieval and any other period” (5). 

While she founds her study on these more stable disorders, it is important to note that she is not, thereby, refusing to examine the way discourses about these disorders were created and disseminated in the medieval period, and thus deftly charts a middle course between over-simplistic arguments for biological determinism or complete social construction of intellectual disability, using the medieval idea of multivalent truths as a guide: in quoting Ian Hacking’s portrayal of critical anxiety that “something can be both socially constructed and yet ‘real’”, Metzler comments that medieval intellectuals “had an easier job, by splitting a single monolithic ‘truth’ into a number of ‘truths’ according to divine or human, natural or otherworldly modes of understanding”(7). In sum, her project is to examine how neurodevelopmental disorders are discussed across an array of medieval texts, and to try to glean from often scattered and opaque references a picture of medieval attitudes toward intellectual disability. 

Chapter Two explores pre-modern terms used to describe intellectual disability in a wealth of languages: Semitic, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle High German demonstrating, in the process, the rich and subtle array of terms that argue for a high pre-modern sensitivity to the kinds and degress of intellectual disability an individual might manifest. For example, Metzler looks at the contexts of the terms stultus and fatuus, arguing that the former referred to “philosophical stupidity, that is, doing something stupid despite having the capacity not to do so” (39) as opposed to the fatuus, “who is foolish because he can’t help himself” (39). 

Chapters three through six build on this semantic foundation, and look at the discourses of intellectual disability as they appear in the realms of natural science, philosophy and law. While these chapters, with their rigorous and exhaustive winnowing of texts for mentions of intellectual disability, are invaluable as a resource for future scholars, of particular interest for the medievalist are the ways in which they help to create a more complex view of medieval medicine, philosophy, and law to counter tropes about the “primitive” Middle Ages: how premodern explorations of intellectual disability reveal an early interest in materialist explanations for the phenomenon, a precursor of current interest in genetics and molecular biology, how medieval legal terminology was fluid not because of imprecision because of a wide array of terms for both idiocy and insanity, allowing a particular official to choose the term that best fit the situation, and how rather than there being a cultural conflation between the natural (inherent) fool and the artificial (professional) fool, medieval society had a long tradition of distinguishing between the two.

The final chapter (“Reconsiderations: Rationality, Intelligence, and Human Status”) traces the influence of the rise of clerical culture in the thirteenth century and its interest in categorization, classification, and labelling on discourses of intellectual disability. The thirteenth century, Metzler notes, “saw the outpouring of ordered, standardized, measured, and … rational scientific texts” (222). This phenomenon led inevitably to the greater pathologizing of people with intellectual disabilities: “[u]nder the older, more random, fluid descriptions, each case of ‘idiocy’ was individually described and, if in a legal context, judged on its own merits against a fairly diverse and mobile set of criteria. That is frustrating for historians, because it does not give us a neat, consisten definition to get our teeth into, but it was probably good for people with IDs. In the absence of definite criteria and diagnostic standards, fewer people were pathologized and more people were just ‘getting on with it’ in whatever daily life they may have had” (223). 

Metzler concludes her volume by comparing the necessarily rich, fluid, and contingent labelling practices of the “primitive” pre-modern period as practiced on the category of intellectual disability, with the oversimplistic descriptive and evaluative practices too often applied to the Middle Ages by our more “complex” culture, concluding an impressive work of rigorous research with a timely warning against our own potential folly. 

Lauryn S. Mayer                                                                                                                    
Washington & Jefferson College