By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
In the course of the 20th century, Americans had become accustomed to their own brand of domesticated, often kitschy but also adorable medievalism, exemplified by medieval-themed restaurants, amusement parks, and Renaissance faires, not to mention Disney. Against the backdrop of medieval Americana, Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, revealed as an attempted continuation, albeit controversial, of a popular fascination with the medieval performance genre.
The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stands in stark contrast to the British rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and the American folk musical Godspell, both of which premiered in 1971, and which presented the story of Jesus’s ministry and sacrifice as thoroughly edgy and up-to-date—and therefore, much closer to actual medieval theatrical practices, which always depicted Biblical events as everyday contemporary occurrences, not events of the distant past.
Gibson’s Passion was vaunted as a personal and collective act of cinematic atonement which, at the same time, capitalized on mass-marketed, maudlin, and thoroughly modern religiosity. The Passion of the Christ had poses based on Mannerist (early modern) paintings; a script based on the writings of an 18th century Ultramontane ecstatic called Anna Katharina Emmerich, performed entirely in ancient Latin and reconstructed Aramaic; and almost unwatchable violence worthy of Quentin Tarantino’s threat in Pulp Fiction to “get medieval”.
From a theatre historian’s perspective, the only truly medieval aspects of this film were its inclusion of Satan as a main character (cast as an androgynous but alluring woman) and an anti-Semitism so blatant that Jewish children literally turn into demons.
A Puzzling Success
The popularity of this film among American evangelicals, to whom it was explicitly marketed and who were responsible for its commercial success, has been the topic of much commentary and puzzlement, given Gibson’s fervent Catholicism. But, this speaks to its place within a long history of so-called medieval Passion play performance in middle America.
Its reception among Catholic communities was actually more mixed, not least because Gibson is well known to be a Sedevacantist, a term that derives from the Latin phrase sede vacante, meaning that ‘the see, or seat, of Saint Peter is vacant’. This sect holds the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s to be heretical, and the current papacy to be void of authority. Hence the textual, visual, and theological sources for the film are conspicuously not medieval but post-Tridentine.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Tolkien: Architect of Medieval Fantasy World
Coming back to the American, domesticated, kitschy medievalism, alongside this distinctly homegrown Middle Ages one can also place the rather different aesthetics and purposes of medievalism as represented by the popular British writers J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both of these Oxford scholars were architects of medieval fantasy worlds, and their mid-century writings enjoyed an extraordinary cinematic revival in the early decades of the 21st century.
But their medievalism was escapist and analytical, rather than earnest and naïve. Tolkien, especially, made a conscious turn—one might say retreat—to the Middle Ages after barely surviving the mechanized horrors of the First World War which killed, as he himself recalled, “all but one of my closest friends”.
Becoming Household Narratives
Tolkien’s medievalism was deeply researched as well as deeply personal: informed by his Catholic faith; his immersion in Celtic, Germanic, and Old Norse languages and folklore; and his extraordinary linguistic gifts, which enabled him to create, not only compelling characters and storylines, but a fine-grained fictive medieval realm that can stand alongside the historical era on which he drew.
The Hobbit, a book originally written for his children, was serendipitously published in 1937 and garnered such an enthusiastic multi-generational audience that he began work on The Lord of the Rings, eventually published as a trilogy in 1954 and 1955. From their status as cult favorites, these books gradually entered the mainstream in the later 20th century, until the blockbuster film adaptations by Peter Jackson made them household narratives.
C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis was Tolkien’s younger contemporary at Oxford, and had also experienced the terrors of trench warfare on the Western Front. Raised in Northern Ireland and educated in England, he embraced atheism as a teenager and was rather reluctantly coaxed back to Christianity in his early 30s—crediting the luminous influence of George MacDonald, a prolific and influential Scottish author and Congregational minister whose own works are interwoven with the Bohemian medievalism of the later Victorian age.
While Tolkien’s Catholicism undergirds the themes he explores through the world of Middle Earth, Lewis’s science and fantasy fictions are manifestly allegorical companions to his works of Christian apologia. (Somewhat disingenuously, Lewis rejected comparisons to this medieval exegetical tradition on technical grounds—despite the fact that Aslan, as a great lion, takes the form that Christ does in the medieval symbolic vocabulary.)
Casual Misogyny and Anti-Semitism
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is never directly accessible to human mortals on the parallel plane of this Earth, although Tolkien sketched a route that would connect them. But the children of The Chronicles of Narnia are able to travel back and forth so long as they retain their innocence and openness to Narnia’s revelations. Only the older of the two sisters is eventually excluded from accessing this world, due to her newfound adolescent attraction to lipstick and stockings.
And yet, a careful rereading of these beloved works often raises a discomfort: the casual misogyny and anti-Semitism of Lewis makes one wonder how much of that we internalized, too; and it’s hard to miss the degree to which Tolkien’s description of monstrous races adhere to the Orientalizing and racist tropes of his time.
But these paradoxes are features of any medievalism: in all its forms, it can work for the good or for evil, and its ambiguities can be mustered to buttress or challenge any narrative.
Common Questions about the Cinematic Revival of Medievalism
The script of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christs was based on the writings of an 18th century Ultramontane ecstatic called Anna Katharina Emmerich.
J. R. R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published in 1937.
C. S. Lewis rejected comparisons to this medieval exegetical tradition on technical grounds—despite the fact that Aslan, as a great lion, takes the form that Christ does in the medieval symbolic vocabulary.