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

November 27, 2022

Barbarians/Barbaren, Season 1

, Season 1

Reviewed by Katrin Thier, independent scholar

[Contains mild spoilers]

The recent release of Barbarians season 2 on Netflix (German: Barbaren; 2020–) invites a rewatch of the first season of this Roman-period historical drama set in northern Germany. At this point, I should probably apologize for sharing my musings in this forum, as the setting appears to disqualify the show from being medieval by the very definition of the European Middle Ages as post-Roman. However, in spite of its early setting, it contains much that is familiar from medievalist drama. Some of this is in the conventions of storytelling - when the Romans ride into the village to demand tribute, it is a scene familiar from more than just the various adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. On another level, the show also deals with a national myth of the kind that otherwise often hearkens back to the Middle Ages, and which is traditionally associated with this mode of storytelling. And last but not least, the early Middle Ages of northern Europe provide a ready source of material to fill in the substantial gaps in our knowledge of the non-Roman peoples of earlier centuries.

The plot is set just over 2000 years ago, during the expansion of the Roman Empire to the north-east, across the Rhine and into regions that are now largely part of Germany, where indigenous resistance culminates in a major battle that annihilates three Roman legions. This battle is a matter of historical record and was a key part of a series of events that eventually established the Rhine as a boundary of the Roman Empire, shaping the further history of the region.

It probably works in the writers’ favour that very little is known of the events surrounding the battle, providing much scope to fill in the blanks without much risk of colliding with recorded history directly. The surviving accounts fill a handful of pages, and except for one short piece, these were all written at least a century later, by writers with their own political agendas (the Annals of Tacitus being the most prominent among them)[1]. A small group of the show’s central characters have been taken from these texts: Arminius (Lawrence Rupp), his father Segimer (Nicki von Tempelhoff), his wife Thusnelda (Jeanne Goursaud) and her father Segestes (Bernhard Schütz), his brother Flavus (so far only seen in flashbacks as a child), and his adversary Varus (Gaetano Aronica). Everyone else is fictional.

It probably also helps that the series rides a wave of English-language offerings such as Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and (Roman-era) Britannia, in which the past is presented as an essentially alien world, at the same time ancestral and (attractively) exotic, far closer to the medieval-inspired fantasy worlds of Game of Thrones than to the reality of the viewers’ lives. And while the general dearth of information can be a blessing for the plot, it can also be a curse when it comes to making the setting credible, and this is where the series relies most heavily on the medieval – or on established perceptions of what the medieval should be.

Visually, this is fairly overt: most of the Germanic characters look like they have wandered over from an early medieval reenactment event. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; it makes much of the clothing look more believable than the costumes in some other shows in the genre. Noticeably, Barbarians is much lighter on leather and furs (although use of the latter increases with time). Instead, some cues have been taken from Tacitus’s ethnography Germania, such as cloaks pinned at the shoulder, and bare-armed women’s dresses, but the gaps in the written record are largely filled in by a generic “medieval everyman” look of trousers and tunic (to the point of ignoring relevant archaeological evidence for the period in question[2]), but tempered with some items that seem to owe more to the 1960s than to antiquity (like the sheepskin vest in episode 1). The hairstyles follow the familiar “barbarian” stereotype of beards and long hair also seen in other shows of the genre, here contrasted with (historically plausible) short-haired and clean-shaven Romans. But although a simple combination of long hair and beard should appear timeless, many of these are cut in more inventive ways that would not look out of place on a 21h century street (or re-enactment event). What does look out of place, by contrast, is the authentic ‘Suebian knot’: a hair knot on the side of the head worn by a small number of (mainly background) characters, and actually attested from the period in both texts and archaeology.[3]

A more successfully alien past can be found in the world of religion, but where Vikings and The Last Kingdom cast paganism against Christianity, this is not an option for Barbarians, which is set at the same time as the gospel stories. Instead, Germanic religion is contrasted with Roman rationality (channelling modernity). While the supernatural underpinnings of Germanic life are hinted to be real, even if this is sometimes awkwardly realized, the Roman gods are ineffectual, and Roman science and technology are portrayed as largely irrelevant, and in the end, defeated.

Some aspects of Germanic religion in the series are clearly based on the classical texts (especially Tacitus), but again, the information is sketchy and open to creative interpretation. Tacitus’s repeated reference to the high status of female seers allows the series to largely sidestep the shieldmaiden stereotype: while Thusnelda is portrayed as a competent fighter (and accepted as such), her claim to leadership comes from her (alleged) connection to the gods and the resulting gift of prophecy. Tacitus also identified two deities, which are generally taken to be forerunners of the gods now most widely known in their Scandinavian guises as Odin and Thor (to fans of Vikings and Marvel alike). This apparent continuity (backed up by other sources, textual and archaeological) allows the writers to import more detail from the mythology surrounding these deities in medieval texts, such as Odin’s sacrifice of an eye, taken from later Scandinavian texts. This seems legitimate in the context of dramatic license, especially as the series uses the name forms Wodan and Donar, taken from related medieval languages of what is now Germany[4], so more appropriate to the setting of the plot.

Language on the other hand, is used to create both familiarity and difference. The consistent use of Latin by Roman characters has been widely commented on; by contrast, the use of modern German on the Germanic side establishes the non-Roman point of view of the narrative: the viewer is expected to readily understand one side while relying on subtitles for other, in a way that occasional Old Norse and Old English ‘flavour’ scenes in other shows cannot achieve. The specific identity of the modern language is immaterial; German is primarily just the language of the country in which the show was produced. That said, the accents (even of the Austrian lead) are northern, as appropriate for the geographical setting; and when Germanic characters pronounce Latin as it is still taught in German schools, Varus comments in disgust; his own pronunciation is based on a more recent academic tradition (familiar to modern British learners), and is delivered by an Italian actor. Medieval influence can be seen in the names of several (though sadly not all) of the fictional characters; these have been taken from attested names in various medieval Germanic languages (e.g. Berulf, Folkwin, Ansgar, etc.). The most unfortunate exception is Arminius himself, for whom we only know this Roman by-name, which has no recognizable Germanic origins. The solution to just call him Ari somewhat grates, as it is so obviously not in synch with the more complex names of other characters. However, the alternatives would have been either to make up something completely different, which would have created unnecessary distance, or to fall back on a longstanding (though linguistically untenable) association with the German name Hermann (Middle High German Heriman)– which poses a rather different problem.

This is because there is a significant further angle to the very existence of this series: for all the global reach of Netflix, which doubtlessly had to be considered in its conception, Barbarians is a German production, written first and foremost for a German audience. Germany has had a complicated relationship with the story of the battle and its characters: there is no medieval tradition, but since the scarce Roman accounts were (re)discovered in monastic libraries in the late 15th century, they have provided material for countless adaptations, focussing variously on the individual characters and on grand politics, with the protagonist being renamed Hermann from an early date. The collaboration of disparate Germanic tribes against an overwhelming Empire also supplied a focus of national identity for a politically disparate German people, first during the Reformation against the Roman Church, and later more politically in the resistance against invasion from Napoleonic France. The story also played a part in the eventual formation of a unified German state in 1871 - before being made complicit in the country's worst crimes in the mid-20th century. And while its historical significance made it impossible to ostracize it entirely, after 1945 it was deliberately pushed back into the realms of historiography (or at least, non-fiction), with the Roman name of Arminius (rather than Hermann) largely reinstated[5]. Against this background, the series needs to be read as another step in an ongoing process of reclaiming an abused national myth, made possible by international trends in historical drama.

Arguably, the rehabilitation of the material began in 1970 with a detailed reassessment of the scarce historical sources, including the new suggestion that the battle was not the result of a highly coordinated campaign, as it had traditionally been presented, but a revolt of Germanic military units within the Roman army[6] - two narratives which the series manages to interweave into a consistent whole. When in the late 1980s, a major battle site of the period was discovered in Northern Germany, it was quickly interpreted as the location of this battle, and while this claim remains contested[7], it helped to (re-)capture the public imagination: to many German viewers, the ceremonial mask Arminius wears during his first scene is instantly recognizable as a reproduction of the most spectacular find[8]. But despite this renewed interest, the bimillenary celebrations in 2009 were low-key and marked by exhibitions designed to educate about Roman history and the pitfalls of myth making: recasting this particular tale as fiction is still a risky undertaking.

The writers elegantly deal with one of the more difficult aspects of the tradition, the nationalist notion that the many Germanic ‘tribes’ had always been part of a one larger people, unitedly standing up to an external invader. In the show, the concept of a Germanic people is only mentioned once in the German dialogue, at a gathering of leaders, who mock the Romans for using a single name – because they clearly can’t tell them apart. The German dialogue here uses the word Germanen, which now exclusively denotes the ancient peoples (as opposed to Deutsche, members of the modern nation); however, this distinction is obscured by the use of ‘German’ in the English subtitles. Otherwise in the German dialogue, the various Germanic peoples are referred to by their separate (and historically recorded) names, with only the Romans falling back on (Latin) generalizations.

The writers have taken care to refer back to the framework of history by references to the surviving texts, grounding the fiction and lending credibility, even though changes have been made even to this scant material. An example is the marriage between Arminius and Thusnelda, whom he is reported to have abducted at an unspecified point in time, but after she had already been ‘promised to someone else’[9]. The intended husband is given his own subplot, using information Tacitus provides about marriage arrangements, but while the eventual match with Arminius in the series is primarily political, Segestes mutters that his daughter has been stolen – tying the plot back to its source.

Beyond this, the fictional part, which makes up the majority of the plot, concentrates not on grand politics, but on the lives of individuals, and especially on the motivation for the lead himself. Arminius is presented as an individual caught between two cultures, that which he had been born into, and that which he had known for most of his life. He and his brother are shown (in flashbacks) to have been brought to Rome as child hostages, one of several historiographical theories to explain their presence in the Roman army. The series adds the idea that they were fostered by Varus himself, adding a personal dimension to events, which serves to override more abstract questions of cultural identity: on one level, Arminius is forced to choose between one family and another. In addition, his personal ambitions of leadership are firmly established before his defection and remain unchanged: after first working for his advancement as a Roman officer, he then succeeds in becoming the head of his own people (for which the series uses the reconstructed word reik[10]), and eventually talks of kingship, of leading more than one group.

In the end, the battle feels more like a stepping stone towards this aim than the decisive event as which it has often been presented – and again it feels as if this was a deliberate choice. Although it features the hyperviolence and fantasy elements that are prerequisites for the genre, the battle is over surprisingly quickly (while the ‘original’ is thought to have lasted several days). It is also largely presented in hindsight, with Arminius’s reflections after the event as voiceover narration, again bringing history down to a personal level. The final cliffhanger further reminds us that the battle is not the end of the story, neither for the fictitious characters, nor in the historical records. The new series (which I am avoiding until I have finished writing this) has plenty of plot threads to pick up, along with the well-recorded Roman reaction. And Tacitus’s account of Arminius’s confrontation with his brother, who remained loyal to Rome, is unlikely to go ignored.

Katrin Thier 

[1] near-contemporary: Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2, 117-19 (Latin:; later especially: Tacitus, Annals 1, 59-62 (English and Latin:, Cassius Dio, Roman History 65, 18-23 (Greek:

[3] for details on this style see

[4] Old Saxon and Old High German, respectively

[5] for an English-language discussion of some aspects of the reception history cf. Martin M. Winkler (2016), Arminius the Liberator - Myth and Ideology, Oxford University Press.

[6] Dieter Timpe (1970), Arminius-Studien, Heidelberg: Winter.

[7] on the debate cf. e.g. (in German) S. Burmeister (2015) ‘Die Örtlichkeit der Varusschlacht: Eine anhaltende Kontroverse’, Archäologie in Deutschland (Sonderheft: Ich, Germanicus), 17-23. (

[8] cf. (in German; the English version appears to be inactive)

[9] alii pactam, Tacitus Annals I.55: for Latin and English versions cf.

[10] if it existed, this would be related to Latin rex ‘king’ and Old English rice ‘realm’.

September 28, 2022

Glyn: Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi

Peredur Glyn, Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi (Talybont, Y Lolfa: 2022).

Reviewed by Simon Rodway (

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a collection of four medieval Welsh tales set in an imagined pre-Roman British past, have been a fruitful source of material for modern writers, both in Welsh and in English. They have inspired High Fantasy romps such as American author Lloyd Alexander’s children’s classic Chronicles of Prydain from the 1960s or the recent highly enjoyable Welsh-language Manawydan Jones by Alun Davies, also aimed at children. Other authors have transposed the characters and plot-lines to the modern world, notably Seren Press’s series New Stories from the Mabinogion, or the wonderful recent collection in Welsh Hen Chwedlau Newydd (‘New Old Tales’) which gives us powerful new perspectives on the stories of women from the Four Branches and other medieval texts by some of the best modern Welsh writers, including Angharad Tomos, Bethan Gwanas, Lleucu Roberts and Manon Steffan Ros. Similarly, the authors who contributed to The Mab, reimaginings of the stories for children, recently reviewed by Donna R. White for Medievally Speaking, update the texts for a modern audience, with mixed results.

A recurring approach is to treat the stories as garbled myths whose protagonists are, in origin, pre-Christian gods. This has its genesis in scholarship from the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, influenced by comparative mythologists such as Max Müller, and taking its cue from the infamous pronouncement by Matthew Arnold in 1865:

The very first thing that strikes one, in reading the Mabinogion, is how evidently the mediæval story-teller is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret; he is like a peasant building his hut on the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus; he builds, but what he builds is full of materials of which he does not know the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition merely; ‑ stones ‘not of this building’, but of an older architecture, greater, cunninger, more majestical.

Celtic scholars including John Rhys, Edward Anwyl, J. A. McCulloch and W. J. Gruffydd exercised both their formidable erudition and their lively imagination in rebuilding a Celtic Halicarnassus from the peasants’ rubble and in reinstating the characters in their rightful place in a putative pan-Celtic pantheon. Unfortunately, while comparative linguists can use observable sound laws to recreate hypothetical linguistic forms in a scientific fashion, working backwards from, say, Rhiannon to *Rigantonā, comparative mythology is a far less methodologically rigorous field ‑ needless to say no two reconstructions of the Four Branches by modern scholars look the same.

Other academics, including Saunders Lewis, John Bollard, Sioned Davies and Catherine McKenna, have eschewed such reconstruction and have shown that the tales as they stand are anything but peasants’ huts. Instead, they are carefully crafted literary works, reflecting the social and legal reality of medieval Wales. Indeed, while some of the characters bear names which may have been applied to pre-Christian deities (Lleu, cognate with Gaulish Lugus being the clearest example), there is no good reason to assume that the medieval stories about them preserve any sort of mythology. Nonetheless, the mythological approach has retained vitality at a popular level, and it is probably safe to say that the majority of those who have heard of the Mabinogi at all think of it as ‘Celtic mythology’ rather than ‘Welsh literature’. While modern scholars may disagree, there is no doubt that creative treatment of the Mabinogi as mythology has resulted in some very effective literature. To cite but one example, in the extraordinary 2017 novel Dadeni (‘Rebirth’) by Ifan Morgan Jones, the Mabinogi characters are indeed deities, but, like in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, they are weakened by the loss of belief and trapped on the mortal plane. Wildly inventive but at the same time firmly grounded in contemporary Wales, this book manages to combine nuanced social and political commentary with a breathless supernatural adventure reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Indiana Jones.

Peredur Glyn’s Welsh-language Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi (‘Fifth Branch of the Mabinogi’) presents us with a far more terrifying species of god altogether. It is a collection of loosely connected short stories firmly rooted in the tradition of ‘Cosmic Horror’ popularized by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft. The debt to Lovecraft is explicitly dealt with in an afterword, to which we shall return. This is not the first time that Lovecraft and medieval Celtic-language literature have collided: these are two of the principal sources for Pat Mills’s tales of the ‘Celtic berserker’ [sic!] Sláine, featured in the weekly comic 2000 AD. But while the latter is an almighty mess, Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi is a triumph of deliciously creepy ‘less-is-more’ storytelling. The stories stand on their own, but, as in Lovecraft’s fiction and, indeed, the Four Branches themselves, common threads can be discerned in them, not least the lurking presence of the titular Fifth Branch of the Mabinogi, a disturbing and ancient manuscript, like and yet unlike the familiar Four Branches. The similarity to Lovecraft’s creepy tome the Necronomicon is clear. The beings that we glimpse in Peredur Glyn’s work are, like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Nyarlothotep etc., huge and extraterrestrial, with no regard for puny human existence. The realization of the vastness, incomprehensibility and indifference of the cosmos is often enough to upset the protagonists’ minds into madness. The prose also invokes that of Lovecraft, without quite tipping into pastiche. Peredur Glyn is a highly skilled writer, and his invocation of a familiar contemporary Wales beneath which lurks the unspeakable is chillingly effective. His homage to Lovecraft is at its most obvious in stories such as ‘Plant Llŷr’ (‘the Children of Llŷr’), whose underwater city with its impossible architecture is a clear nod to the monstrous worlds of ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Call of Cthulhu’.

‘Rigantona’ offers a straight alternative version of the First Branch narrative of Pwyll and Rhiannon, owing an obvious debt to ‘reconstructions’ by W. J. Gruffydd and others. On the whole, however, the references to the Four Branches are subtle: it is very likely that the stories could be enjoyed without any understanding of the source material. To those in the know, however, these startlingly fresh takes on familiar narratives, like the gruesome riff on the foal-snatching episode of Pwyll in ‘Cysgod y Grafanc’ (‘the Shadow of the Claw’), are a delight. It is particularly refreshing to see, in ‘Juvencus’, the ‘Battle of the Trees’ motif wrenched from the clutches of New Age Robert Graves acolytes and transformed into an adrenaline-filled action sequence, reminiscent of the film Predator, in which soldiers are dispatched one by one by a mysterious and deadly foe. The title of this story is an ‘Easter egg’ for scholars of medieval Welsh literature: ‘Juvencus’, the code-name for the soldiers’ mission, while never explained, is a reference to the Cambridge Juvencus manuscript, which contains the earliest recorded Welsh poetry. The narrative twist in ‘Lleu’ is shocking, all the more so for its modern resonances.

In one respect, Peredur Glyn’s work is very different from that of Lovecraft. Lovecraft expressed an explicit racism in much of his writing which leaves a very bad taste. It is of a different degree entirely to any discomfort which a modern reader might experience at, say, Tolkien’s descriptions of dark-skinned Orcs or C. S. Lewis’s Orientalist caricature Calormenes. Peredur Glyn addresses this head on in his afterword ‘Arswyd Cosmig ac etifeddiaeth H. P. Lovecraft’ (‘Cosmic Horror and the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft’). In this he carefully unravels Lovecraft’s personal xenophobia and racism from the powerful ‘fear of the unknown’ motif which he articulated so eloquently in his writing. He makes a strong case for reclaiming Cosmic Horror for all. While it is not always clear who Peredur Glyn’s first-person narrators are in this volume, he certainly moves beyond Lovecraft’s middle-class straight white men. All in all, this is a highly recommended collection, which steps confidently out of the shadow of its sources, and pushes Mabinogi-inspired fiction in a new and interesting direction.

Simon Rodway

Prifysgol Aberystwyth / Aberystwyth University

September 17, 2022

Medieval, dir. Petr Jákl (2022)



Petr Jákl’s 2022 film Medieval


Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty

La Salle University


The first word that we hear on the screen is “violence” in a voice over by Michael Caine (yes, that Michael Caine, no less), here cast as Lord Boreš, ambassador extraordinaire for a Holy Roman Empire in political and religious turmoil.  That one word sets the tone for the two hours which follow.  Medieval (released in Europe under the title Jan Žižka) bears no relation to previous examples of cinematic medievalism that were costume dramas, or even bigger-budgeted costume epics.  Its closest cinematic antecedent is Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, not PG-violent films such as Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight, or even Guy Ritchie’s 2017 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Like the patriotic roots of the Scots supposedly on display in Mel Gibson’s film, Medieval wants us to know that those of the Czechs are just as mired in blood and mud.

Director Petr Jákl’s Medieval is an English-language Czech production that recounts the early years of the life of the storied Czech national hero, Jan Žižka (c. 1360-1424—here played by Ben Foster), before he achieved even greater fame in the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) that pitted Catholic Europe in a series of crusades against the followers of Jan Hus. Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, despite a guarantee of safe passage from the Emperor Sigismund if he would appear before the Council of Constance to answer charges of heresy brought against him. Hus had been a noted preacher in Prague who called out the Catholic Church for a litany of abuses later echoed by Martin Luther and exacerbated in Hus’s time by the schism in the Church involving the Avignon Papacy and contending claims to papal legitimacy.  The death of the Holy Roman Emperor (in 1402 according to the film) only further fanned the flames of religious and political turmoil, since whoever was to be his successor, presumably King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (Karel Rodin), needed to be crowned by the pope—the one in Rome, not the one in France.

As is often true in medieval history and in historical film medievalism as well, who gets to succeed whom is never without complications.  In Jákl’s film, the complications are several. Wenceslaus is already deeply in debt to, but needs further funding from, the overly ambitious and wealthy Henry III of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger) to pave (bribe?) his way to his coronation. Wenceslaus’s half-brother, Sigismund, so far just King of Hungary (Matthew Goode), has the proverbial lean and hungry look and an overly sanctimonious attachment to orthodox Catholicism. Wenceslaus’s daughter, Katherine (Sophie Lowe), is a much sought-after pawn in all the political and religious chaos that surrounds her because she is marriageable (Rosenberg fancies himself her ideal spouse), because she is sympathetic to Hus, and because she is a niece of the King of France, who supports the other (in this case, wrong) pope. And, for good measure, oppressive taxation, political tyranny, and ecclesiastical abuses have so enraged the populace that revolution is already in the air.

The film opens with Rosenberg’s men’s failed attempt to assassinate Lord Boreš on route from Rome to Prague from a diplomatic mission to secure the imperial crown for Wenceslaus. Boreš’s rescue is effected at the last minute by Žižka and his ragtag troop of mercenaries, whose allegiances are about as clear as the film’s politics at this point. Once hoping to become a knight himself, Žižka’s knightly ambitions quickly soured when friends and family members were murdered by the very knights whose company he sought to join. With Boreš safe in Prague Castle, Žižka declines an offer (more command) to join the army led by Torak (Roland Møller), the film’s true, almost snarling, villain, who is variously employed by Wenceslaus, Sigismund, and Rosenberg, all to the detriment of anyone who stands in his way, as the burned, impaled, crucified, hanged, decapitated, and otherwise mutilated corpses strewn in his wake across the at-times breathtaking landscape attest. Torak’s cruelty and pursuit of Žižka (who loses his right eye to Torak in battle), once he kidnaps Katherine in a scheme to force Rosenberg to fund Wenceslaus’s claim to the imperial crown, know no limits.

Like any good Hollywood film hero (even though Medieval is a Czech production), Žižka comes close to death more times than one can count.  And, to rally his loyal, seemingly outnumbered, troops, he also has a short version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech originally found in Shakespeare’s Henry V that has become de rigueur in examples of cinematic medievalism. Along the way, Katherine begins to question where her loyalties should lie—unhappy with the treatment of the people by those who rule them and of herself by those who would make her their pawn.  She eventually decides that she will be the mistress of her own destiny, a decision which backfires when she falls to her death in a suicidal attempt to end the squabbling over her.  Just for good measure, before her death, she gets rescued when a lion (conveniently kept by her father) is loosed upon Torak and his men, and seemingly falls in love with Žižka, with whom she shares a passionate kiss just before she dies, in a set up faintly echoing a more extended one in Braveheart between Queen and rebel. Grief stricken but emboldened, Žižka rallies all Bohemia’s disaffected to the cause of the Hussites and further ensures his place in the Czech national consciousness—he was a true military genius The film ends with Žižka and his followers marching off to the Hussite battle hymn, "Ktož jsú Boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors for God).”

       The film’s plot can be a bit difficult to follow if audience members aren’t quite up to speed on medieval Czech history, but all the principal actors—along with the vast supporting cast—turn in good performances. Matthew Goode’s less than convincing, and even less flattering, blonde hair may, however, evidence an unfortunate trend in recent cinematic medievalism.  Ben Affleck sported a similar blonde “hirsute misadventure” as the villainous Pierre d’Alençon in Ridley Scott’s 2021 film The Last Duel. But the locations shots, the already noted breathtaking scenery, and the props and interior sets are all what an audience will think is authentically medieval—although we medievalists might quibble about their accuracy, as we are wont to do. 

Rarely do directors give us an example of cinematic medievalism without at least a nod to pressing political or social issues in their times. Žižka’s life previously inspired a well-received cinematic trilogy (known collectively as The Hussite Revolutionary Trilogy) directed by Otakar Vávra in the 1950s. Žižka also appeared as a central or minor character in several later Czech films and in Aleksander Ford’s 1960 Polish film Knights of the Teutonic Order, and his deeds have been celebrated in works of fiction, poetry, and drama. But, clearly, the story of Jan Žižka is also not without relevance for our own times. The last on-screen title dedicates the film to freedom fighters everywhere, so one cannot help but think of the Russian aggression into Ukraine, an aggression sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church, and of a world at large where, as Michael Caine’s Lord Boreš notes in a moment of despair in Medieval, government has repeatedly sunk to such new lows.

 Medieval, an English-language Czech production directed by Petr Jákl; screenplay by Petr Jákl from a story by Petr Jákl, Sr.; produced by Cassian Elwes; starring Ben Foster, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger, Matthew Goode, Karel Rodin, Sophie Lowe, and Roland Møller produced by WOB FILM; released 8 September 2022; running time 125 minutes.