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

November 12, 2018

Outlaw King

Beam Me Up, Robbie!: Outlaw King, directed by David Mackenzie

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University,

A Saturday Night Live skit last year poked fun at the confusion over the current profusion of young actors with the first name Chris.  There are Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Pratt (the Jurassic dinosaur guy), and Chris Pine (the young James Tiberius Kirk from Star Trek). And it is Pine who has traded in his journey into the future to galaxies far, far away for a journey into the past to a medieval Scotland in seemingly endless conflict with England—though thanks to Brexit, that conflict continues, albeit decidedly less bloodily so than in the film, today. In Outlaw King, Pine plays the often-embattled Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) who reigned, at times uneasily, as King of the Scots from 1306 until his death.

Outlaw King, now running almost 30 minutes shorter than it did in its original festival release, must at least in passing deal with another famous Scottish thistle in the side of the English, William Wallace (1270-1305), whose life Mel Gibson brought, with considerable historical license, to the screen in the 1995 film Braveheart.  Wallace defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297, and was then briefly Governor of Scotland.  His defeat at the Battle of Fallkirk in July 1298 forced him to go into hiding until his capture in 1305.  Wallace, or at least his severed left arm, makes a brief appearance in Outlaw King.  His execution—vividly recreated by Gibson, who in Braveheart dies screaming “Freedom!”—was notably gruesome even by medieval standards.  He was first hanged, but cut down while he was still alive. He was then castrated and eviscerated, and had his bowels burned before him. Finally, he was drawn and quartered, and beheaded. His head was put on a pike atop London Bridge, and his severed limbs were then separately sent to be displayed throughout Scotland as a warning to any other would-be rebels of the wrath of England’s Edward I.  And, in Outlaw King, the public display of Wallace’s severed arm as a warning and threat leads to yet another Scottish rebellion, now under the initially reluctant leadership of Robert the Bruce.

[Left: Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart]
Wallace’s cause was also Robert’s—the two were briefly allied.  In 1290, succession to the Scottish throne became a cause of continuing conflict, as there was no clear claimant to that throne after the death of King Alexander III and then that of his heir and granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway, herself only a child.  With their country on the brink of civil war, the Scottish nobles and clans invited England’s Edward I to come north to settle the matter.  Edward’s solution was to declare himself ruler of Scotland, and the Scots soon rose in a series of rebellions against his increasingly tyrannical rule.  Outlaw King opens in 1302 with Robert the Bruce repledging fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane), and receiving in return royal forgiveness for his previous rebellious activities and the hand of the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), in a politically advantageous marriage—Robert’s first wife having died in childbirth. In addition, Edward, somewhat unconvincingly, promises to recognize the Bruce claim to the Scottish throne, though John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), long a rival to the Bruces, also advances his in many ways more legitimate familial claim to the same throne.  

The death of Robert’s father (James Cosmo), who had fought with Edward on crusade in the Holy Land, leaves the younger Bruce with second thoughts about how much Edward is to be trusted.  Comyn agrees to meet Robert, but when he learns of the latter’s plans to mount a revolt against Edward, Comyn reasserts his allegiance to Edward and promises to betray Robert.  In a moment of pique, Robert kills Comyn, and after some ecclesiastical hair splitting about how sacrilegious the murder actually may be since it takes place in an abbey church, the bishops of Scotland rush Robert to Scone to be crowned King of the Scots. Edward soon enough defeats the Scots under Robert’s rule, and Robert takes to land and sea to escape the English, until 1307 when, thanks to his use of especially brutal guerilla tactics, Robert manages to defeat a much larger English army, now led by Edward II (Billy Howle), at Loudoun Hill. The film ends with that battle. 

In 1314, at the more important Battle of Bannockburn, Robert would defeat an even larger English army led by Edward II, and thereby ensure Scottish independence, though peace between Scotland and England was not finally established until 1327 under Edward III.  Of course, Robert’s descendants would three centuries later ascend the English throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.  At times, history can be nothing short of ironic.

Directed by David Matthews, from an original screenplay which he co-wrote, Outlaw King is only the latest example of what I have called “the reel Middle Ages,” films that bring the medieval to life with varying degrees of historical accuracy, and with sometimes radically different cultural agendas.  Pine broods well, but doesn’t quite have the gravitas necessary to be an epic film hero, nor, in the film, to rally the fractious Scottish clans to his cause—he meets with indifference and betrayal as he crisscrosses Scotland in an attempt to raise an army. 

Indeed, Robert’s wife outshines him initially when she stands up to the English who are about to conscript a mere boy into Edward’s army.  Robert had counseled patience, not boldness.  Dillane’s Edward I seems less threatening and villainous than Patrick McGoohan’s in Braveheart, though Howle’s Edward II is decidedly less effeminate and more dangerous than Peter Hanly’s in the Gibson film.  Indeed, Howle’s Edward II is totally mad, and clearly bent on outdoing his father’s cruelty.  When he marches north, he unleashes “the dragon,” thereby eschewing the laws of chivalry and giving his troops a free hand to adopt whatever military tactics they want.  Scottish women are shipped off to England to become servants and sexual playthings; men and boys are summarily executed wherever they are captured.

In Outlaw King, the English have long lost their patience with the Scots, and they adopt a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth policy in dealing with the rebels.  That policy leads to scenes of at times gratuitous and gruesome violence—a Scottish lord is strung up and then has his belly slit open so that his entrails spill out in front of a horrified crowd.  His father protests, only to have his own throat cut.  Robert’s wife is suspended in a cage off of a cliff, and left exposed to the elements.  Robert’s own guerilla tactics lead to a final bloody conflict that spares neither man nor beast as the would-be King of the Scots uses the very land upon which he treads as his ally against the invaders. 

[Left: Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King]
Bogs and ditches dotted with sharpened wooden spikes quickly make mincemeat of the English cavalry and their horses. Before the final battle, we get the obligatory rally-the-troops speech—twice.  Edward II urges the English to fight to defend their borders from invading swarms of Scots—striking a note with decidedly global echoes today.  Robert is brief: he urges his men to fight for whatever they believe in—God, Scotland, clan, family, self—just as long as they fight.  Neither rises to the rhetorical heights that Gibson’s William Wallace did in Braveheart. In battle, Robert’s right hand man is James “Black” Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is Loudoun Hill’s version of a Viking berserker.  During the battle scenes, the scale of carnage is beyond the pale.  Robert has the opportunity to kill Edward II, but he allows him to crawl back to his troops to fight another day—though Edward II would soon enough be deposed by his own nobles.

The medieval historical epic has been a cinematic staple for more than a century.  The reasons are obvious—such films present larger than life characters whose stories are the stuff of legend.  But the golden age of the medieval historical epic has long past. In Outlaw King, except for two very brief scenes, a wedding and a funeral, in which the costume and wardrobe department seems to have decided to blow the budget, gone is the pageantry, the epic sweep, the panoramic long shot—think how Charlton Heston as the eponymous hero in Anthony Mann’s 1961 El Cid goes riding off into the sunset in the film’s final, awe-inspiring scene, and compare that scene and ride with the domesticity more than evident in Robert’s final rush on horseback to embrace his wife, who has been uncaged and returned to him as part of a prisoner exchange.  Robert is not here riding off into history and legend.  He is simply going home to his wife and daughter. Outlaw King goes for the close-up—the personal rather than the epic. Instead of pageantry, we get gore.  Instead of history, we get gritty costume piece.  The lulls in action are brief, and few, quickly giving way to more violence and gore. The camera wants us to see Robert’s scarred and bloody face, and Edward’s puking crawl through the mud as he feebly tries to reunite with troops who have abandoned him. 

[Left: In Anthony Mann’s 1961 El Cid, though dead, Charlton Heston as the title character riding off at the film’s end into history and legend.]

Heston, of course, made a career out of playing epic screen roles and larger-than-life characters; he was Moses, Ben Hur, Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Richelieu, China Gordon, Marc Antony, and Michelangelo.  A blue-faced and wide-eyed righteous avenger, Gibson’s Wallace, was, for better or worse, also larger than life.  Pine’s Robert is much less so.  His Robert is a character for the small screen—the laptop or iPhone—not for the wide screen or CinemaScope.  As the young Kirk, Jack Ryan and Wonder Woman’s Steve Trevor, Pine has certainly shown that he can act, though he clearly cannot carry a film like Outlaw King, whose predominant mood is an almost universal world weariness.  The Scots are weary of the English invading, and the English are weary of the Scots rebelling—as Dillane’s King Edward I bellows: “I am so sick of Scotland!”  Elizabeth has more spunk that her husband—and she is no one’s fool, victim, blushing bride, or obedient daughter.  She stands up to her parents, to Edward II, and even to her husband, defiant and shedding nary a tear, though she too can’t carry the film.  Film rarely finds medieval women engrossing or of more than passing interest, and, in Outlaw King, Elizabeth’s husband receives similar (mis)treatment.

Outlaw King directed by David Mackenzie, a Netflix release of a Sigma Film production, in association with Netflix and Anonymous Content.  Screenplay by David Mackenzie, James MacInnes, and Bathsheba Doran.  With Chris Pine (Robert the Bruce), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (James Douglas, Lord of Douglas), Florence Pugh (Elizabeth de Burgh), Billy Howle (Edward, Prince of Wales), Tony Curran (Angus Og Macdonald, Lord of Islay), Stephen Dillane (King Edward I), Sam Spruell (Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke), Callan Mulvey (John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch), James Cosmo (Robert Bruce senior), Paul Blair (William Lamberton, Archbishop of St. Andrews) , Chris Fulton (Euan Bruce), Steven Cree (Sir Christopher Seton), Stephen McMillan (Squire Drew Forfar), Lorne MacFayden (Neil Bruce), Jack Greenlees (Alexander Bruce), Josie O’Brien (Marjorie Bruce), Alastair Mackenzie (John Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl), and Gilly Gilchrist (Maol Cholum I, Earl of Lennox). 146/120 minutes. From November 9, 2018, screening in cinemas and streaming on Netflix.

November 8, 2018

Mother of the Maid (Manhattan Public Theater)

What’s a Mother to Do?—
Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid at the Public Theater in Manhattan

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University

Graduate students in search of a dissertation topic—or even more advanced scholars looking for a fresh scholarly pursuit—might want to consider the many stage lives of Joan of Arc, an admittedly broad collection of texts, but one so far largely understudied as an example of dramatic medievalism.  There is even a subgenre of Jehane films in which characters establish their acting credentials by playing Joan—The Miracle of the Bells, Nachalo, and The Little Drummer Girl, to name only three such films.  Joan’s legacy remains a medievalist’s dream, or nightmare, depending upon one’s perspective, as she has become a saint in a church that at one point burned her at the stake, the mother of a nation, and the darling politically both of the left and of the right— her name has been used, misused, confused, and even abused in the service of any number of, at times conflicting, causes and ideologies.  The casting of a mixed race teenager to play Joan earlier this year in festivities held in Orléans prompted such a level of abuse and outrage on social media by members of the French far right that a French state prosecutor opened an inquiry into their response on the grounds that it amounted to an incitement to racial hatred.

Joan’s stage life begins in 1435 in a mystery play of some 20,000 lines of verse with speaking parts for more than a hundred characters, Le Mystère du siege d’Orléans.  Shakespeare would take a decidedly less sympathetic view of Joan in Henry VI, Part 1 casting her as a sorceress repudiated by her own father; Voltaire would use her as the subject for an at times scurrilous mock epic; and George Bernard Shaw would turn her into a proto-Protestant.  In addition, Joan would inspire a lengthy list of playwrights, each with his or her own agenda: Friedrich Schiller, Jules Barbier, Alexandre Soumet, Charles Péguy, Percy Wallace MacKaye, Maurice Maeterlinck, Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht (more than once), Maxwell Anderson, Jules Feiffer, Lanford Wilson, Richard Nelson, Carolyn Gage, Julia Pascal, Erik Ehn—and even a short-lived Broadway musical, Goodtime Charley, and a more recent rock opera, Joan of Arc, Into the Fire—though Joan has had more staying power as the subject of several more mainstream operas.  And playing Joan has proven the definitive role for many actresses as evidenced by Playing Joan, Holly Hill’s 1987 collection of interviews with those who have assayed Shaw’s Joan.

Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid—first produced three years ago in Lenox, Massachusetts, by Shakespeare & Company, and now on stage in a revised version at Manhattan’s Public Theater—offers yet another take on Joan, in this case through the eyes of her mother, played by the estimable stage and screen actress, Glenn Close—Jane Anderson also wrote the screenplay for The Wife, Close’s current film. 

Isabelle Romée (ca. 1377-1458) was born in Vouthon, a village not far from Domrémy.  She married Jacques Darc (1380-1440), a farmer who held a number of civic offices in the area, and gave birth to five children, two daughters and three sons, all of whom were reared in a typically pious late medieval household.  After Joan’s death at the stake in 1431, her mother moved to Orléans, whose citizens provided her with a pension in gratitude for Joan’s deliverance of the city in 1429.  In 1455, Isabelle and her two sons, Jean and Pierre, would become the plaintiffs in the case brought before the Church that resulted in the nullification of the 1431 verdict that had condemned her to death at the stake.

Anderson’s play opens after Joan (Grace Van Patten) has already had her visions of St. Catherine of Alexandria and is ready, to the consternation of both her mother and her father (Dermot Crowley), to go off to meet the Dauphin to explain her divinely inspired mission to him.  Her mother is baffled and bewildered by her daughter’s actions, while also less than secretly proud of them.  Her father is less so, but his attempts (literally) to beat some sense into his daughter are for naught.

[Left: Grace Van Patten as Joan of Arc and Glenn Close as her mother, Isabelle]

In the course of the play, Joan’s victories and defeats play out in terms of encounters with her mother, who visits her at the Dauphin’s court, at the great Cathedral of Reims on the eve of the coronation, and even in her prison in Rouen just before her execution.  How historically accurate such scenes are is beside the point, as the play attempts to fathom the reactions of a mother to her soon to be martyred daughter, a daughter more written about than perhaps any other woman in western civilization—in his novel about her, no less a light than Mark Twain would conclude that she “is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”  In Mother, Joan is part embryonic saint, part rebellious teenager—her mother wonders if her visions are simply a sign of the onset of Joan’s puberty.  The dialogue throughout is down to earth, even at times profane.  The Darcs are a sturdy lot, tied to their land, and ferocious in their devotion to Church and state, both of which will, of course, repay that devotion with betrayal, a point not eventually lost on Joan’s mother, who has the last word in the play recounting how she managed to cope with what had happened to her daughter. 
The Church here is represented by the well-meaning parish priest, Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce), and the secular powers by an unnamed Lady of the Court (Kate Jennings Grant), equally well-meaning but, more often than not, clueless and scatter-brained in stark contrast to the decidedly less-pampered and formidable Darc women.  Just as Joan inspired a nation on a grand scale, she also inspired her mother who learned to read and write, who would go to Rome to confront the pope, and who, during the nullification trial, took on those who had had the temerity to condemn and execute her daughter. Since, thanks to the exhaustive transcripts from her two trials, we already know so very much about the details of Joan’s all-to-brief life, it might have been more interesting to have had a play about her mother’s life after Joan’s death as a testimonial to the remarkably fierce woman who was mother to an even more remarkably fierce daughter. But the play as we now have it is, nonetheless, a wonderful piece of theatre, and a fine vehicle for Close and her fellow cast members.  John Lee Beatty’s simple, functional set easily transforms from farm house, to castle chamber, to prison cell.  Jane Greenwood’s costumes are period appropriate, Alexander Sovronsky’s score adds some fine musical touches to the dialogue, and Matthew Penn’s direction knows when to allow his actors to trust their own instincts.daughter.
Mother of the Maid, written by Jane Anderson, directed by Matthew Penn, scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, original music by Alexander Sovronsky; with Glenn Close, Dermot Crowley, Olivia Gilliatt, Kate Jennings Grant, Andrew Hovelson, Daniel Pearce, and Grace Van Patten; at Manhattan’s Public Theater—Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director—from September 25, 2018.

October 7, 2018

Wollenberg: Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics

Wollenberg, Daniel, Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Andrew Elliott (

For a short volume of only 91 pages, Daniel Wollenberg’s Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics has managed to cover a surprisingly wide, and singularly impressive, range of examples and ideas. The quality and range of the book stands as a testament both to Wollenberg’s clarity of expression as well as to the value and growing confidence of the ARC Humanities Press’s Past Imperfect series. Perhaps even more impressive is that Wollenberg’s study of political medievalism has done so with a range of different audiences in mind, offering at least two levels of reading. On one level, he introduces a complex interdisciplinary issue in an informative and substantive way to a reader unfamiliar with political medievalism, or indeed medievalism as a whole. Such a feat is often underappreciated, but here it is obvious the extent to which such an accessible introductory text is only made possible by a genuine scholarly talent and profound understanding of the topic.

On the second level, the short text uses its three introductory case studies to weave a broader, more nuanced critique of the ways in which the medieval imagery/imaginary links to a broader discursive strategy aimed at fellow scholars in the field. For those who are more versed in the discussions of political medievalism, this second level is also profound, thoughtful and well written, and makes a new contribution to the growing literature on uses of the medieval past outside of the university campus.

Those familiar with Wollenberg’s other works will of course know him as an astute historian of philosophy and historical thought, which is in part what allows him to navigate between these two audiences with ease. Here, too, he follows through three short case studies with perspicacity and tenacity through a range of contexts and uses. The result is a small book filled with big ideas, which engages with complex and slippery notions of white identity, vituperative History wars, and the often contradictory stakes in the medieval past to which the players of today’s political dramas variously lay claim.

The book’s complexity and deftness is well illustrated by the taut and careful structure which governs, and in many ways regulates, the flow of arguments. Consider, for instance, the palindrome of the book’s introduction and postscript: whether intentionally or not, Wollenberg uses a kind of structural chiasmus in order to make a broader rhetorical point. He begins with the account of a self-proclaimed French ‘patriot’ and his sad suicide at the altar of Notre Dame in Paris, in support of a Far-Right anti-immigration platform. Wollenberg’s discussion of that gesture’s futility leads him into the complex nexus of ideological exchanges between politicians and their voter bases in Europe, and the parallels with US politics, up to and including Donald Trump. It then discusses the ways in which Trump’s co-option of the medieval has both built on earlier instances of political medievalism (as illustrated by Bruce Holsinger), as well as taking a scarcely-veiled brand of white nationalism and white supremacism into the mainstream.

The remainder of the book mines the ways in which contemporary politics, particularly US politics, makes use of a very specific set of assumptions about the Middle Ages, and the interactions between these ahistorical uses and other political uses of the past. However, after this discussion, the postscript (which acts as a second conclusion) demonstrates that same transition in reverse, pointing to the ways in which the mainstream of extremism, white nationalism and the so-called alt-right in the USA has impacted on European populism in turn. The subtle point brought out by this structural mirroring is that these are not isolated cases, taking place in hermetically-sealed, ideological vacuums, but a broader trend by and through which fringe groups are able to call on and to each other by, say, the ‘rediscovery’ of the medieval origins of whiteness, as Chapter Two demonstrates. A secondary point to emerge from the bookending is its emphasis on the fundamental fluidity of non-scholarly medievalism, and the extent to which political medievalism leaves behind the traditional territory of neomedievalism. These are not one-to-one correlations with the medieval past. Instead, the political medievalisms studied by Wollenberg are part of an extremely complex discourse in which history becomes what is useful and expedient. As Wollenberg puts it, in this mode, “the past is in the eye of its beholder”; when two accounts come into conflict, “for both camps, the problem is the bad history of their opponents.”[1]

Given such a complex project, Wollenberg does not always manage to strike the perfect pitch. Chapter Two’s discussion of Anders Behring Breivik, for instance, takes a lot of knowledge for granted to connect the dots. Beginning with a brief discussion of Breivik’s murder of unarmed teenagers, the discussion moves rapidly from Breivik into “Generation Identity”, and within ten pages Wollenberg has linked both factors to broader far-right youth movements in the USA, all of whom exploit the medieval past for a range of reasons, albeit with broadly similar rhetoric. Wollenberg knows this perfectly well, as his exceptionally insightful article on Breivik makes clear, but in his goal to cover the breadth and to show how far the rabbit hole of medievalism goes, the specifics become—for me at least—a little hard to follow when some of the threads are not made clear.

Nevertheless, given the range and ability of this book, Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics represents a lively, authoritative, thorough, persuasive, and insightful study of the ways in which the medieval has come to be exploited in the service of modern political movements. It builds beautifully on other debates by Shichtman and Finke, D’Arcens, Holsinger, Perry and through The Public Medievalist’s series on race and racism, debates to which I myself have also made a contribution. More than this, however, it moves the discussion onwards to show both how horrifyingly natural the co-option of the past has become for contemporary politics, and why as medievalists and medievalismists we should care about it. As Wollenberg concludes in the last line of his book, “anyone who seriously studies the Middle Ages should be vigilant.” (90) This book offers a great illustration why these debates matter.

Andrew B.R. Elliott
University of Lincoln

[1] Wollenberg, p. 18.