A version of this review appears on Amazon.com.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to buy a copy of Paul B. Sturtevant’s The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalism (I.B. Tauris, 2018; ISBN 9781788311397).* After prefatory materials, the book offers an introduction to its field of study and the particulars of the study on which it reports before examining prevailing and study-participant-understandings of “medieval” and “the Middle Ages.” Sturtevant goes on to discuss historical films, generally, and medieval and medievalist films, more specifically, before reporting in some detail on participants’ reactions to three major medieval/ist films of the early 21st Century (Beowulf, Kingdom of Heaven, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and their articulated understandings of the medieval world. A conclusion outlining implications and potential uses of the study follows, with appendices treating methodological concerns, notes, references, and an index closing out the volume. At close to 320 pages, it is a substantial volume, not likely to be the reading of an afternoon, but it certainly rewards the time spent reading it.
As with any work, there are concerns to be raised about it. Several receive attention from Sturtevant; for example, in the conclusion of his book, he notes that there are decided limitations on his study, including demographic selectivity (participants in the study that led to the book were drawn from undergraduates at the University of Leeds, among other factors) and the inherent challenges of qualitative research. Since they are explicitly noted, however, they do not present problems with the book itself so much as they serve to note how much work is yet to be done–but that is a good thing for scholars, as it helps to assure that they will always have more work to do.
A bit more annoying, perhaps, is the obvious legacy of dissertation work in the book. Sturtevant acknowledges that the volume is the (expected) outgrowth or refinement of his doctoral work (pg. XV), and that is not bad in itself; what comes across as less than optimal is the seemingly formulaic nature of several of the chapters, which exhibit a “tell ‘em what you’ll tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em” pattern that can grate. (Not all chapters do so; those that do not are likely the product of Sturtevant’s increasing knowledge and understanding–which are formidable even within the dissertation-esque portions and, it must be remarked, are decidedly impressive in his work on The Public Medievalist.) It joins the occasional intrusion of copy-editing error in getting in the way of what is otherwise an excellent read.
And the book is an excellent read. The central tenets of the work–the oft-decried youth do care about their collective past and do learn from what they see; popular media do much to teach them, so it is incumbent for makers of such media to handle well what they do; scholars who want to see better understandings of their fields need to reach out to the public in accessible ways, though change will be slow–are all things that bear consideration and repetition, and they all demand the best efforts that those who will do the work of the mind can exert. The details used to support those tenets are presented accessibly and do well to illustrate the points Sturtevant makes throughout his book. The repudiation of “conventional wisdom” that “kids don’t know anything” is decidedly welcome, as is the assertion that early exposures exercise outsized influence on people’s understandings (which makes curation of childhood media consumption all the more important). Too, the notion that media exposure often leaves information in the mind without connection to its sourcing has important pedagogical and sociological implications. And, in a more aesthetic light, much of Sturtevant’s prose is flatly enjoyable reading–which is rare in academic texts, and rarer still in the dissertation work from which the present volume emerges.
Sturtevant is right in that there is more work to do. He is better than that in offering a useful starting point for such work in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination. I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it.
*In the interest of full disclosure, my access to the text was facilitated by the author.
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