To be a medievalist means, in part, to be aware of how the period we call the Middle Ages has been understood, interpreted and re-enacted by later periods, and in many cases, being a medievalist entails to present a counter-narrative or a more nuanced understanding to this post-medieval view. The reception history of the Middle Ages is an interesting view into historical periods and will give a small glimpse of the history of the mentality of an age past, although not the Middle Ages themselves. Sometimes, the reception of the Middle Ages can be marked by an idealised view of the social order, as can be seen in the 19th-century depictions by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe or Alfred Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the Kings where the code of chivalry is one of the major currents. A more gloomy picture can be found in the late-18th-century Gothic literature, such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto or Matthew Lewis' The Monk, where darkness, evil monks and bloodfeuds are key elements. These elements are combined with a fundamental anti-Catholic tone of voice, which may stem more from Jacobean drama than anything else. The receptions are very interesting to a medievalist, but they can also be exasperatingly wrong.
Poster for Knight for a Day (1946), Walt Disney Productions
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Some receptions of the Middle Ages, however, are more entertaining than others, and in this blogpost I present to you a short cartoon released in 1946 by Walt Disney Productions. The cartoon, Knight for a Day, was directed by Jack Hannah and written by Bill Peet, and was one of the earliest cartoons I remember from my own childhood. This is the story of a squire-turned-knight in a tournament against the undefeated champion, set in Canterbury sometime in the 15th century
Knight for a Day
As in the case of most interpretations of the Middle Ages, anachronisms abound in this little piece, but unlike most of these cases, this is not a problem. While medievalisms often are political in tone or purpose, and often to such a degree that it becomes painfully obvious, this short cartoon is seemingly meant for pure entertainment, and the numerous anachronisms are deliberately used for comical purpose - such as a cigar and a jackhammer - while no pretension to accuracy is ever suggested. Even a grumpy historian like myself, ready to jump at the throat of anachronism whenever it rears its head, can relax and utterly enjoy a beautiful little piece of animated storytelling. It is also a pleasant reminder that the duties of a medievalist can take one into byways that can be surprising but wonderfully so.