We’ve gotten past the point where textbooks call them the “Dark Ages,” but it seems that what up until now have been the most Christian centuries in the history of the West still get little respect from the mainstream, particularly in Hollywood. On the one hand,
filmmakers can’t seem to resist making movies about compelling figures and events from this period; we have The Lion in Winter, Kingdom of Heaven, and Timeline, not to mention the endless reiterations of the Robin Hood story.
On the other hand, films about the Middle Ages can’t bring themselves to convey any sort of positive impression about the era as 19th-century authors like Sir Walter Scott did. To be sure, the hero of the story is usually portrayed sympathetically, but the reason we are supposed to like him is that he is presented to us as not being a man of his time; he thinks and speaks 20th- and 21st-century sentiments while everyone around him is a font of ignorance and blind prejudice, ostensibly medieval traits.
A fresh example of this trend is now in theaters: Vision, a biopic of Hildegard of Bingen. If
you are not familiar with Hildegard, she was an interesting character, a 12th-century mystic who also composed liturgical chant and wrote treatises on various subjects. She has received a lot of scholarly attention in the last twenty years or so for being virtually the only woman to do these sorts of things in this period. Most of the attention has been respectful, although I recently read one scholar who tried to dismiss Hildegard’s visions as being simple migraine attacks.
The new film Vision follows the script I outlined above: sympathetic heroine in a barbarous and unenlightened environment. Check it out if you want to learn more about Hildegard’s many accomplishments. Just be sure to take the presentation of the milieu within which she operated with a grain of salt.