Going Medieval on History



Though history has provided filmmakers with many distinct eras to use as settings for stories, few time periods have been represented on screen quite as extensively as the years known as the Middle Ages.

Spanning the centuries from the end of what we refer to as ancient times to the beginning of the Renaissance, these years are also known as the medieval era and feature a wealth of immediately recognizable visual elements, such as knights in armor on horses, majestic castles, and dirty peasants. These can be such a striking feast for the eyes that fantasy stories set in completely made up realms nearly always take a medieval look in their production values. War was a large part of this era, so action is usually the genre chosen for a tale set in this period, but comedy has a place as well. Anachronism, or the use of details not authentic to a historical period, can be an effective comedic tool in cinema and the film A Knight’s Tale utilizes these features. It is an entertaining example of anachronisms used without detriment to the enjoyment of the audience.

Filmmaker Brian Helgeland wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale, released in May 2001. Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a squire to Sir Ector. When his liege dies during a jousting tournament, William must compete in his place in order to feed himself and his fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy), and Wat (Alan Tudyk). Then William realizes he can pretend to be a knight and change his whole life, and he convinces his friends to go along for the ride. They meet a writer called Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), early in their adventures. William also falls for and wins Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). Throughout tournament after tournament, he must also face the vicious Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell).

The first historically out of place element viewers will notice is the soundtrack. After a scene, establishing Sir Ector’s death and the need for William to take his place jousting, the filmmakers chose to draw direct comparisons between jousting and sports of our own time by playing the stadium anthem We Will Rock You by Queen as the jousting resumes. The characters on screen clap along to the beat of the song and mouth the words. It immediately lets the audience know the tone of this film will be fun. More modern songs appear, such as The Boys are Back in Town and Low Rider but only one other song actually takes a place in the context of a scene. This is when Will and Jocelyn dance at a ball to the beat of David Bowie’s Golden Years. By the time AC/DC ends the film with You Shook Me All Night Long, you will probably want to buy the soundtrack.

Anachronism also show up in the costumes. Many of them have more of a modern feeling than anything actually worn in the Middle Ages. Wat wears a short-sleeved tunic over a long-sleeved one in one scene, for example, and some pants William and Chaucer wear have a bootleg shape to the leg. Most of the historically inaccurate (but still attractive) costuming appears on the character of Jocelyn. Many details in her ensembles—a little hat here, a sheer panel there—are much more fashion-forward than true to the attire of the period. Another part of her appearance more modern than it should be is her hair. Only in a few scenes does she show the long hair we expect on a medieval maiden in a hairstyle that might have been worn during that time. Instead, she is often sports up-dos that end with hair spiking to the side, something that wouldn’t be out of place in a fashion magazine editorial today. Fans in the stands watching the jousting are often seen with painted faces, a hallmark of today’s sporting events. These things photograph well, so the viewer takes them in with less of a complaint that they are inaccurate.

Finally, there are the modern lines of dialogue and bits of humor. The use of a word here or there that probably didn’t come into use until later, such as “fantastic” or “wow,” isn’t as obvious as the very modern tone of a lot of the humor. For example, Wat shows his short temper by frequently threatening to “fong” someone, which sounds completely like modern slang. He also rouses the crowd cheering for knights as they arrive for the World Championship Tournament in London with “Give us a shout out London!” Chaucer acts as Will’s herald to introduce him at events and does so in a way that references the introduction of a late-night talk show host. He follows that up by telling the crowd, “Thank you, I’ll be here all week.” At another point, Jocelyn calls a lance a “stick” and Wat retorts with the very modern phrase, “It’s called a lance, hello!” The viewer just laughs at this humor, not really caring that people in the Middle Ages probably didn’t talk like that.

Though A Knight’s Tale has a lot of anachronisms, they are used toward a goal of entertainment that succeeds for the audience. In fact, this film is not the only one set in the medieval period to use historical inaccuracies for comedic purposes. Another example is Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which is a spoof version of the classic Robin Hood legend. It is full of intentional errors yet it is still funny. When you want your Middle Ages on screen with some modern humor to spare, A Knight’s Tale is an option for entertainment without the chains of complete historical authenticity.


Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Her main hobby is editing fan videos.


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