A Knight's Tale : A Review

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the June 2001, A.S. XXXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Knights as superstars! That is the Hollywood high concept behind this movie. Rocky in plate, or a play on any recent sports movie would also be appropriate shorthand as the plot and pacing mimics them. But the point of these reviews is the accuracy of the historic elements not on its originality.

Given that the movie's opening sequence has the tournament crowd doing Queen's "We Will Rock You", you know that the producers had no interest in keeping things perfectly period. The number of anachronisms that abound in this movie would constitute an essay of itself. But unlike other movies where such lapses are the result of sloppiness or ignorance, my suspicion that most of these were deliberate as most of them are a reflection of modern sports customs onto medieval tournaments. As a result I will pass on commenting on them.

How realistic the basic gimmick of a peasant being able to masquerade as a knight is hard to assess. The opposite twist, a male of noble birth being raised as a peasant, was a popular plot device of the romances of the day. Now the circumstances by which William attempts it are conducive to success. The cost of horse and equipment being the major impediment to following this career. A line of dialog establishes that William was Sir Eric's sparring partner, thus he had been taught the basics of the sport. That he became so dominate so quickly is the only thing unrealistic about the notion.

Such a masquerade would have been a serious offense, as it stuck at the very heart of the concept that defined the world order, as it was understood. This concept of world order was based on a series of hierarchies, and that everyone has a specific place within this hierarchy. To step out of one's place into another, which William was doing, threatens the very structure of the universe. This is why it was crucial that Edward proclaim that William was of an ancient noble house before he knighted him. Given the seriousness of the crime, I doubt in reality that William would have been sentenced to the stocks, but would have faced a much crueler fate.

There are two actual historical figures portrayed in the movie. The first is Geoffrey Chaucer; the second is Edward Prince of Wales. My first nit with Chaucer is when we first meet him; he describes himself as an author. While that is how we know him now, the concept of author as a profession is more 18th century. In reality, he would have introduced himself as a clerk. He mentions having written "The Duchess", which he did in 1369. The "Knight's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales, which he started in 1386, has only the theme of a knight trying to win the love a lady in common with the movie. I know of no evidence that Chaucer had a gambling problem.

Edward of Woodstock, son of Edward III of England, dubbed the Black Prince by the Tudors, was one of the most celebrated knights of his time. His victory at Poitiers is ranked with Crecy and Agincourt as the great battles of the Hundred Years War. Along with William Marshall and Richard the Lionhearted he was held up as a model of what a knight should be. His appearance at the small tourney was typical of him, as were people's reactions. His action and reasoning in knighting William is certainly inline with chivalric ideas of the time, that would he actually have done so is unanswerable.

These two figures produce a conundrum in placing the time of the movie. From Chaucer's remark it is a least 1370. By that time he had been running diplomatic missions for the king for three years, thus he would have not been free to act as herald for William. Also by that point, Edward had acquired a chronic illness that would have kept him from the tourney field. He died in 1376. In addition, the Poitiers campaign, which it was implied the Count was a part of, took place during 1355-56.

Also in keeping with the chivalric literature is Jocelyn having William deliberately lose his jousts as a show of love at the Paris tournament. It is not known if there is a real life example of this occurring, but this sort of thing filled the romances of the time.

One element that seems to be a sop to modern sensibility is the female blacksmith. But this is not as outrageous as it seems. She has a line of dialog that implies she is a widow. Often in such cases the wife is allowed to continue in her husband's profession. Thus if her husband was a smith that would be her entry into the profession. While rare, there are records of female blacksmiths, or at least running a blacksmith shop, in period. The only nit I have is that the actress's arms seem a little underdeveloped for such a strenuous job.

The dance shown is no known dance, though the steps are consistent with period practice. Part of this is because little is known about 14th century dance. Of the two dance types referred to, the Basse was popular around 1400 to 1540, and the Courant after 1550. The other difficulty is that dances of this period did not follow a fixed pattern but a fixed sequence of steps, which free flowed across the floor. Which made it easy for the dancers to transition to the quasi-disco version.

One of the more interesting shots was the fly-over London. The shot did not last long enough for me to check for all the usual landmarks, though I'm certain the starting point is intended to be the famed London Bridge. However, there was never a permanent structure within the London precincts for jousting. The principle audience for tournaments was the nobility, no provision was made for the masses, and certainly there would be no wooden coliseums as portrayed in the movie.

Overall they did a decent job of blending the modern with the medieval. The general population will never notice the discrepancies other then the rock soundtrack. It is easy to imagine this would be how a Society event would look like if some group had a million dollars to spend. While the plot is clichéd, what kept me interested is the depth of details that made the screen, only a portion of which has been noted above. They really did do their research.

As a final note: for those into lowbrow and crude humor need to wait out the credits at the end.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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