Syllabus: Medieval Warfare in Fact and Film (Burkholder)

History 396: Medieval Warfare in Fact & Film, Winter Term 2004

Professor: Pete Burkholder

Hollywood abounds in ostensibly “historical” films. Warfare is a perennial favorite theme, with the Middle Ages featuring prominently among the public’s fare of choice. Some of these films are based, at least loosely, on actual events and/or personages, while others are best classified as “medievalism.” For better or for worse, a good portion of the public’s knowledge about medieval warfare derives solely from its depiction on the silver screen. This always begs a number of questions: How realistic are such films? Do they depart from “the facts,” and if so, why? What are the pros and cons of telling medieval military history by way of film?

As we will see, such terms as “realism” and “accuracy” are very elusive. In this course, we’ll examine Hollywood portrayals of medieval warfare and compare these against (a) sources from the period, and (b) modern historical scholarship. In so doing, we’ll consider the strengths and weaknesses of film as a medium for disseminating history.

This course operates under two guiding principles. If kept in mind, then Hollywood’s seemingly “illogical” approach to medieval warfare will probably make a great deal more sense. First, Hollywood is ultimately in the money-making business. Second, films, as well as other forms of art, usually have a modern message, and typically say much more about the societies that produce them than they do about the subject matter portrayed. Thus, we need to keep in mind the historical context not only of the subject matter, but of the society producing the film.

Course Procedures

It is not my plan to do a great deal of lecturing in this course. Rather, students will be responsible for informally presenting on assigned readings, and for demonstrating their relevance to the films we view. These presentations will form a significant component of students’ course grade. Hopefully, the course will mostly consist of discussions based on where students’ interests lie and where the readings and films take us.

Since this class only meets four times, and since the class size is small, your attendance and participation are absolutely crucial. The grading scheme is as follows:

Class participation (includes preparation for class meetings, engagement in discussions, and informal presentations)


Class paper (due no later than noon, January 16)


For the class paper, students will write about 5-7 double-spaced pages (about 1200-1800 words) on a topic of their choosing. I will also provide suggestions for paper topics. Students should pay very close attention to their writing mechanics (e.g., spelling, grammar), since mechanical problems will result in deductions. The paper can be slid under my office door or e-mailed to me as an attachment, no later than noon, January 16. Papers will lose a full letter grade for each day they are late.


Readings marked by an asterisk (*) are required, and we will discuss them. Other readings will be assigned during class, and students will make informal presentations on these readings.

Background Reading

Students should pick up a copy of Lynn Hunt, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures (2001), at Instructional Resources (in the UW-Stout library). This can be checked out, free of charge.

General Resources


  • Ø       Carnes, Mark, ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies  (1996)
  • Ø        Driver, Martha, “Writing About Medieval Movies: Authenticity and History,” Film and History 29:1-2 (1999), 5-7
  • Ø        Film and History (Journal of, serial publication)
  • Ø        *Halsall, Paul, “Thinking About Historical Film”
  • Ø        Internet Movie Database (provides raw facts about films, production notes, credits, etc.)
  • Ø        Lindley, Arthur, “The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film”
  • Ø        Roquemore, Joseph, History Goes to the Movies (1999)
  • Ø        Toplin, Robert, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (2002)
  • Ø        Williams, David John, “Looking at the Middle Ages in the Cinema: An Overview,” Film and History 29:1-2 (1999), 8-19
  • Ø        Williams, David John, “Medieval Movies: A Filmography,” Film and History 29:1-2 (1999), 20-32 (a list of just about every medieval film made between the years 1898-1996)

Medieval Warfare

Ø       Bachrach, Bernard, “Caballus et Caballarius in Medieval Warfare,” in The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches (1988)


Ø        Bachrach, Bernard, “Medieval Siege Warfare: A Reconnaissance,” The Journal of Military History 58 (1994)


Ø        Bradbury, Jim, The Medieval Archer (1985)

Ø        Bradbury, Jim, The Medieval Siege (1992)

Ø        *Burke, Dillon, “Strategy and Tactics in Medieval Warfare: An Overview”


Ø        Contamine, Philippe, War in the Middle Ages, Michael Jones, trans. (1984)

Ø        DeVries, Kelly, Medieval Military Technology (1992)

Ø        Hooper, Nicholas & Bennett, Matthew, The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages (1996)

Ø        Images of Medieval Warfare from the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris)


Ø        Keegan, John, The Face of Battle (1976)

Ø        *McGlynn, Sean, “The Myths of Medieval Warfare”


Ø        Parker, Geoffrey, ed., The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West (1995)

Ø        *Patterson, James, “The Myth of the Mounted Knight”


Ø        Snell, Melissa (site guide), “Knights and Armor”



Supersize It! “Gladiator” (2000)

Battle: Incident in the forests of Germania, ca. 180 A.D.

Suggested background reading in Hunt, The Making of the West: Chapter 6 (“The Roman Empire, c. 44 B.C.-A.D. 284”)

Ø       Calhoun, John, “Circus Production Designer Arthur Max Takes Filmgoers to the Arena in ‘Gladiator’ Maximus,” Entertainment Design 34 (2000), 36-39 (available via EBSCO,

Ø        May, Tom, “Accuracy of ‘Gladiator’”


Ø        Neelin, David, “Gladiator: The Real Story”


Ø        Official “Gladiator” film site


Ø        *Stone, C.S., “Gladiator Fact – Gladiator Fiction”


Ø        Terry, Sara, “The Return of the Manly Man,” Christian Science Monitor 92 (5/26/2000), 1 (available via EBSCO,

Ø        *Vegetius, “The Military Institutions of the Romans”


Ø        Winkler, Martin, “The Roman Empire in American Cinema after 1945,” Classical Journal 93:2 (1998), 167-96

Ø        Wyke, Maria, “Ancient Rome and the Traditions of Film History”



Medieval Warfare in Hollywood’s Golden Age: “El Cid” (1961)

Battle: The siege of Valencia, 1094


Suggested background reading in Hunt, The Making of the West: Chapter 10 (“Renewal and Reform, 1050-1150”)


Ø       *“Lay of the Cid, The” (selections)


Ø        Linehan, Peter, “The Cid of History and the History of the Cid,” History Today 37 (Sept 1987), 26-32

Ø        *Painter, Sydney, “The Training of A Knight,” in Stanley Chodorow & Marci Sortor, eds., The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life, vol. 1, The Ancient World to the Reformation, 4th edition (1992)

Ø        “Song of Roland, The” (extracts)



Woad Warrior: “Braveheart” (1995)

Battles: Stirling (Bridge?), 1297; Falkirk, 1298


Suggested background reading in Hunt, The Making of the West: Chapter 12 (“The Elusive Search for Harmony, 1215-1320”)


Ø       Battle of Bannockburn, according to the Vita Edwardi Secundi


Ø        “Battle of Stirling Bridge” (Wikipedia, with many helpful links)


Ø        “Battle of Stirling Bridge”


Ø        Campbell, Roy, “Sir William Wallace”


Ø        Ewan, Elizabeth, “Review of ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Rob Roy’,” American Historical Review 100 (1995), 1219-21 (available via JSTOR,

Ø        *Ferguson, Eric, “How Accurate Was ‘Braveheart’?”


Ø        *King, Elspeth, “The True Story of Braveheart”


Ø         *Letter concerning the Battle of Falkirk


Ø        McNamee, C.J., “William Wallace’s Invasion of Northern England,” Northern History 26 (1990)


Ø        “On William Wallace and Robert the Bruce”


Ø        Ray, Sid, “Hunks, History, and Homophobia: Masculinity Politics in ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Edward II’,” Film and History 29:3-4 (1999), 23-31

Ø        Roquemore, “Braveheart,” History Goes to the Movies

Ø        William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Blind Harry’s Wallace, introduction by Elspeth King (1998)


Hollywood & Shakespeare Play Tricks on the Dead: “Henry V” (1944, 1989)

Battle: Agincourt, 1415


Suggested background reading in Hunt, The Making of the West: Chapter 13 (“The Crisis of Late Medieval Society, 1320-1430”)


Ø       Bennett, Matthew, “The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War,” in Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War (1994)


Ø        *De Monstrelet, Enguerrand, “The Battle of Agincourt” (contemporary description)


Ø        *Keegan, John, “Feudal War in Practice,” in Stanley Chodorow & Marci Sortor, eds., The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life, vol. 1, The Ancient World to the Reformation, 4th edition (1992)

Ø        Lewis, Anthony, “Henry V: Two Films,” in Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect

Ø        Rees, Garith, “The Physics of Medieval Archery”


Ø        Rogers, Clifford, “The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War,” The Journal of Military History 57 (1993)


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