Medieval Europe is not a place.  It is a state of mind. It lives vividly in the lore of the West and equally in the parallel reality of Medieval Asia, though the costumes and characters are very different.  See Destination 10: China. This time of royals and their courts, knights and dragons, and princesses in distress, has inspired movies of intense cultural psychodrama.

Castle on the Rhine.

Castle on the Rhine.

Carrying my own baggage of movie images on my first all-expense-paid trip to Europe in 1964 (cf. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), I landed in Frankfurt and took a train north to a garrison town called Butzbach. My indelible first memory of the moment I stepped onto the platform is of a moldering castle on the distant horizon, just outside of town. For an under-prepared soldier from Connecticut, arriving at his first foreign post, this was time travel.

The many movies drawn from the legends of King Arthur and his associates form a cornerstone to the medieval era. By the time of the Crusades, beginning at about 1000 CE, northern Europe had moved from a world of nomadic tribes and Roman outposts to a patchwork of developing nations, each with its own language and version of history. Castles were built and a culture resting on the illusion of permanence was being established.  Arthur, who is thought to have lived somewhere around the year 500, was the banner-carrier for this time of identity building in Europe.

Over the thousand year span of the Middle Ages, from the aftermath of the fallen Roman Empire to the Renaissance, new legends grew to displace old myths. The story of Faust will play a defining role for this time. So too the fabled journeys of Marco Polo, who opened the imagination of the West to the world of the East and paved the way for Columbus more than two centuries later. The 1950 movie, The Black Rose, brings many of these themes together on one screen.

The old myths resurrect and live on into our own times, especially in the movies. The slayers of mythical dragons are with us today, and timeless tales like those of Dracula awaken primordial impulses of fear and superstition.

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