Last semester, Medieval Studies students David Smigen-Rothkopf and Alexander Profaci worked with Julian Hobbs, former Executive Producer at the History Channel and now co-President of Talos Films, on “Lords of the Darkness: a Historical Docu-Drama” (working title). Composed of three chapters pertaining to Early, High, and Late Medieval Europe, respectively, with six episodes of an hour-and-a-half per chapter, the series is meant to be a popular, narrative presentation of the breakdown of centralized authority in the wake of Rome’s disintegration and the development of new kingdoms in its place.
Hired as fact-checkers and researchers, David and Alex worked predominantly on the first chapter, pertaining to the Early Middle Ages (defined by the show’s scope as the period from the advent of Constantine’s rule to the turn of the millennium), and the pitch episode. The process of disseminating their research took the form of a theoretical trading card game, in which each historical figure was made into a single player wielding his or her cards, which broke down into types pertaining to, for example, the technology and religiosity of his or her time and historical events in which he or she took part or by which that figure was affected. David and Alex, bringing their academic discipline to the forefront, provided as much information as they could accumulate during this brief collaborative period to ensure the more populist approach to history Julian Hobbs practices was married with a greater attention to historical detail. Ultimately, the series is designed to be a broad, thematic one in which the Middle Ages is to be made an approachable subject for a wider, largely non-academic audience.
Essentially presenting the Medieval Era as a time in history abiding by an over-arching narrative, defined in hindsight, the series seeks to show the linear progression of events toward the end of the era. While this presentation of history is considered problematic in many academic circles, it does make the events more digestible for an audience who has not the time or interest in spending the hundreds of hours necessary reading through primary sources and secondary commentaries and analyses to understand what happened and why. This put David and Alex in the interesting position of having to emulate the very medieval chroniclers whose accounts upon which we rely now, giving new perspective of the construction of historical narrative.
History means different things to different people, and, ultimately, this experience gave David and Alex the opportunity to negotiate a balance between the complexities of historical reality with the cultural imagination of the general population, contributing to the building of a bridge between the work of medievalists and an audience as yet unreached by that corpus.
By Kevin Vogelaar