Feeling Medieval: Mood and Transhistorical Empathy in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

Analysing the 2015 Justin Kurzel film Macbeth, this essay develops a critical frame from phenomenology and romantic hermeneutics to illuminate the affective experience of viewing films set in the Middle Ages, exploring in particular the diffuse emotional registers that it calls medievalist moods. It argues that the historical moods evoked in and by films such as Macbeth are central to the experience of viewing historical cinema. Using notions of empathy developed within German hermeneutics, especially Einfühlung, Verstehen, and Nachfühlen, it accounts for the transhistorical empathy encountered in historical films.

The study of cinematic representations of the Middle Ages is now an established field covering a range of key critical questions about what this medium brings aesthetically and culturally to the afterlife of the Middle Ages. Research on medieval cinema has offered encyclopaedic filmographies, [1] complex cultural analyses, [2] sophisticated accounts of how historical and cinematic time intersect in the medium, [3] and themed essay collections analysing how specific medieval figures, legends, periods, and peoples have been represented. One vital area yet to be addressed in as much depth, however, is how we might understand the affective/experiential dimension of medieval films. By this I mean how films evoke in their audiences a range of feelings associated with the cinematic experience of another time from their own; what I am calling here transhistorical feelings. Conversely, although theorists of cinema have addressed the affective nature of cinematic experience, their accounts have not examined the specific spectatorial feelings solicited (and elicited, when one can ascertain this) by films set in the past. Nor have they considered the audience’s emotional negotiation of the transhistorical relationship between themselves and the past world of the film. Taking as its example the 2015 film Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel, I aim to address this gap, developing a critical frame emerging out of what I suggest are the complementary domains of phenomenology and romantic hermeneutics, to illuminate the affective experience of viewing films set in the Middle Ages.

This exploration of cinema is part of a larger investigation of the emotions of medievalism, the latter being defined succinctly as the postmedieval reception, interpretation, citation, and recreation of the European Middle Ages. Emerging as it does out of a zone of contact where the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ are mutually inflected in a way that confounds easy historical categorisation, medievalism offers a singular angle on the history of emotion that encourages us to accommodate the trans-temporality of feeling.
In formulating this account, I wish, before discussing Kurzel’s Macbeth, to propose first that medievalism in all its forms has long been a potent historically-inflected instance of what philosopher Charles Taylor and his followers have called an “epistemology of engagement”. [4] For Taylor, drawing on Hegel and Heidegger, engaged knowing is fundamentally an epistemology that critiques the divide between knowing subject and known object, steering a helpful course between the positivist investment in empirically knowable objects and the relativism which claims that knowledge of external phenomena is purely subjective. It does not deny the independent life of things beyond our representations and articulations, but it recognises these phenomena also exist as objects of our interpretation. This is a useful paradigm for understanding medievalism because it maintains the autonomous existence of medieval texts, objects, and people, but it acknowledges that these are also understood through the prism of postmedieval interpretations. By this account the Middle Ages are both historical and conceptual; they are medieval and medievalist at the same time.

The application of this model of knowledge to creative forms of medievalism such as cinema and literature, and to practices such as re-enactment, would seem to be straightforward. But the extent to which such texts and practices continue to be evaluated according to the degree of ‘license’ they are deemed to take with history suggests that it is still salutary to highlight medievalism’s negotiation of empiricist/historical and subjectivist/creative demands. I wish to suggest, moreover, that thinking of medievalism as an engaged epistemology offers a paradigm that unifies medievalist practices along a sliding scale across the scholarly-creative divide, so that transhistorical engaged knowing is shared (even though it is not always equally recognised) by all who approach the Middle Ages. Finally, and vitally, it is a not just a mode of knowing, but, as I will argue, a mode of feeling in which all medievalism is involved.

To some working in medievalism studies, the idea of medievalism as engaged epistemology might seem so intuitive as to obviate the need for discussion. But that is precisely the strength of using a phenomenologically derived frame: it brings into focus, and offers a language for discussing, the obvious yet unarticulated knowledges and experiences informing medievalist practices. My key interest in it for this essay is based on its refusal of unproblematic subscriptions to empiricism, which Taylor places into the larger tradition of “intellectualism”. [5] Its argument, furthermore, that knowledge emerges out of the contact between the medieval remnant and the medievalist makes it an appealing practical way of describing the “thick” or “multi-modal” form of transhistorical apprehension that postmedieval people have experienced when coming into contact with articulations of the medieval (texts, artefacts, buildings, and so on). [6] This apprehension comprises not just intellectual responses, as well as social intuitions and beliefs, but also cognitive, somatic, and emotionally-inflected knowledges. Particularly persuasive is the phenomenological replacement of disinterested comprehension with interested apprehension, a term that aptly describes medievalist knowing because it implies a grasp that is not fully conceptual while also bearing an emotional frisson of trepidation: of approach and retreat. This engaged epistemology is, furthermore, valuable not just in its admittance of emotional contact into the medievalist’s relationship with the medieval past, but because it makes room for the particularly diffuse, non-object-directed emotional registers of medievalism, which I will argue are best thought of as medievalist moods.

Before discussing medievalist mood, I wish to put one more related concept in place. Taylor’s notion of apprehension or “pre-understanding” borrows heavily from existential phenomenologist Martin Heidegger’s notion of “preontological understanding”, a pre-reflective familiarity with an environment. This “intermediate state between [the] known and quite unknown” can alternatively be described as a background against which more focused experiences and encounters with objects and situations take place and are understood. [7] In the case of medievalism, the pre-knowledge that medievalists have forms a background apprehension of “the medieval” or, even more diffusely, of “medievalness”. This is not a Platonic idea that distils an essential medievalness within the psyche of the medievalist, nor is it simply a collection of proven historical facts and artefacts, but rather a dynamic aggregate forged by repeated encounters with objects, texts, artefacts, and with interpretations of the medieval. This background apprehension can vary both in tenor and texture according to one’s contact with the medieval. Much like the word “vintage”, the semantic and conceptual range of which spans from exactitude (a 1959 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage Shiraz) to a more generalised notion of ‘Retro’, an apprehension of “medievalness” can be more or less precise in its formulation, but it is always there, and it is always thick with finely intellectual but also broader beliefs and emotional engagements with “the medieval”.

Lest the word “pre-knowledge” be taken to imply a one-way process in which the pre-understanding is the prior foundation for focused articulations, Taylor scholar Michael Heyns argues that the process of meaning-giving should be understood as a circuit. [8] This is true of engaged medievalist meaning-making. Andrew Lynch has aptly used Samuel Beckett’s phrase “no things but thingless names” to describe the ubiquitous repetition of medieval representations, the trajectory of which “has not been steadily cumulative, nor a masterminded programme of conscious discarding and appropriations […] but something that has gained unpredictably in symbolic range as its original historical referents have faded or found articulation in other ways”. [9] In thinking about background “medievalness”, I wish to extend Lynch’s use of Beckett’s idea and say that if “medievalness” is a thingless name, it is a thingless name that is teeming with things; but as an aggregate, it also exceeds the things comprising it.

What has all this to do with the feelings of medievalism? I argue that this background apprehension of aggregated medievalness, far from being merely conceptual, has a deep affective charge that both suffuses and exceeds postmedieval encounters with individual instantiations of the medieval and of medievalism. Within Taylor’s and Heidegger’s accounts, the pre-understanding that informs an encounter is not just imbued with emotion, but with an order of feeling that is particularly apposite for thinking about the indeterminate affects and emotions emerging out of medievalist encounters; and that is mood. But how might we understand mood, and recognise its operations in a specific register of transhistorical feeling?

As an affective phenomenon, mood is easier to recognise experientially than to describe or analyse, but it is the most compelling term for discerning the sustained and diffuse affective charge or ‘atmosphere’ passing between past worlds, or ideas of past worlds, and those who are disposed toward them. Using definitions developed by Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith, [10] I define emotion here as an object-directed cognitive-physical sensation which is connected to a belief system. An example of this is anger, which although widely perceived as pre-social because it expresses aggression, is generally founded on the belief (however mistaken) that a norm of some kind has been violated. Affect is the sub-cognitive, frequently bodily, registering and amplification of these emotions. The affective amplifications of anger include an accelerated heart-rate, flushed complexion, and clenched fists. Mood is better defined, to use the English translation of Heidegger’s musicologically-inflected term Stimmung, as a kind of engaged attunement. [11] The cognate mood to anger is arguably hostility, as a diffuse form of aggression that shares some of the affective qualities of anger but does not necessarily have a specific object, or exceeds its object. Those making use of mood in the sense of attunement range from psychologists such as Matthew Ratcliffe who seek to understand such engulfing psychological-affective states as depression and anxiety [12] through to the above-mentioned film aestheticians. What these diverse responses have in common, and which film theorists have arguably developed most fully, is that mood enables them to explore emotional states that, to use Heidegger’s term, perform “world-disclosure”, [13] that is, states of attunement that open and make accessible dimensions of a world (including the fictional world of a film), rather than responding to specific objects, although objects within that world can elicit affective responses within the larger frame of mood.

Following from this, I wish to suggest that Heidegger’s idea of mood is a particularly useful way of thinking about those transhistorical states of feeling that emerge when a postmedieval person apprehends pre-reflectively the past “world”, or, in Taylor’s terms, the background “medievalness”, a text or object opens up. In the case of medievalist rather than medieval objects, texts, and practices, it might be more accurate to speak of the medievalness in it. Entertaining mood neither precludes an acknowledgement of more determinate scholarly interactions such as analysing medieval texts or dating artefacts, nor denies the specific joys and frustration these might elicit; but rather it claims that these interactions are always suffused with and exceeded by transhistorical mood.

Film, as arguably the most immersive art form, has attracted significant examination of emotion among its theorists. Within this scholarship, mood has also proven to be particularly apposite for thinking about the cinematic experience, so it is unsurprising that film scholars have been among the earliest and most useful voices in distinguishing the registers of feeling that accompany, and are provoked by, our encounters with films. Greg Smith has described cinematic mood as a sustained “consistency of expectation” that grounds the more focused emotions elicited by intense moments in the plot, [14] while Robert Sinnerbrink, querying Smith’s privileging of emotion over mood, argues that as a key aspect of a film’s aesthetic composition, moods “are expressive of how a (cinematic) world is revealed”, and “provide a baseline form of attunement that enables certain items within that world to show up as … disturbing, repellent, perplexing, threatening, fascinating, and so on”. [15] And although theorists Tarja Laine and Daniel Yacavone do not use the word mood, one can detect a compatible paradigm in their respective conceptions of films as having “emotional cores” or “world atmospheres”, which, in Laine’s words, elicit “emotional congruence” or “affective nonsynchronicity” from spectators in the interactive “cinematic event”. [16] There is a strong focus in these theorists’ work on bringing together the aesthetic and the experiential to account for the feelings generated out of the viewing experience. Given the usefulness of mood for characterising both cinema and transhistorical affect, it is striking that cinematic theorists unilaterally overlook the distinctive mood generated by historical films. Laine’s Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies deals with only a single film set in the past, Dangerous Liaisons (1988) directed by Stephen Frears and based on the novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Chodleros de Laclos (1782). Describing its eighteenth-century setting in aesthetic terms as “rococo” leads her to dismiss it as “ornamental” without acknowledging sufficiently the dense conceptual and affective world-disclosure involved in its language, costume, and encompassing mise-en-scène. [17] I will now discuss an example of medievalist cinema to demonstrate that, far from being incidental, the historical mood evoked in and by such films is constitutive of the feelings they elicit in viewers.

One recent film that has been widely recognised for its evocation of medievalist mood is Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth. Reviews have resorted to a shared lexicon that reflects a collective transhistorical response to its overall Stimmung, calling it “stark”, “spare”, “savage”, “brooding”, “bleak”, “brutal”, “gloomy”, “portentous”, “eerie”, “rugged”, “visceral”, and “austere”. Virtually every one of these adjectives is, moreover, applied in these reviews to the film’s medieval setting. Although, predictably, all reviewers make some mention of the film’s adherence to (or, more commonly, departures from) Shakespeare’s play, there is also clear evidence in the film’s critical reception that its portrayal of medieval Scotland has been widely regarded to have exceeded its Shakespearian mediation, and to have effectively “re-medievalised” the world of the story.

This “re-medievalisation” of Macbeth’s world is emphatically not a historicist venture. There is nothing in the film to suggest that Kurzel has consulted the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century chronicles by John of Fordun, Andrew of Wyntoun, Hector Boece, or George Buchanan, which preceded Shakespeare’s main source, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The expository intertitle at the beginning of the film, moreover, makes no specific allusion to the action’s eleventh-century historical context. Indeed, the only ‘grounding’ historical event mentioned in the opening text, the ‘Battle of Ellon’, is historically unattested, although ‘Ellon’ does sound a little like ‘Elgin’, which is close to Forres, the location of Duncan’s council in Act I scene II of Shakespeare’s text. [18] So despite going unquestioned by all of the film’s reviewers (who also fail to note its departure from Shakespeare’s script), this ‘historical’ allusion appears to be audaciously misleading in its pseudo-historicism, a red herring that both courts and refuses those who would situate the action in the real Middle Ages.

Consonant with this refusal of documentary historicism, the film’s physical mise en scène clearly avails itself of one kind of aggregated background “medievalness”, with the viewer encountering a highly stylised, mythic, and broadly conceived ‘Norso-Celtic’ Middle Ages whose cinematic legacy stretches from The Longships (1964) to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien-inspired epics. The film’s transhistorical Stimmung distils a number of contradictory modern perceptions of the Middle Ages: its early alternating of kinetic battle scenes with static human tableaux establishes a paradoxical world of turbulence and stasis, where volatile dynastic politics churn within a world of unchanging tribal custom. The predominance of tents and wooden structures over stone dwellings portrays a rough-hewn world in which courtly and Christian values are secondary to the violent martial values of a warrior society. The film’s Middle Ages are, moreover, fundamentally elemental rather than cultural. Here, the gruesome, red-filtered battle scenes that open and close the film bracket a world of blue-filtered exterior scenes in which small, rough settlements are dwarfed by flinty, mist-shrouded highlands and gunmetal skies.

Figure 1: battle scene with mountains in background

The interior scenes, including of Macbeth’s castle (in reality the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral), are fewer, and even in these the rain and snow often penetrate, bringing the outside in. Many of the film’s interiors are, moreover, engulfed in a gloom only dimly mitigated by the guttering flames of candles. These points of light, where fire and wind contend, are echoed on a large scale in funeral pyres, the blazing execution of Macduff’s family, and the final conflagration of Burnham Wood. In a trope common to medievalist representations of heroic medieval culture, these images suggest a primitive world in which human life is shaped by the forces of nature. [19]

The conceptualisation of the film’s medieval world qua a generalised notion of the ‘primitive’ is most evident in the costume design. Guided by Viking archaeological finds and drawings from the 1920s of historical and folk costumes by artist-ethnographer Max Tilke, designer Jacqueline Durran has openly stated that she deliberately eschewed “anything you’d associate with medieval style”, especially the braids and brocades of courtly and ecclesiastical dress. Instead, using a ‘mood board’, a collage consisting of images, colours, and fabrics that evoked the Stimmung she sought, she opted for silhouettes and materials taken from nomadic and “primitive civilisations” [20] from Africa to Nepal, whose “rudimentary conditions” matched, in her view, those of eleventh-century Scotland. This process resulted in mostly dark and unadorned tunics, as well as voluminous cloaks and shawls made from such materials as woven nettles. Durran justifies her interspersing of heraldic symbols with what she calls “naïve” decorative elements from the North African Tuareg by arguing that eleventh-century Scotland has become “[an] imaginary space because the representations we have of that century are so stylized and few and far between.” [21] In a gesture familiar to scholars of medievalism, the medieval and the non-western are problematically collocated under the star of the ‘non-modern’ and the primitive.

Figure 2: the film’s non-specific ‘primitive’ costumes

The physical mise en scène’s ‘elemental medieval’ world-disclosure is reinforced by a soundscape largely emptied of the kind of mid-range ambient noise that might have established a textured historical world, such as background voices, animal noises, the sounds of quotidian labour. Apart from the (significantly cut) dialogue, some diegetic children’s singing, and the hyperreally loud rendering of bodily violence – predominantly stabbing and slashing – the dominant sounds are atmospheric: the deep, almost constant growl of winds, the rumble of distant thunder, and the low rush of the tide all blend into the low-frequency synthesised hum underlying many of the scenes. Composer Jed Kurzel’s scoring of the film with a blend of deep, dissonant electronic chords and extra-diegetic dirge-like string arrangements generates a mood that is doleful but also ominous, especially when it is punctuated at the beginning and the end by a percussive pounding that evokes a Celtic skin-drum and, as the plot demands, the drums of war. While Kurzel describes his “kind of rustic” score as a combination of modern and traditional elements, and likens it to his work on the deeply menacing Snowtown (2011) set in 1990s Australia, [22] reviewers have continued to emphasise its contribution to the film’s medieval mood, with the International Film Music Critics site’s review arguing that Kurzel’s use of “strings working together, strings fighting each other like the swords in the story, strings wailing, strings threatening, strings fighting for their place […] fits with [one’s] idea of those dark and unforgiving times”. [23]

None of these tropes would be unfamiliar to anyone acquainted with cinematic representations of ‘medievalness’; indeed, the film’s Stimmung relies heavily on an aesthetic idiom that has been recognised by many scholars of medievalism and recently summed up by David Matthews as “the gothic or grotesque Middle Ages”. This idiom, which Matthews characterises as founded on “the assumption that anything medieval will involve threat, violence and warped sexuality”, [24] is present not just in the film’s mise-en-scène but in the sex scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they seal their pact of murderous ambition. What is most distinctive about this film is the precise convergence of its “gothic” elements and the resulting density of its transhistorical mood. This has led several commentators to remark on the immersiveness of the film’s world disclosure, with the Village Voice proclaiming it “A Macbeth to sink into”, and the Los Angeles Times predicting “viewers will find themselves immersed in this classic medieval tragedy”. [25] Yet for a number of reviewers it is this very physical immersiveness that threatens to short-circuit viewers’ empathic engagement with the story. These reviewers single out for particular criticism the truncation of the dialogue and the actors’ often muted delivery of their characters’ most famous speeches, which is a key aspect of the film’s de-emphasising of its Shakespearian source. Critics of this feature have argued that it denies viewers access to the psychological rationale underlying characters’ actions, turning the story into a seemingly unmotivated, escalating series of violent acts and elemental events.

This critique is understandable insofar as the film does at times subordinate the characters’ individual feelings to the larger mood of their surroundings, exceeding the “exact equivalence” and “complete adequacy of the external to the emotion” that T. S. Eliot famously identified in Macbeth in his essay on the objective correlative, which continues to be taken as a standard measure of how characters and environment are balanced in popular Shakespeare adaptations. [26] The film’s containment of the characters’ verbal expression and individual emotion is corroborated, moreover, by its shot selection. Its repeated use of mid-range shots situates the characters as bodies anchored in, and shaped by, their world historically and environmentally, rather than as modern sovereign subjects. Even the close-ups are medium close-ups, framing the characters’ faces within the background medievalness that is so relentlessly disclosed.

Figure 3: close-up but with background visible

I want to suggest, however, that instead of the projective approach to empathy underpinning these criticisms, which rests on the assumption that viewers must identify emotionally with the characters, there is another way of understanding how empathic engagement operates as part of the Stimmung of historical films. This can be found in the notions of transhistorical empathy that have been developed within German hermeneutics to elucidate the non-positivistic means by which modern historians come to understand and interpret people of the past.

Of particular interest from hermeneutic theory is the notion of Einfühlung, which has been translated into English as “empathy” or “empathic understanding”, although it literally means “feeling into”. The term is most closely associated with such late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thinkers as Robert Vischer, Theodor Lipps, and Wilhelm Dilthey. While most theorists used it to discuss aesthetic sensibility or a connection to nature, Dilthey is of interest to a consideration of medievalist cinema because he linked Einfühlung to his sister term Verstehen, a historical understanding based on a “process by which we know something interior from signs given outwardly to the senses”. [27] These thinkers developed the idea from their reading of the early nineteenth-century thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher, who in turn derived it from the Romantic hermeneutics of Johann Gottfried Herder. It is not my purpose here to disentangle all the permutations of how Einfühlung and its related terms have been formulated by each of them; [28] rather I want to draw out the common aspects that are most suggestive for a consideration of film viewing. First, all agree that this is a mode of understanding that emerges out of the exchange between a body and a perceived object (in this case the spectator’s body and historical world-disclosing film); it emerges out of an attempt to ‘feel into’ the historical other’s experience via analogy; it is experiential rather than abstract and documentary; and it permits, and admits to, an affective attachment to the experiences of past people.

Critics of Einfühlung as a mode of historical understanding, including Max Weber, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jurgen Habermas, have argued that as a form of transhistorical empathy it is naïvely immersive and projective, imposing the perspective of the interpreter onto the historical object, and therefore too subjectivistic to provide genuine historical knowledge. Gadamer argued in Truth and Method, furthermore, that its grounding in Romantic hermeneutics means it “takes no account of the historical nature of experience”, [29] while Habermas dismissed it as a suspect and promiscuous belief in the possibility of “submer[sion] … in a subhistorical stream of life that allows a pleasurable identification of everyone with everyone else”. [30] They imputed to this a naïve belief in the possibility of contemporaneity between the historian and her object – a position that they regarded as aesthetic rather than properly epistemic. A closer look at how the idea of transhistorical empathy has been formulated within Romantic and post-Romantic hermeneutics, however, throws this critique into question. Schleiermacher, for instance, arguably the figure most criticised for his Romantic intuitionism, insists that the intuition should always be coupled with a clear recognition of the socio-cultural context of the historical object or person, a point reiterated by Dilthey who insisted that Einfühlung and Verstehen are, like Stimmung, oriented toward the world and socio-historical processes rather than psychological immersion in the worlds of past people. [31]

Kurzel’s film’s solicitation of this kind of empathy is apparent in its de-psychologised, world-disclosing approach to the Macbeths’ childlessness. In a much-remarked extrapolation, Kurzel opens the film with the couple burying their dead child. Numerous reviewers have seized on this as evidence that Kurzel’s murderous thane is motivated chiefly by parental grief. Looked at more closely, however, the opening scene disrupts any sense that this is the privatised bereavement with which modern viewers might identify, by cutting to a mid-range human tableau shot that locates the couple within their socio-historical community. Here the death of a child is cause for public, communal mourning that is as much concerned with loss of lineage as it is with emotional anguish.

Figure 4: Macbeths and shared communal grief

In these shots, moreover, the chapel behind the human figures, and the skies and mountains towering over them, situate the death within natural and cosmic orders that shape human life and history. The characters’ individual grief is subsumed into the bleak “gothic” mood of the medieval setting, with its relentless hostility and blunt dynastic struggles. The fact, however, that critics reacted against the film’s privileging of medieval Stimmung over subjective emotion suggests that Kurzel could have negotiated the emotion/mood balance more successfully, and thereby risked less disengagement from viewers.

Although Einfühlung is the term most commonly associated with transhistorical empathy, Dilthey’s favoured term for describing this process in his most-quoted work on this subject, The Rise of Hermeneutics (1900), is actually Nachfühlen. This can be glossed as a reflective “re-feeling” and “re-experiencing”, a reflective experiencing of secondary feeling that is not psychological but rather, in the words of Max Scheler, “grasps experientially the quality of the [historical] other’s feelings without these feelings … stimulating similar actual feelings in us”. [32] The editing of the battle scenes in Macbeth provoke just such a response from the viewer. In these scenes, immersive sequences of realistically rendered hand-to-hand combat, composed of visceral handheld shots of sword and spear fighting, filmed at adult body height and with realistic diegetic sound, are disrupted by slow-motion shots of blood spattering, filmed in extreme decontextualised close-up with diegetic sound suspended. These scenes also deploy multi-temporal kinetic effects taken from the Kung Fu film genre, in which combat action is slowed and sped up alternately. Finally, the use of red filtering in these scenes adds both emotional charge and distantiation effect.

Figure 5 Red-filtered image of Macbeth

Figure 5 Red-filtered image of Macbeth

Recalling Laine’s argument that a film’s emotional core need not be straightforwardly immersive but can also generate a state of “affective nonsynchronicity” in a viewer, Kurzel’s anti-realistic editing technique elicits a reflective empathy in the viewer, who becomes “nonsynchronous” to the action in that s/he is prevented from fully occupying either the narrative or historical timeframes inhabited by the medieval characters. So these states of knowledge are not simply projective and immersive, but foreground instead a notion of transhistorical empathy that negotiates a dialectic of similitude and difference between the subject and object of empathy. These earlier theories correspond, moreover, with more recent formulations of empathy as a form of knowledge, such as philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s well-known definition of it as “a participatory enactment of the situation of [another] … but always combined with an awareness that one is not oneself [that person]”. [33]

Those who examine empathy in relation to film and literature typically emphasise the role of imagination in audiences’ empathic responses, insisting that empathy is an intersubjective but non-coextensive state of imaginatively experiencing the experience of others. This is strongly apparent in film scholar Amy Coplan’s idea of audiences “imaginatively experiencing the character’s experiences from the character’s point of view, while simultaneously maintaining clear self/other definition”, [34] and in literature scholar Lisa Zunshine’s formulation of readers “‘trying on’ mental states potentially available to us but at a given moment differing from our own”. [35] Others extend this reflexive use of imagination to describe contact with people from the past. A dialectical approach comparable to Zunshine’s is developed by Dominick La Capra in History in Transit, in the post-positivistic approach he calls “empathic unsettlement”:

One may reformulate and defend [the goal of historical objectivity] in postpositivistic terms by both questioning the idea of a fully transparent, unproblematic, neutral representation of the way things in the past “really were” and recognising the need to come to terms with one’s […] affect-laden implication in the object of study by critically mediating perhaps inevitable projective or incorporative identifications, undertaking meticulous research, and being open to the way one’s findings may bring into question or even contradict one’s initial hypotheses. [36]

Prior to LaCapra’s better-known discussion, Middle English scholar Nicholas Watson proposed a medievalist practice which balances empiricism’s “hermeneutic of suspicion”, in which a recognition of the Middle Ages’ historical alterity is paramount, against a “hermeneutic of intuition” in which this era becomes familiar to modern interpreters. Watson himself performs this kind of transhistorical empathetic work, albeit within the rather less embodied context of textual analysis, by reading late medieval mystical texts as simultaneously reflective of their historical moment and “part of a thinking and feeling life that still goes on”. [37] He maintains that this historical knowledge must always retain a reflexive consciousness of the hermeneutic gap between subject and object that prevents the treatment of the past from turning into mere solipsistic assimilation. In this respect his contact with these texts is not the forensic work of the literary historian. Rather, along with all of the practices described above, it comes closer to what Aranye Fradenburg has characterised as a hermeneutic of contact in which “the persistence of the signifier [a term which can include signifiers of the Middle Ages and of “medievalness”] might indeed permit some kind of contact to be made with the past – or at least, might permit us to be changed by such contact – and we would not be left with the old futility of trying to understand a Middle Ages irretrievably other to our own”. [38]

Transhistorical mood (Stimmung) and empathy (Einfühlung) are not limited to medievalism; indeed, they are at the heart of our engagement with the past. But these ideas are particularly apt for capturing medievalism, especially as it is encountered in films, which can avail themselves of the diffuse feelings that underpin both transhistorical and cinematic modes of feeling. I believe this framework to have broad applicability to considerations of medievalism because the Middle Ages invite from modernity a uniquely empathic relationship based on what many have described as their contradictory dual positioning as both ‘other’ to the modern and the crucible of the modern. And, finally, as the historical era attracting what is arguably the most richly capacious and associative forms of apprehension, cutting across history, myth, and fantasy, the medieval is perhaps the moodiest time of them all, and we should be alive to the moodiness of our many encounters with it.

This essay was produced with the support of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, ‘Comic Medievalism and the Modern World’ (FT120100931)


[1] Kevin Harty, The Reel Middle Ages: American, Western and Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian Films About Medieval Europe (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999, repr. 2006)
[2] Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman, Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), Andrew B. R. Elliott, Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011); Richard Burt, Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)
[3] Bettina Bildhauer, Filming the Middle Ages (London: Reaktion Books, 2011); Nickolas Haydock, Movie Medievalisms: The Imaginary Middle Ages (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008)
[4] Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1995). See also Michael Heyns, “An Epistemology of Engagement,” Koers 71:1 (2006): pp.73-99.
[5] Charles Taylor, “Rorty and philosophy,” in Richard Rorty, ed. Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.161.
[6] Heyns, “Rorty and Philosophy,” p.75.
[7] Charles Taylor, “Engaged Agency and Background in Heidegger”, in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, ed. Charles Guignon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp.317-336. See also Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996)
[8] Heyns, “Rorty and Philosophy,” pp.73-99.
[9] Andrew Lynch, “‘Thingless Names’? The St. George Legend in Australia,” The La Trobe Journal 81 (2008): p.50.
[10] See Carl Plantinga, “Emotion and Affect,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, ed. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp.86-96; Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Greg M. Smith and Carl Plantinga, Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
[11] Being and Time, pp.126-133.
[12] Matthew Ratcliffe, “Existential Feeling and Psychopathology,” Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 16:2 (2009): pp.179-194.
[13] Heidegger, Being and Time, pp.120-121. See also Hubert Dreyfus, Commentary on Being and Time (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p.89.
[14] Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System, p.40.
[15] Robert Sinnerbrink, “Stimmung: Exploring the Aesthetics of Mood,” Screen 53:2 (2012): p.154.
[16] Tarja Laine, Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies (New York and London: Continuum, 2011), pp.4-8; Daniel Yacavone, Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), pp.194-95
[17] Laine, Feeling Cinema, p.124
[18] An early medieval cross shaft just outside Elgin has had the name ‘Sueno’s Stone’ attached to it, suggesting local tradition locates it as the site of the battle between Macbeth’s and Sweno’s Norwegian forces. My thanks to Alex Wolf and Lorna Barrow for this information.
[19] See the essays under the section ‘Dirt and Grit’ in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: from Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, ed. Helen Young (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2015).
[20] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/movies/michael-fassbender-and-the-robes-of-royalty.html
[21] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/movies/michael-fassbender-and-the-robes-of-royalty.html
[22] http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/jed-kurzel-on-why-macbeth-echoes-snowtown-and-how-the-score-was-almost-electronic-20151001-gjy6c5.html; see also http://www.spookmagazine.com/jed-kurzel-the-music-of-macbeth/
[23] http://www.soundtrackdreams.com/2015/10/soundtrack-review-macbeth-jed-kurzel-2015/
[24] David Matthews, Medievalism: A Critical History (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2015), p.15
[25] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-macbeth-movie-review-20151204-story.html
[26] T. S. Eliot “Hamlet and His Problems,” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921).
[27] W. Dilthey, “Die Entstehung der Hermeneutik,” in Wilhelm Dilthey: Gesammelte Schriften V, ed. G. Misch, (Stuttgart: B.G. Taubner, 1924), pp.318/236; translation in Austin Harrington, “Dilthey, Empathy, and Verstehen: A Contemporary Reappraisal,” European Journal of Social Theory 4:3 (2001): p.317
[28] For a good overview, see Magdalena Nowak, “The Complicated History of Einfühlung,” Argument 1:2 (2011): pp.301-326, and Austin Harrington, “Dilthey, Empthy, and Verstehen,” pp.311-329
[29] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p.233
[30] Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. J. J. Shapiro (London: Heinemann, 1973), p.181
[31] See Nowak, “Einfühlung,” pp.309-311.
[32] Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, quoted in Harrington, “Dilthey,” p.319.
[33] Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.327.
[34] Amy Copland, “Will the Real Empathy Please Stand Up? A Case for a Narrow Conceptualization,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49 (2011): p.44
[35] Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006), p.17
[36] Dominic LaCapra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), pp.133–134
[37] Nicholas Watson, “Desire for the Past,” in Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars”, ed. Louise D’Arcens and Juanta Feros Ruys (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp.149-188
[38] Aranye Fradenburg, “Going Mental,” Postmedieval 3 (2012): p.369

About the Author

Louise D’Arcens

About the Author

Louise D'Arcens

Louise D’Arcens is Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of English at Macquarie University. Her publications include Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Australian Literature 1840-1910 (2011), Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages (2014) and the edited volumes The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism (2016), International Medievalism and Popular Culture (2014), and Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars (2004).View all posts by Louise D’Arcens →