A common story plot in modern day films portraying Middle Age themes is a damsel in distress being saved by a knight in shining armor. For instance, the popular animated children’s movie, Shrek, follows the story line of Shrek and his partner, Donkey, going off on a journey in order to save a princess imprisoned in a tall castle tower and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. The entire plot setting is based roughly around the same time frame as the actual middle ages, so the elements of medieval culture in this movie are clear.
The guarded castles, mythical creatures, and feudal system enforced between the peasants and royalty are all elements of medieval culture. One major scene that depicts the essence of the Middle Ages best is when Shrek leads Lord Farquaad to Fiona as an exchange for guaranteed privacy of Shrek’s swamp. Two main aspects of this scene to focus on is the interaction between Lord Farquaad and Shrek and also the use of Princess Fiona as an object of trade for Shrek’s reward.
Traditional ranking of nobles and commoners are rooted within the Middle Ages, and although Shrek acts rather brutish and unpolished in Lord Farquaad’s presence, there is still an act of submission as depicted by Shrek’s delivery of Fiona. It was typical of knights in the middle ages to battle against one another or perform favors and acts of bravery in order to gain favor in the eyes of a King. Lord Farquaad’s use of Shrek as a way of obtaining Princess Fiona would then give Shrek an opportunity to gain favor in Lord Farquaad’s eyes so that his request of gaining back full ownership of his swamp would be granted.
Due to the treacherous nature of retrieving Fiona, this would constitute as one of many acts of valor that many knights would partake in at the time. Princess Fiona’s part in this scene is as an object of bargaining, as shown when Shrek brings Lord Farquaad to her in order to fulfill his side of the arrangement. It should be noted that Princess Fiona’s hand in marriage was necessary for Lord Farquaad to gain full control cover a larger jurisdiction and for him to have the title as King bestowed upon him.
The use of marriage as a way of combining kingdoms and making negotiations derive from medieval culture and also emphasize the importance that the feudal system played during this time. Although Lord Farquaad had enough power to grant or take away land from landowners, such as the fairy tale creatures, the only way for him to become a real king was to marry a princess, which in this case would have been Princess Fiona.
Similar situations like this regularly occur in modern popular culture, such as the film The Princess Diaries 2, where Princess Amelia is being urged by the Genovian government to marry someone who holds an official title as a prince in order for her to become a true queen. It has become common knowledge in today’s society that a Princess or Prince cannot hold the title as a Queen or King until they are married—this particular idea originating from the Middle Ages.
By looking at these examples, one can see how ideals from the Middle Ages carried over into modern day popular culture. In fact, modern day knighting still takes place in the British government and is still based off of recognition of service and contributions to the British nation. The Order of the British Empire is perhaps the most common knighthood given today and is frequently awarded to British scientists, educators, doctors, and even Paul McCartney. This tradition is significant evidence of the carry over of Middle Ages in contemporary culture.
However, one of the many misconceptions of the medieval times is the mistreatment and the demeaning of woman as being a prominent thing in society. This is portrayed in the treatment of Princess Fiona as a means for bargaining, and one should note that her objections to being married to Lord Farquaad held little to no weight when it came down to her fate. Aside from Princess Fiona, the amount of parts where women held significant character roles were almost nonexistent and further pushed the stereotype of how medieval women were disregarded in medieval times.
On the contrary, women, such as St. Joan of the Arc, held positions of high authority in the time of the Middle Ages and were not treated with as little esteem as modern society thinks today. This kind of thinking encourages the damsel-in-distress scenario where the woman is rendered helpless and waiting for a strong and able man to come and save her. Such depictions associated with medieval society are emphasized over and over until the image of an incompetent woman is incorporated into the general consensus of what medieval times were like.
The use the medieval times as the setting for Shrek also played along with stereotypical Middle Ages as being a time of ignorant common people that blindly followed the rule of the king without any question. The overall appearance that the environment in Shrek gives off is a place that is unorganized and unhygienic, much like what modern society thinks of the middle ages today. Setting Shrek in the Middle Ages effectively played out the stereotypes and general idea of what medieval society means to popular culture.
The exaggerated difference of living conditions between peasants and royalty, the disregard of women, the bartering by marriage, and even the uneducated and dirty lifestyles of many commoners exemplify common misconceptions of the Middle Ages that many people in society take as fact. Popular culture, in turn, starts to immediately associate a time of ignorance and uncleanliness as being characteristic of the Middle Ages—whether they are true or not.
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