Historians of the early Middle Ages daily tackle complicated, technical sources in foreign, defunct languages and apply subtle sociological and anthropological methodologies in order to shed more light on the societies of old as well as more universal cultural and societal approaches and mechanisms: such as ‘othering’, ‘identity formation’, and the ‘use of the past’. Sometimes the insights of such specialised studies seem slow to reach a wider audience, even though they may be highly relevant.
The upcoming release of the Dutch film Redbad: the legend provides an promising opportunity to share some of our insights with a general public, not least because the film itself seems to be a prime example of using the past to gift-wrap a contemporary, political message. Redbad (or Radbod as we encounter him in the sources) was a Frisian leader who both battled with the Frankish mayor Pippin II and managed to integrate extremely well in the ruling Frankish family; while he himself did not seem to have converted to Christianity, he did provide welcoming work environment for missionaries like Willibrord and Wulfram (as long as this was politically beneficial to Radbod, that is). This nuanced image of Radbod is somewhat obscured by the primary sources, which all date from at least some decades later and were all written by Carolingian apologists, who found in Radbod a suitable candidate for their ancestors’ heathen arch nemesis. Academic scholarship has uncovered the much more nuanced reality, but the film makers opted to present this history in a rather uncreative, dualistic version: Radbod as the freedom-loving champion of a ‘northern culture’ fighting against ‘southern religious extremists’. Sounds like a familiar message?
I teamed up with Erik Goosmann to present the more nuanced history of Radbod and the scholarly method of uncovering this history from sources which so blatantly misrepresent the past to further their own messages. The upcoming film proves that insight in this rhetorical strategy continues to be relevant, not just for historians…
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