Black Death (2010)
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
Black Death (2010) takes place in England during the fourteenth-century plague, or the pestilence, as the film refers to it. The film follows Osmund as he goes on a most traumatic journey, transforming him from a young and naïve monk to a witch hunter, blinded by his own guilt. A knight named Ulric and his men arrive at Osmund’s monastery seeking a guide to a village that’s been untouched by the plague. Osmund volunteers so that he can meet the girl, Averill, he loves in a place not far from the village that Ulric is seeking. The journey to the village is a long and dangerous one and when it comes time for Osmund to sneak away to meet Averill, he finds only her bloody clothes and believes her to be dead. When they finally get to the village, things only take a turn for the worse. Warmly welcomed by its leader, Langiva, the group are then drugged, caged, and asked to renounce God. When they refuse, they’re tortured and killed. Langiva attempts to lure Osmund into her cult by telling him that she has brought Averill back to life for him. Believing that she’s in purgatory, and in an attempt to save her soul, Osmund stabs her. Soon after, Ulric reveals he has the pestilence and that the whole village will now be infected. Langiva manages to escape but not before she confesses to Osmund that Averill was never dead until he stabbed her. When we see Osmund last, he is a witch hunter, seeing Langiva in every woman accused of witchcraft.
The film received mixed reviews by both critics and audiences, receiving a 6.4/10 on IMDb and a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. Alex von Tunzelmann of The Guardian titled his review, “Black death should be burned at the stake,” and Dan Jolin of Empire called it a grubby muddle, “leaving you wishing you were just rewatching The Name Of The Rose instead.” Tim Robey of The Telegraph, however, is impressed by the movie, even going as far as calling it “Bergmanesque.” Even with its star-studded cast (Eddie Redmayne played Osmund and Sean Bean played Ulric), the movie only made $265,318 worldwide.
While the film is not meant to be a historical recreation of the plague or its victims, it does occasionally engage with some real medieval history. In the film, the group encounters a flagellant group flogging themselves down the river. The flagellants were a penitential movement whose popularity increased in thefourteenth century, and they believed that the plague was God’s punishment for sin. The movement engaged in the self-mortification of their flesh and traveled from place to place calling for repentance, motivated by the belief that such displays of penance would bring salvation to Christendom.
The film also utilizes images of witches, who are seen in so many plague movies, as they usually stand in for the Jewish experience of scapegoating during the plague. Early on in the film, the group attempts to stop a woman accused of witchcraft from being burned at the stake. When Ulric questions what she’s done, the villagers say that she poisoned their well. This is a reference to the very same accusations and punishments that fell upon the Jews during the period of the Black Death. While medieval people did believe that the plague was God’s punishment for their sins, they attempted to explain and cure it from practical knowledge, and one of the theories that emerged was that the plague came from poisoned water.
The film also appears to be heavily informed by the Iraq War, which was in the news at the time of the film’s production. Osmund volunteers to help Ulric not knowing what or where they were truly headed, and when he returned from his journey he was deeply changed–– and not for the better. This recalls similar imagery of troops sent into Iraq and being unprepared for the environment and violence that greeted them, returning from war exhibiting symptoms of PTSD. Before Osmund leaves, the abbot of his monastery remarks, “even if you survive, the world out there will change you” ––foreshadowing what would happen to Osmund and a commentary on the effects of war.
The film’s portrayal of women feeds into the two archetypes often seen in medieval movies: a beautiful virgin who must be protected and an evil seductress, usually a pagan or non-Christian woman. Averill has no agency and she exists to give Osmund character and reason for his actions. Langiva is beautiful but devious and heretical. She embodies the “bad woman drives the good man mad” trope. Osmund is possessed by her long after she’s gone, dedicating himself to finding and burning her. The film ends on a wittier note than it started, leaving you wondering if he ever truly catches Langiva or if he simply takes every woman accused of witchcraft to be her in another form.
March 11, 2011 (US release)
Revolver Entertainment (distributor, UK)
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)
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