Constructing a Historical Documentary: A Director's Tale

Kathleen McDonough, December 2003

History is a representation of the past that reflects the interests and biases of the practitioners of the discipline. As Richard White points out in his essay, "History, Rugrats, and World Championship Wrestling," one of the central tenets of academic history is that the past is different from our own time.1 The tools of persuasion for the historian are reliance on documentation to support argumentation and the ability to look at concepts in depth and to weigh the validity of various interpretations. This approach calls for intellectual engagement on the part of the reader. The random access format of print and the process of reading facilitate this approach to the past. Readers may absorb the material at their own pace; stop to reflect on ideas and ways of thinking that are foreign, and flip back and forth to reread and follow arguments.

The historical documentary is also a construction reflecting the biases of its form. Documentaries seek to engage the viewer emotionally in the characters and story. As White points out, one way to create this bond is to make the viewers feel that the subjects of the film are people like them.2 As a result, many historical documentaries stress the commonalities in human behavior that cross temporal and cultural boundaries rather than the differences and strangeness of the past. This convention for establishing familiarity is due in large part to the mode of presentation. Film is a time-based medium and the viewer has no control over the rate at which information is received. Information must, therefore, be easily understood. While film is admirably suited for linear storytelling, it is a difficult medium in which to present complex argumentation. Its means of persuasion are primarily through the juxtaposition of words, image, and sound.

In my documentary A World Inscribed, I strive to strike a balance between the filmmaker's urge to present the past as familiar terrain and the historian's predilection for emphasizing its strangeness.3 A 20-minute film about medieval manuscripts and the scribes and illuminators who produced them, it is intended for use in the college and high school classroom. The documentary is structured chronologically and divided into two distinct parts: monastic book production in the early Middle Ages and secular book production for universities and the luxury book trade in the later Middle Ages. It explores the central issues of book production such as the preservation of knowledge, transmission and corruption of texts, working conditions, shared beliefs and traditions specific to scribes, and the economics of book production. Larger social issues related to the book, such as social class and social mobility, the role of education, literacy, and gender, are also touched upon.

Documentaries made for the educational market have one advantage over those created for the general public—the viewer does not see them in a vacuum. Typically, the audience in the classroom is already studying some aspect of the topic and the instructor can elaborate on the complexities of issues the documentary can only hint at. I was always aware of this tacit partnership between filmmaker and instructor while making the film.

In spite of the fact that the audience is virtually a captive one, an educational documentary must still engage and entertain. A central goal for the film was to reveal the personalities of the anonymous artists of the medieval world. Like the actor in search of a character, the question I asked of all the archival material was "what's the motivation?"

Interpreting the Words

The dominant elements in this documentary are a voice-over narrator and quotations from primary sources. For the most part the visuals support the narration. In writing the script, I started with anecdotes culled from primary sources and images that revealed something about human nature. The creators of these pieces, both the writers and illustrators, became my characters. I chose texts which resonate with a modern viewer to create an identification with the characters and the time period: monks writing complaints in the margins of manuscripts about the boring text or how their hands hurt, abecedarian sentences using all the letters of the alphabet that are similar to the modern typing exercises, and university students who spend their money foolishly. I use the narration to introduce these characters, link the stories, and present the information and concepts that the anecdotes illustrate.

Another function of the quotations from primary sources is to give authority to the voice of the narrator. They serve the same purpose as the interviews of participants or witnesses that are standard in documentaries of the recent past. In his series on the Civil War, Ken Burns popularized the technique of identifying the source of a quotation only after reading the text. This technique allows the viewer to receive the quotation without any prejudices that could be generated by knowing the source of the text. The delayed revelation of the identity of the speaker can also add to the impact of the text. Nevertheless in making A World Inscribed, I preferred to have the narrator introduce and provide the context for these quotations. This structure allows for a distinction to be made between texts of immediacy: scribbles in the margins of books, letters and inscriptions at the end of manuscripts that reveal that particular moment in time, and texts of reflection: memoirs, formal biographies, and histories where the writer reports on the event with the benefit of hindsight.

With the texts of immediacy, I assumed a fairly straightforward motivation. I used a letter from the Abbot of Wearmouth Jarrow to the Bishop of Mainz to illustrate the difficulties of book production. The abbot explained that his scriptorium had not finished copying books requested by the bishop due to the extreme harshness of the winter. I asked Robert G. Kennedy, the actor reading the part, to emphasize his fatigue.

The author's motivation behind texts of reflection can be more complex since it is a more deliberate form of writing. An example of how narration and quotation work together to provide my interpretation of the writer's motivation is an anecdote about Charlemagne. It incorporates a quote from Einhard's Life of Charlemagne about how the emperor tried and failed to learn to write. Structurally, the purpose of the segment is to support the narrator's statement that in the early Middle Ages few people knew how to read or write.


Few people other than churchmen and those trained in church schools knew how to read and write. Charlemagne, king of the Franks, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D., tried to learn to write. His friend and biographer Einhard revealed:


He used to keep writing tablets and notebooks under the pillows on his bed so he could try his hand at forming letters during his leisure moments; but, although he tried very hard, he had begun too late in life and he made little progress.4

On the level of interpretation, the narration heightens the humor of the story by emphasizing the contrast between Charlemagne's exalted political and social position, and his lack of scholarly achievement. I asked Sean P. Owen, the actor who played Einhard, to sound smug and condescending to further emphasize the disparity between the Holy Roman Emperor who couldn't write and Einhard who could. Of course it is impossible to know Einhard's motivation for revealing Charlemagne's weakness to posterity but providing this interpretation makes Einhard more accessible.

Working with Images

A World Inscribed uses pages from medieval manuscripts, live-action shots of a calligrapher at work, and location shooting of some of the great medieval monasteries. As with the quotations from primary sources, the purpose of the manuscript images is to support the narration and give legitimacy to the expository voice-over. Shooting and framing archival material poses several challenges. The television or monitor screen has a horizontal orientation with an aspect ratio of 4:3. Many artifacts do not fit easily within this frame. Books and many photographs have a vertical orientation. If a manuscript page is shown in its entirety there is 40 percent of unused space on the right and left edges of the frame and the image is too small to see any details. One way to overcome this problem is to show only a detail of the image. Another common technique is to use a camera move—pan, zoom, or tilt—to gradually show more of the image. In the opening sequence of A World Inscribed, I use a long tilt down one of the carpet pages from the Book of Kells with a quote from Gerald of Wales, "You will make out intricacies so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, with colors so fresh and vivid that you might say all this is the work of angels and not of a man."5 The 13-second camera move allows the viewer to see the entire page eventually, and to observe the details of the work. It teaches the viewer unfamiliar with medieval manuscript art how to look at and appreciate it.

Camera movements can also provide an interpretation for the motivation of the illustrator. One vignette is built around self-portraits by three different scribes. The first image is a full portrait of the monk Eadwine writing at a desk that covers the entire page of the manuscript. In small letters around the portrait is the inscription, "I am the prince of scribes and my fame shall live for ever." The camera starts at Eadwine's feet and slowly tilts up to his head. The camera move reinforces Eadwine's arrogance. His ego is so large it won't fit in the frame. The next portrait is a small, full portrait of a monk dipping his quill into the inkhorn surrounded by text. Written above the image is his name, Hugo pictor, and the inscription "painter and illuminator of this book." The camera starts with a wide shot of the page and then zooms in to the detail of the portrait. This movement emphasizes how self-effacing this portrait is compared to the one of Eadwine. The third portrait is of the nun, Guta, standing within an initial letter with one hand held up in a gesture of supplication and the other holding a decorative scroll. Inside it she wrote, "The sinner Guta wrote and painted this book." This image doesn't need a camera move because the surrounding design of the initial letter and the text surrounding it give a sense of scale and already demonstrates her humble status. The camera moves create a sense of the personalities of these scribes and help establish a bond of recognition with the audience.

Live-action shots of the process of writing take advantage of the medium's ability to capture motion in time. These images are used at different times to reinforce the narration or to give information that is independent of the narration. At one point the narration discusses the strain of copying a text. The image of the calligrapher cutting a quill and writing on a piece of parchment conveys supporting information about how many strokes it takes to form a letter and how long it takes to write a word. It provides visual confirmation of the tediousness of the task. Shots of the calligrapher applying gold leaf to a letter provide a separate level of information about the process when seen in conjunction with narration about commissioning books for the secular book trade. These sequences also serve as a reminder that the art of calligraphy survived the invention of the printing press (and even the word processor) and strengthen the connection between the past and the present.

Location shots of historical sites in England, Ireland, and France make up the third type of visual element used. The roofless arches of the great monastery of Fountains Abbey in England serve as a poignant reminder of the loss of records of the past. Juxtaposed with narration about the role of monasteries in preserving knowledge, it suggests that knowledge of the Middle Ages is based on fragmentary evidence.

Adding Meaning with Sound and Music

In A World Inscribed, I wanted a clear distinction in how the audience viewed the location and live-action shots of the calligrapher, and images of the manuscripts. It was not my intention to have the live-action shots function as a representation of the past; rather, they are examples of what remains of the past today. I use naturalistic sound effects and ambient sound with the live shots to reinforce their "presentness" and medieval music with the manuscript images to suggest that the past is indeed remote and different from the present in spite of the similarities the narration stresses.

Music is used to provide implicit information that is not present in the narration. I use Gregorian chant throughout the section on monastic book production to emphasize the sacred nature of the task. Many of the vignettes have an element of flippancy with an emphasis on the similarities between the medieval scribes and workers today complaining about working conditions. The sacred music reminds the viewer that the monastic scribe, unlike the modern office worker, believed he was doing the work of God.

The second part of the documentary uses secular music. Like the narration, the music follows a chronological progression, ending with dance music from the Renaissance. The rhythm of this music is faster than chant and is appropriate for the bustle of cities and an occupational community that is not cloistered.

The greatest challenge in sound design is in dealing with sounds about which we have no experiential knowledge and which the primary sources don't describe. There is an extensive vignette in the film about Titivillis, the demon scribe who caused havoc for scribes. In medieval hagiographies, demons are recognized by their foul odor, not a sign that is translatable to film. The Hollywood convention for demons and devils is an electronically enhanced voice with reverb and pitch shifting. Although it would be immediately recognizable to the viewer, the result of this manipulation is a very modern sound. In order to suggest medieval demons rather than modern ones, I layered voices whispering temptations in Latin. In this section, I use music that was written specifically for this documentary rather than period music. It uses period instruments but is atonal and unlike any other music in the film. The composer, Bill Doggett, described it as sound you would hear if the gates to hell were opened a crack.


The documentary film's emphasis on emotional engagement and its relentless barrage of visual and aural information normally discourage critical analysis of the way meaning is constructed while it is being viewed. The conventions of representation in film are so familiar that the audience becomes desensitized to the ways in which the tools of the filmmaker are used to persuade. I have deconstructed my documentary and its representation of the past to reveal how the elements of film create meaning. The partnership between the educational filmmaker and the classroom instructor is strengthened if the instructor has the tools to deconstruct the medium. The partnership between academic advisers and filmmakers gains immeasurably as well when they understand the rhetorical language of each others' disciplines.

—Kathleen McDonough teaches in the communication department at SUNY Fredonia. Her documentary, A World Inscribed, which received the AHA's John E. O'Connor Film Award in 1997, is distributed by Films for the Humanities and Sciences.


1. Richard White, "History, Rugrats, and World Championship Wrestling," Perspectives 37:4 (April 1999), 11–13

2. White, 12.

3. I am grateful to Dr. Consuelo Dutschke for advising me throughout the production process and keeping me from straying too far into the realm of familiarity.

4. Einhard, "The Life of Charlemagne," Two Lives of Charlemagne, Lewis Thorpe trans. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976), 79.

5. Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, John J. O'Meara trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 84.