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Terry Jones: Medieval Lives

(BBC; US DVD: 1 Apr 2008)

What was always so appealing about Monty Python was that they were unafraid of making obscure references to ancient history, to biblical verse, or even to enlightenment philosophers on their way to getting a laugh. They trusted their audience to know lots of stuff, and they managed to become hugely famous by making clever jokes about rather lofty subjects. In short, they were fearlessly intelligent, even when they were making fart jokes.


There was a feeling with Monty Python that the cleverer you were, the funnier the sketches must be – imagine, they made an entire feature-length film based on satirizing the mythology of the dark ages, and then another one which tackled the new testament, and then a final one which skipped through the history of western metaphysics. This is why, of course, Monty Python retains such enduring popularity among geeks. Monty Python was profoundly geek-friendly. And, it appears that much of this geekiness (and geek-friendliness) can be blamed upon Terry Jones.


While his old compatriots have spent the post-Python decades off on Pole-to-Pole adventures (Michael Palin), making cameos in Bond flicks (John Cleese), championing Broadway musicals (Eric Idle), directing Hollywood films (Terry Gilliam), and being, well, dead (Graham Chapman), Terry Jones, it would seem, was busy reading up on medieval history. Indeed, this least celebrated (and, certainly, least famous) of the Python crew has always maintained an abiding interest in the distant past – an interest which informed a great many of the comedy troupe’s best and most enduring works. Now, after disappearing for a few long years, he has returned with a hugely enjoyable way to present what he’s learned.


What has always bothered Jones, and what he has satirized to great effect in the Python sketches and films on the subject, is the way we happily misunderstand the past, relying on stereotypes and archetypes rather than informed fact and genuine information. (This was the basic point of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail – recall the famous scene between King Arthur and the peasant who refuses to acknowledge him, explaining that he is a member of an anarcho-syndicalist commune.)


Here, in this excellent collection of eight 30-minute episodes shot for the BBC, Jones offers a kind of Holy Grail redux. As a corrective, or rather, a series of correctives, for the centuries of ossified myths and misunderstandings of the Middle Ages, the collection is an unadulterated success. It is informed, intelligent, and often hilarious. The premise – take eight archetypes (Peasants, Damsels, Monks, Minstrels, Knights, etc.) and expose the realities behind the stereotypes with which they are associated – offers a tight and focused series of discussions.


For example: did you know that damsels only gained their “Help me, help me, I’m stuck in a tower and helpless and girly” persona during the Victorian era? That, in their day, damsels enjoyed a great deal more autonomy and power than in centuries to come? Or, that a minstrel started the Battle of the Hastings (sort of)? Or, that monks were basically at the centre of the political economy of the age, and that they were basically savvy businessmen whose predilection for whoring and wine was widely resented? Or, that peasants were often well versed in the laws of the day, and engaged in a massive uprising against the King in the 14th century, targeting legal records and lawyers to show their disdain for the structures which held them in bondage?


Throughout this series of short films, Jones offers such insights in his inimitable fashion, making pithy comments and cutting observations, and illustrating it all by dressing up in costume and playing the part in classic Python style. Good, filthy, dark ages fun. And, there’s a bonus episode on Gladiators, for some reason!

Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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