Medieval History: A Useful Fiction

Medieval Lives

Terry Jones (2004)

Film Review

In this BBC series from 2004, Monty Python comic and amateur historian Terry Jones gives us a brief overview of what medieval life was really like. He also explores the political purpose of teaching fictitious medieval history in our schools.

The series, divided into seven segments of 29 minutes each, covers peasant life (The Peasant), the power of the Catholic Church (The Monk), the status of women (The Damsel), the origin of modern music, poetry and satire (The Minstrel), medieval science, alchemy and medicine (The Philosopher), the medieval legal system (The Outlaw), and 13th and 14th century monarchs (The King).

The Peasant – Jones uses the 1381 Peasant Revolt (in which tens of thousands of peasants beheaded the Royal Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury), as his point of departure. Because the barons who oversaw the serfs spent most of their time fighting foreign wars for the king, serfs, who were largely self-governing, developed a highly sophisticated form of direct democracy. They retained more of the product of their labor than modern workers and enjoyed more holidays (80, as opposed to the 8 modern workers enjoy.

The Monk – Jones explores how the Catholic Church became enormously rich by commoditizing prayer, ie praying for the salvation of returning barons who risked eternal damnation for all the souls they slaughtered in military conflict. During the Middle Ages, the Pope presided over the greatest accumulation of land in the western world.

The Damsel – Jones explores how a 50% reduction in the 14th century workforce (due to plague) elevated the status of women when they were forced to assume men’s roles. As the population began to recover, the witch burning campaign launched by the Catholic Church systematically demonized women and forced them out of these roles (see Witch Burning and Women’s Opression ).

The Minstrel – here Jones explores the mysterious disappearances of the renowned medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, possibly relating to his biting satire about the commercialization of the Church.

The Philosopher – here Jones explores the work of 13th century monk Roger Bacon, who discovered light refraction, lenses, the mathematical basis of science and the spherical nature of the Earth 400 years before Isaac Newton. Jones also exposes the total fiction invented by Washington Irving in his biography of Columbus, which falsely portrays the Catholic Church as promoting flat Earth dogma.

The Outlaw – explores the myth of Robin Hood and the early struggle between the local direct democracy practiced by Anglo Saxons and their Norman conquerors. The Anglo Saxons ultimately won out when Henry II instutionalized trial by jury in the 12th century. Contrary to the Robin Hood myth, most outlaws were landless gentry who engaged in robbery, kidnapping and looting for their own enrichment. Most received royal pardons in return for military service.

The King – here Jones rehabilitates Richard II and Richard III (whose portrayal in Shakespeare’s Richard III is a total fiction). Both were systematically demonized by successors who illegally usurped them. Jones also discusses the 12 month British reign (in 1217) of the French king Louis I, who isn’t even acknowledged in English textbooks.