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.


Witch Burning and Women’s Oppression



Caliban and the Witch

by Silvia Federici

AK Press (2004)

Free PDF download Caliban and the Witch

Book Review

Caliban and the Witch*discusses the critical role witch burning played in the enclosure movement that drove our ancestors from the commons.

Feudalism Characterized by Continuous Rebellion

As Federici ably documents, medieval Europe was characterized by nearly continuous rebellion by serfs against their slave-like conditions. According to Federici, it was only by introducing a reign of terror involving the execution of nearly 200,000 women that the ruling elite succeeding in preventing total insurrection.

In all European countries (both Catholic and Protestant), witch burning was accompanied by legislation expelling women from most occupations and severely restricting their legal and reproductive freedom. The control over women’s reproduction (including a ban on birth control, abortion and all non-procreative sex) was a direct reaction to the population decline caused by famine and plague. Their lower numbers enabled peasants and urban workers to cause an economic crisis by demanding higher pay and improved working conditions.

The True Purpose of the Inquisition

Contrary to what we’re taught in high school and college history classes, the true purpose of the Inquisition was to not to stamp out heresy but to end the continuous peasant revolts. The hundreds of heretical movements (eg the Cathars) the Catholic Church persecuted during the Middle Ages were actually political revolts aimed at creating genuine political and economic democracy. Women figured very prominently in the Cathars and similar heretical religions. In addition to exercising the same rights as men, they also led many food riots and other revolts against enclosure.

Although none of these insurrections succeeded in overthrowing class society, they were extremely effective in winning greater political and economic freedom for both serfs and proletarian workers in the textile industry and other crafts.

The First Worker-Run Democracies

According to Federici’s research, the strength of peasant resistance peaked between 1350 and 1500, due to a severe labor shortage resulting from the Black Death (which wiped out 30-40% of the European population), small pox and high food prices. Highlights of this period include Ghent, which created the first dictatorship of the proletariat in 1378, and Florence, which created the first worker-run democracy in 1379.

The mass refusal of peasants to work under slave-like conditions created a major economic crisis, which the ruling elite addressed through wars of acquisition against other European countries, the colonization of Asia, Africa, America and Oceania and the reimposition of slavery (both in Europe and the Americas).

*Caliban is the subhuman son of the malevolent witch Sycorax in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

A big shout-out to the reader who recommended this book to me. I loved it.