Books: Comic Trying to Rewrite History; Ex Python Terry Jones Tells Simon Evans Why We've Got the Middle Ages All Wrong

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Evans

One of the functions of comedy is to alter, if only momentarily, our perspective on the world, to reveal the absurdities of everyday life.

The Monty Python team were more successful than most at changing our view of the world around us. Like a child's kaleidoscope that, with the slightest turn, suddenly reveals a new set of patterns and colours, the Pythons took a slightly slanted, off centre view of the world and revealed it as dark, disturbing, grotesque and rather silly.

It's an attitude reflected in the work of the prolific ex-Python Terry Jones, whose various excursions into journalism, children's books, films and, most recently, the television series and book Medieval Lives, reveal a constantly enquiring, questioning mind.

In Medieval Lives, currently being shown on BBC2 and just published as a lavish book, Jones questions our received wisdom about the period, revealing that, far from being a time of superstition, ignorance, poverty and depravity, it actually wasn't too bad a time to be living in, and in many ways was more preferable to our modern day existence. As Jones puts it: 'The life of the peasant depends on the sort of society he lives in -and compared with a lot of people's lives today, there were times when the medieval peasant had it pretty good.'

Jones fascination with the Middle Ages dates back to the early Seventies, when he was involved in making the Monty Python TV series.

'In between rehearsals for the Monty Python TV series I used to go off moonlighting in the British Museum investigating all sorts of things about the period, just because I found it so fascinating,' he recalls. 'I wouldn't pretend to be a trained historian (Jones studied English at Oxford), I'm just very interested in the period.'

Part of that interest stemmed from Jones' love of the work of Geoffrey Chaucer.

'I was particularly interested in the boring bits of Chaucer,' he says. 'I've always been puzzled by the description of the knight in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, which is so dreary especially when the descriptions of the other pilgrims are so fascinating, funny and witty.

'I thought maybe it's because of the way we are looking at it, the way it has been taught. The description of the knight is essentially a list of wars and battles, so I set about investigating what those battles actually were about and what they would have meant to a contemporary. I discovered that the knight was actually a medieval mercenary, which explained a lot.'

The result was Jones' book Chaucer's Knight, which is still required reading for students of The Canterbury Tales. Jones says researching the book involved 'getting into a kind of 14th century mindset, and it's the old story, the more you get into something the more you find it fascinating.'

Directing the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail also gave Jones the opportunity to explore his fascination with the Middle Ages. 'With that film we wanted to get away from the sanitised Hollywood stereotype of the period. I'm not certain that our vision was any more accurate but I think it helped make the settings more real to an audience. Basically we got everyone to blacken their teeth, which was a pain in the neck. When it came to having a quick bacon sarnie it was like eating with socks on!

'In actual fact, when they pulled up the Mary Rose they found that all the sailors had perfect teeth, the reason being that, although they didn't have dentists, they didn't eat sugar. …