Howerd's Way Revisited

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER PATERSON

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (BBC2)*;

Body Shock: The Man Who Ate His Lover (C4)

ANUMBER of illogical, sometimes silly, ideas crept into last night's episode of Terry Jones' Medieval Lives, caused by the comedianturnedhistorian's determination to prove that the history we know - or think we know - is bunk.

This latest instalment dealt with minstrels, and produced the astonishing assertion that they doubled as espionage agents, listening to the conversations of their masters and passing on their plans, presumably, to their enemies.

At the moment he came up with this idea, Jones was standing in what would have been the great hall of a castle, where the lords and ladies, along with their entourages, would have eaten their banquets, and he was squinting up at the minstrels' gallery high above.

Assuming that the minstrels would be playing their instruments and the diners making their usual din in a society where manners were not yet at a premium, I fail to see how these minstrel-spies were able to hear anything at all.

There was also an element of desperation in categorising Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and Britain's first great poet, as a minstrel.

Chaucer, who lived in the 14th century, was a soldier, diplomat, customs officer, frequent debtor, and - above all - a poet. You might call him a minstrel only if you happened to need a synonym for poet in a crossword puzzle.

Nor do I buy the idea that Chaucer was a particular victim of King Henry IV's ousting of Richard II. I haven't done Jones's no doubt exhaustive research into the subject, but the standard reference work I glanced at refers to Henry granting Chaucer a pension of more than [pounds sterling]26 a year, compared with the [pounds sterling]20 he'd been receiving from Richard.

While Terry Jones declared the date of Chaucer's death and his place of burial to be a great mystery - he suggested that the poet may have been 'disappeared' by Henry - the references seem to accept that he died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in that part of Westminster Abbey since designated as Poets' Corner.

I see no point in implying that he might have been executed or died in prison simply because no one has found his will. Judging by his well-attested reputation as a spendthrift, perhaps he had so little to leave that it wasn't worth making one.

Otherwise, Medieval Lives gave us Terry Jones's oft- repeated imitation of one of Frankie Howerd's historical sketches, dressing up as a minstrel and singing to the lords while ogling the ladies, and declaiming some execrable poetry.

One sample: 'Simon de Montfort is mighty and strong/He loves to do right and hates to be wrong.' The use of cartoons, including a cleverly animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry, plus the prewatershed timing, could be expected to attract children to watch. …