Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives: The Book Of The BBC Series, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
In many ways, this book is an entertaining volume, even though it seeks to present itself as something more than mere entertainment. As any author does, this particular writer comes to the subject of medieval history and the lives of various classes of people with a certain bias and a certain background. Among his biases is a strong hostility to organized religion as well as a certain degree of favoritism to entertainers and outlaws. Similarly, the author comes to the Middle Ages with a certain background as a comedian whose work, especially Monty Python’s Search For The Holy Grail, itself made a lot of knowing winks and nods at the medieval history of the British Isles. So long as this book is viewed as a humorous and lighthearted attempt at popular history, it is far easier to enjoy than when one is tearing it apart for its inevitable stumbles and errors and its failure to give credit where credit is due to various people and groups of people. Admittedly, the book deserves praise for its discussion of the peasant as a key aspect of the society of the Middle Ages, but unfortunately the author ignores town dwellers and focuses on parasitic cultural and intellectual elites, evidence of an anti-bourgeois bias that is all too common in such efforts.
This book is about 250 large pages long and it begins with an introduction that demonstrates the anti-Roman and to a large extent the anti-Norman approach of the author when it comes to English history. After this comes a look at books that deal with different classes of society, looking first as peasants (1), who made up the vast majority of the population of most European nations during the Middle Ages, as well as looking at how peasantry changed over time. This is followed by a discussion of three classes that demonstrate the author’s fondness (minstrels (2) and outlaws (3)) as well as hostility (monks (4)). Although these classes did not make for a large amount of the population, their role in culture, including the development of various stories and the relationship between culture and political power, and between church in state, is of obvious importance. After this the author looks at the even more rare class of philosopher (5), seeking to praise them for a high degree of realism, while also discussing knights (6), damsels (7), and kings (8) and their behavior during the period, with some insights and some hilarity.
One of the most important aspects of dealing with nonfiction books is recognizing that all books are written with an agenda of some kind and all books are written with a perspective. This author is sufficiently transparent with his agenda and his perspective is sufficiently well known that it can be accounted for. If the author spends some time seeking to deal with various myths of the Middle Ages, picking on the Victorian era for myths about the flat earth as well as the belief of weak damsels in distress when women in the Middle Ages come off as rather courageous in many cases, which was all too necessary in that violent and dangerous time, the author contributes his own myths and exaggerations about religion, and his own whitewashing of the importance of trade and commerce to the well-being of England, a subject matter he shows little personal interest in except to use it as a way to insult the religious sincerity of monks. Still, a book like this is not without value, and not without entertainment, and one hopes that the documentary that this book was attached to was at least as comical as the book art that appears here.