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Terry Jones' Medieval Lives: What Do We REALLY know about the Middle Ages?

Updated on December 6, 2012

I feel Terry Jones is one of the former Monty Python alums that people often overlook these days. John Cleese has become an actor in his own right, Terry Gilliam a director, Michael Palin has his travel documentaries (which are great, by the way), Graham Chapman is dead (and so what he's doing today is moot), and Eric Idle has "Spamalot."

But Jones, because a lot of what he does is writing, is often somewhat overlooked. It was therefore with some definite curiosity that I decided to check out his "Medieval Lives," a BBC miniseries he hosted back in 2004. What I discovered was even cooler than I was expecting.

What "Medieval Lives" does in each of its episodes is take a commonly held belief about a class of people in the Middle Ages, and demonstrate how evidence actually shows that that belief is either false or uninformed. For instance, he asserts that medieval peasants were not ignorant downtrodden slaves of the feudal system, that medieval monks often lived lives of comparative luxury, that the church was the leading scientific institution of its day, and that medieval kings considered to have been good or bad may actually have been the reverse in reality.

This is all supported by extensive research, and Jones interviews many different people in each episode, explaining both how typical views of the Middle Ages were established, and what is incorrect about these depictions. Throughout this all, Jones spices the whole thing up with a wit worthy of a Python, animations of Medieval tapestries and paintings, and acting in multiple roles in skits depicting the myth and reality of medieval life.

Although Jones does reuse some of the animations multiple times, and focuses almost entirely on medieval England (and to a lesser extent, medieval France), all in all the effect is great. Jones is a great showman, and he is able to perfectly balance humor and interesting information in a way that the episodes never get boring.

The DVD set I watched this series on also included an extra, double-length episode that focused on Roman times, and the institution of the gladiatorial arena. This episode is particularly fascinating, as it challenges the modern depiction of Rome as a civilized and sophisticated society by demonstrating how Rome had at its center values we in the modern world would consider abhorrent, causing it to glorify what to our eyes would probably be thought of as murder (or, at best, public execution) for the entertainment of the masses. This extra episode is not to be missed, and a great addition.

All in all, this is a great series, and I hope that Jones does more of these, sort of like how Michael Palin does a BBC program going to some part of the world or other every few years. Jones here balances humor and information perfectly, and ends up with a show that really challenges our views on the past. Definitely check it out if you can find it, and I believe it is legally available on Youtube, so there's really no excuse to look in to it.


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