In 2013, Terry Jones said that he wanted to be remembered not for the Life of Brian or the Meaning of Life, but as a children’s book writer and for his “academic stuff”, saying that “those are my best bits”.
As well as being a member of the Monty Python team, Jones – who has died at the age of 77 – wrote books and articles on Geoffrey Chaucer, attended conferences and made TV shows about medieval life. In 2015, I was lucky enough to share a stage with him in a discussion about Chaucerian biography. Jones’s scholarly work was characterised by his witty questioning of established positions and authority. He wrote from the edges, from a position of irreverence – rather like Chaucer himself.
Jones’s two books on Chaucer both offered revisionary accounts, the first of Chaucer’s texts, the second of his life. Chaucer’s Knight: A Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary turned established ideas about the highest-class Canterbury pilgrim and the first and longest Canterbury Tale on their heads. Far from being an ideal character, the Knight was, in Jones’s impassioned and influential argument, a mercenary, a cynical thug, out for hire, willing to fight for all the most disreputable causes in Europe.
More recently, the brilliantly titled Who Murdered Chaucer? speculated that Chaucer’s political dealings involved him in conspiracy and that he was ultimately the victim of a Lancastrian plot, an argument that fills in some of the blanks of Chaucer’s last years.
Chaucer’s Knight is an important book in the way that it challenges critical orthodoxies. Jones made many critics move away from conservative positions that had long been relatively unexamined. It shifted the discourse around the Knight, and – 40 years after publication – it remains required reading for anyone interested in the Canterbury Tales.
Jones’s approach was historicist. Rather than assuming that the Knight’s battling was praiseworthy, he investigated contemporary accounts of the battles in which the Knight was involved (such as the notorious Battle of Alexandria in 1365), and explored the nature of the garments that he wore and of the knights that Chaucer knew.
He read Chaucer’s sources and, for a later edition, he used new technology to examine the Ellesmere manuscript microscopically to see how the Knight’s portrait had been altered – or censored. He suggested that changes had been made to minimise the Knight’s resemblance to Sir John Hawkwood, a notorious mercenary who worked for the Visconti tyrants of Milan.
His own grail was knowledge
In both books, one of the things that Jones is interested in is medieval warfare, chivalry and the romance genre itself, the genre of the knight on horseback going on quests and rescuing women. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Jones directed, the fabled bravery of knights is parodied when the Black Knight, having had his arm chopped off, declares that it is just a scratch and that he has “had worse”.
While this is a sort-of parody, it is not, in fact, markedly different from what actually happens in medieval romances. In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, for instance, Lancelot fights with one hand tied behind his back.
The comedy of Jones’s approach to the middle ages in this film lay partly in deliberate anachronism, but also in the juxtaposition of fantasy and realism. The political debate in Monty Python and the Holy Grail between the king and the Marxist peasant is a good example, culminating in the peasant’s declaration that:
strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government … you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ‘cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
Of course the articulate peasant’s mastery of political discourse is part of the joke. But peasants in the middle ages did rebel against government, question the divine right of kings and think about who should wield power. The joke is less about anachronism than about genre, the juxtaposition of Arthurian fantasy and “real life”. And part of the joke is about how modern readers sometimes take literature too literally, blurring the boundaries between history and fiction, assuming that medieval people actually lived like the characters in Malory’s texts.
One of Jones’ great gifts to scholars of the medieval period, was that he used his fame to dispel myths and to rehabilitate the middle ages. He emphasised that medieval people did not think the Earth was flat and that they were capable of individual self-consciousness and radical innovation. He wrote, in an editorial for The Guardian’s education section, that:
the medieval world wasn’t a time of stagnation or ignorance. A lot of what we assume to be medieval ignorance is, in fact, our own ignorance about the medieval world.
Jones was not a professional literary critic or historian, but many students and scholars have gained more pleasure and knowledge from his books than they have from the works of “professionals”. He was an amateur in the best sense – not a dilettante, but someone who read and thought about texts because he loved to do so (the word amateur comes from the Latin amare – to love).
He once said that he was glad he had gone to Oxford, because if he had not: “I wouldn’t have met either Mike Palin or Geoffrey Chaucer — and without those two meetings the rest of my life would have been quite different.” Chaucer remained an inspiration for his entire adult life.
Terry Jones cared about history, and many of us know more about history and literature because of his writings. But the fact that he cared is almost as important as his scholarship itself. He showed many people that you can revel in medieval history and literature, that to think about the poetry of the past is the stuff of life itself.