Medieval Lives:

The Peasant, The King, and The Damsel

By Gehrig Rock

Most people who have ever heard of Terry Jones probably remember him from the legendary British comedy group, Monty Python. The group, known for their humorous exploits in historical parodies, is still considered by many to be the standard when it comes to surreal comedy. So, it comes to little surprise to those who have followed Monty Python and its members throughout the decades that someone from the group would want to explore the "real" events of history, obviously with a comedic twist. Cover Jacket That someone from the group is Terry Jones, who might not be the most famous of the Pythons, but has an indubitable wealth of knowledge when it comes to medieval and ancient history. Having always been bothered by the way we misunderstand and misrepresent the past, "Jones prepares to try to set the records straight." It is here in his BBC television documentary series titled Terry Jones: Medieval Lives, which appears to be rather "similar to a redux of Holy Grail," that Jones tries to challenge, and in some cases, debunk the popular beliefs held by other historians. Jones does this through a series of reenactments, historical evidence, and expert testimony to show that history i s not always made out to what it seems especially concerning the medieval times.

Three of the chosen episodes from this series were The Peasant, The King, and The Damsel. Each episode is somewhat related to each other, as the peasant has always been seen as the most popular portrayal in medieval times. Kings rule over the peasants, and are often known to be quite harsh to their subjects. Finally, damsels have always been rather popular fixtures in stories that demonstrate bravery and courage on the part of heroic knights in shining armor. While these three different classes of people often portray the ordinary lives of the medieval ages, Jones has made sure to show us that these portrayals are not always as accurate as we like to believe.

Starting off the series with the hapless peasant, who is described as "diseased, downtrodden, and dirt." Jones asks himself why anyone would ever want to live like the typical peasant. The Peasants The simple answer is that unless you were connected in some way to the royal family or the church, there was not much else you could be. For the most part, peasants were seen as uneducated, ignorant, and essentially slaves to their landlords and the king. In reality, there were moments where peasants were actually literate, educated, emancipated, and all-around content with their lives. Jones argues that the everyday life of a peasant was actually not as bad as it is usually made out to be. While peasants did have to work under the "feudal burden system," where they had to pay for their land and property with so many days of labor, usually around fifty or sixty days, in certain aspects, peasants had it easier than most of us today. Fifty to sixty days of work is small potatoes compared to the almost year-round work schedules enjoyed by most of the public today. Kings and landlords were also forced to provide for feasts, usually once or twice a year to show appreciation for the constant servitude of the peasants.

Another interesting facet of everyday peasant life revolved around the church. The enormous religious and legal influence of the church made religious gatherings a form of entertainment and a break from their farming duties. The church not only conducted service for the peasants, but it also provided upwards of eighty holidays a year for peasants to enjoy, and "even provided for opportunities for education for a select few families who were fortunate enough." Literacy also started to gain momentum amongst the commoners and peasants. Oddly enough, the peasants used their newly acquired skill not for entertainment, but for political and bookkeeping purposes, such as organizing and recording crop yields and payment duties. Literacy allowed for peasants to gain more of a stronghold on political and social affairs and influence. This led to a series of revolts and "witch hunts" on debt collectors and even harsher laws being implemented to keep the peasants in their place. Overall, Jones paints a picture of peasantry that is rather pleasant compared to our modern perceptions. The peasant worked fewer days total than any member of the public nowadays; they were given almost grotesque numbers of holidays, and were able to drink their own form of medieval beer practically every single day.

A popular subject for most people studying medieval history is the king; no surprise since the king was the most public royal and government official at the time. According to Jones, "kings can be divided into either good, bad, or ugly." The perfect example given by Jones in regards to this category is the in-depth look into the lives of King Richard I, II, and III, who have all been painted rather differently in history than as they actually appeared to be. In short, Richard I or Richard the Lionheart was seen as the"good" king, portrayed as a model leader who fought in the Crusades on behalf of the church. In reality, he detested pretty much all of England, had no interest in government, and used his connections to finance his war-mongering and elaborate castle building in Normandy. Richard II, described as wicked, cunning, greedy, poisonous, and narcissistic was actually a huge proponent in ending the Hundred Years War with France and he had a great disdain for shedding civil blood, which was exhibited when he was able to momentarily quell and pardon peasants involved in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Richard III While Richard II was indeed quite narcissistic (he was the first king to order a lifelike self-portrait of himself), his attempts to fight off his own war-mongering and profiteering barons certainly helped to cast a negative light on Richard II. Lastly, Richard III, the so-called "hunchback monster" and tyrant: most of his reign was overshadowed by the disappearance and presumed death of his nephews, whom he locked up in the Tower of London to keep them away from the their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her plot to take over the throne with her nephews. Documents later revealed that Richard III was actually quite the successful negotiator, peacekeeper, and champion of the poor during his reign. He was also immensely popular in the City of York. In the end, all of these rather impressive feats during his reign would be mostly forgotten thanks to the sabotage of his eulogy and the historic writings of his political enemies. This was the most popular method of current kings discrediting past kings, and essentially exiling them to an eternity of inaccurate assumptions based on the words of their enemies.

The third and final episode featured was "The Damsel," a bit of a wild card. The Damsel The damsel was shown as the archetype of the passive female, when in reality women were not expected to be helpless or shy. This rather inaccurate portrayal of women can all be credited to the Victorians, who were so sexually and socially repressed, that "they purposefully created the damsel in distress to symbolize their current struggles." Women during the medieval times were the constant targets of arranged marriages and abductions, which forced the women to become practically the opposite of a damsel in distress; strong, opinionated, and hard-working. Jones rips this inaccurate portrayal of women throughout the episode, and provides the audience with examples of women who were their own business owners or even abducted other young men to make them their husbands.

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives was written by Jones and directed by Nigel Miller. The eight episode series was released in 2004, and the first episode, The Peasant, was nominated for a 2004 Emmy in Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming. The series is unique in that Jones did most of the acting, which is quite common for him when you consider his previous roles in parodying in Monty Python. Jones is seen playing characters and historical figures such as Richard III, the Handsome Knight, the Damsel, the Peasant, and the Ugly King.

While there are very few reenactments, the show makes up for it with the usage of an entertaining, yet somewhat crude form of animation where people and characters on paintings are animated and move about like a pull tab or lift-the-flap children’s book. The Knights This creates a more relaxed and impersonal setting when describing the different facets of medieval life. The frolic and light-hearted nature of this animation seems to actually be very useful in symbolizing the rather serious concern for survival during the Middle Ages, while at the same time giving relief to the audience, as they don’t have to sit through another typical, monotonous documentary production. These animated painting characters also had parodied voices and sound effects also used to create quite a humorous mood. Keeping with the somewhat relaxed mood was the usage of puppets during The Damsel to help demonstrate in appropriate measures the constant struggle of women being chased by unwanted lovers during this time period. While somewhat immature, it brings forth yet another useful technique in describing the everyday lives of women during the medieval times. As with any production that is even remotely related to Monty Python, there is never the shortage of fart jokes or clever innuendos to keep the audience entertained and the program somewhat spontaneous.

Costume design was relatively accurate for the time period, although there was not a specific costume or garment that stood out indelibly for the viewer of these episodes. The program was obviously more concerned with getting their agenda across that what we know as history is not always completely accurate. The Village The settings for these three episodes consisted of mainly different regions and towns in England, including, London, York, Cambridge, Laxton, and certain wilderness shots from North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Laxton is a unique destination in the series, as it is the only village in the United Kingdom to still be operating under the open field medieval system, “similar to the system that some peasants operated in.” Jones did not shy away from being somewhat humiliated during the production of the series. Within the first minute of The Peasant, a lord is seen throwing what appears to be a combination of mud and manure on the peasant Jones. He is also seen playing "the damsel in distress," a role that Jones is actually quite comfortable in, considering his previous work as portraying females in numerous Monty Python productions.

When Jones does attempt to be serious, he is given assistance from scholars and researchers who back up claims set by Jones. The overall judgement based on the three episodes watched during this series is rather favorable, given the amount historical substance, comedy, and reenactments that are squashed together in just a half-hour episode. The series is "informed, intelligent, and often hilarious." Historical context and information is accurately portrayed, even though some stances held by Jones are still up for debate amongst scholars. The series does an excellent job of balancing the comedy and light-heartedness with enough serious topics, such as the Black Death, to give the series a sense of completeness. This humorous approach to debunking these stereotypical myths can be regarded as one of the program's greatest strengths, as it is able to take itself seriously for only a few minutes at a time, while still providing for enough historical content when less-serious moments arise. There are, however, a few brief moments of weakness that are certain to be noticed by those who would probably have difficulty accepting the fate of these newly-found challenges to what they’ve known for their whole lives, especially for those who have a great sense of admiration of Richard I. Some feel that the series was too broad on the viewpoint of Richard the Lionheart, claiming that he was "a bastard while at the same time looking over all of his revisionist works." This one-sided approach to certain characters or events in history is something that should rightfully be criticized, but one must also keep in mind the limits that producers and writers felt when conducting a half-hour broadcast of such an expansive topic.

The most interesting historical aspects covered that most probably didn’t know about was the fact that most peasants were actually quite literate in terms of the legal system. This came as an almost necessity for peasants during a time when the lords of the manor and kings were known to abuse their rights and powers at the expense of the working peasants. Watching out for themselves meant that there was an urgent need to be at least somewhat literate when it came to making sure that their hard labor was not being taken advantage of. The Travelers The overall quality of life for most peasants also was not nearly as bad as most thought, which would be sure to throw some viewers for a loop. Another interesting bit of history that could be learned when watching this series was the fact that most of the public opinions of kings were actually the works of their enemies or successors who wished to taint their reputation. This practice was so common among the royal and political landscape that it is almost completely ignored. The process of determining what is truth or fiction when it comes to the written records of kings is essentially a pointless task, as the line between truth and fiction has been smudged and erased centuries ago. Medieval Lives does an admirable job at mentioning this common practice, which has helped to shape our stereotypical thoughts of kings and queens for centuries.

Overall, this series is worth the watch, for both the intriguing historical content and hilarious interpretations of medieval life and puts together some of the missing pieces that have unfortunately clouded our judgement and knowledge of the subject of medieval lives. The everyday struggle of the peasant was still present, but not entirely in the sense that other historians have made it out to be. Whether a king was considered good or bad, the label is almost useless when you consider that the stereotypical legendary Richard I actually held great contempt and annoyance for England, while the barbaric and monstrous Richard II and Richard III were actually quite the opposite of what their political and royal adversaries would like you to believe. Finally, the ever annoying damsel in distress stereotype was quite possibly the furthest from the truth when it came to actual female lives in the Middle Ages. This newfound knowledge of their way of life is enough to give a rather impressive recommendation to others who enjoy historical subjects, forgotten historical figures, hidden secrets, and even the occasional immature fart joke here or there.

Jones does an admirable job at exploring and exposing the lesser-known corners of medieval life, especially in a time where we think we’ve uncovered all that there is to know about the Middle Ages. By bringing in his knowledge of the era, along with his typical humorous shenanigans, he makes the overall series an entertaining and educating experience for both novice and scholar.

Main Page