Monty Python and the Holy Grail

By

      Colin G. Hoch       

     Few other films have garnered the following and cult credibility of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.   The brainchild of Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, two members of the Monty Python comedy troupe, the film is set in medieval England and draws upon many established legends and realities of the era.   The Pythons, famous for their uniquely British sense of humor, often take cues from history in their works.   Numerous figures of the past have had a Python representation, such as Napoleon, Hitler, and the infamous priests of the Spanish Inquisition.   In " Holy Grail " the group unleashes its   comic satire upon their homeland of Britain and its greatest legend, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.   The narrative is centered around Arthur's divinely ordained quest for the Holy Grail, and the exploits of his most trusted knights in its pursuit.   Contained amidst the off the wall comedy and timeless absurdity, are very real satirical insights into the medieval way of life for every social distinction and the two most powerful forces of the age, the Church and monarchy.   From peasants wallowing in the mud to the mighty company of Arthur's knights, the people of England are represented wholly.   Scattered about the film, however, are numerous anachronisms that detract from the film's satire for the student of history.   While unnoticed by the casual viewer, these mistakes are blatant in an academic approach.

     It seems very uncharacteristic of Terry Jones, a noted historian as well as comedian, to include so many out of place elements of the period said to be represented in the film.   After his time with the Pythons he went on to produce several books and television documentaries, including in-depth looks at the lives of Ancient and Medieval peoples.   Jones is often found challenging popularly held views of the ages   which he covers, highlighting their sophistication rather than their   simplicity.   In his documentary, Terry Jones's Barbarians , he stresses the contributions of the Germanic tribes in direct competition with Roman Civilization.   In the other historically based film, Monty Python's Life of Brian , he and the other Pythons do an excellent job blending comedy with the factual era of Roman controlled Judea.   It is only in " Holy Grail " that   we see rather large mistakes in such a popular and beloved film.

     From the very beginning credits we are shown that the date of the film is set in stone at 932A.D., the late Anglo-Saxon age, but from then on are no other implications that would lead someone to believe it.   Upon seeing Arthur, clad in all mail with a white surcoat, and kite shaped shield, we are transported nearly hundreds of years into the garb of the late 11 th and 12 th centuries. Arthur's knights, including famous names such as Lancelot and Galahad, fare no better in accuracy.   All appear in full chain mail with a surcoat and kite shaped shield.   Sir Galahad's equipment is even emblazoned with what appears to be St. George's Cross, a striking symbol of England's   role in the Crusades and of the Knights Templar.   Minor characters receive also the post-Norman conquest aesthetic, with guards wearing padded and studded jerkins and the traditional English war helmet of pounded steel.   This style of helmet was a favorite of English armies throughout the post-Norman middle ages until its final incarnation as the "Tommy" helmet of the first and second World Wars.   The guards are also armed with elaborate pikes, called Bills, that did not see action in this period.   None of the characters, save the rarely changing peasant class, appear Anglo-Saxon in their manner or speech.   This may be attributed either to poor scholarship, or in reference to the medieval practice of portraying historical figures and scenes in contemporary trappings.

     In reality, the equipment and dress of the Anglo-Saxon professional warrior would have been more akin in our modern perception to that of the Vikings than a Knight of the Crusades.   Few but the wealthiest Anglo-Saxon lords and warriors could purchase the protection of chain mail, and even at that time it did not cover the entire body like that of Arthur and his knights.   The shield was more than often round and wooden with a raised steel cap called a Boss in the center, like that of their Viking adversaries.   Lower class members of the Anglo-Saxon army, the Fyrd, were required to own the very basic of military necessities like that of a helm and lance.   The heavily armed and armored knights of Arthur seem as out of place as the next prominent anachronism, that of the castle.

     Prior to the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066, there were no true castles in the sense of the imposing stone fortifications that come to the mind.   That innovation was brought to England by William the Conqueror to better control the population of his new kingdom.   William at first constructed hundreds of Mot and Bailey fortifications, which were essentially large earthen mounds with a wooden keep. Over time with the consolidation of his power, he granted the construction of traditional style castles to the 180 Companions of the Conqueror, his closest vassals.   Famous castles such as Warwick and the Tower of London are attributed to this revolutionary period of British history and the will of the ruler who shaped it.   Later great castle builders, such as Edward I, would capitalize on the strategic importance of these bastions of military might, and further spread their influence over the land and its people.  

     In the supposed period of the film, 982, the traditional stone castle was nowhere to be seen.   This is not to say the Anglo-Saxons did not have fortifications, but rather they were of a much different structure and concept.   Most fortifications of this period are constructed of wood, and harness the landscape around them for greater defensive capability, such as the Burgh fortifications of Alfred the Great in his war against the Danes.   The film however, features several castles in the High Medieval style encountered along the route of the journey.   The fictional locations of Arthur's Camelot, Swamp Castle, "French" Castle, and the mystic Castle Aaagh are shot mostly using the very real Castles Doune, Glen Coe, and Stalker in Scotland.   The trouble is that none of these will come to be accurate for over a century.

     Despite these glaring faults in chronology, a comedic but largely accurate use of sources can be found of the period the film truly represents.   The late 11 th to the 13 th century is perhaps the best frame for the legendary tale, ironically enough about a man who most likely lived at the end of the Romano-Britain age.   Contained within the works of Gildas, a 6 th century historian of Britain is the story of Arturias.   Arturias is described as a great war leader of the Britons who brought peace to the land for a generation with his victory over the Saxons at Mons Baddon.   The romantic Arthur of the 12 th and 13 th centuries, the very same Arthur of the film, describes himself as "the defeater of the Saxons."   Later in the film, the Battle of Baddon Hill is named in reference to the original sources.   When the film's Arthur speaks, he refers to himself as King of the Britons and sovereign of all England.   The use of the antiquated terms Briton and Saxon describe how the legend of Arthur was passed down through the generations.   Also the existence of this dark age figure in Crusade era garb displays correctly how each generation adapted it to their age.

     Another correct medieval theme employed in the film is that of the superstitions of the people.   Early on in Arthur's travels he comes across a group of peasants who have captured what they believe to be a witch.   They then ask their lord and owner of the fief, Sir Bedevere, if they may burn her at the stake.   Taking comedic license, Sir Bedevere is presented as a man of reason in line with the likes of Thomas Aquinas or Robert Grossteste.   He reasons that should the accused weigh as much as a duck, then she is made of wood, and therefore is a witch and may be burned.   This highlights the strange blending of faith and science in his character, unlike the ignorance of the masses.   As more knights like Sir Bedevere join Arthur in his quest, the path to the Grail leads them into the darker regions of the realm.   Coming into contact with the spirits of the forest, the dreaded Knights of Ni, we see the very real notion held by the medieval mind that evil lurked amongst them, especially in the forests.   Other mythical beings, such as the three headed knight, the sorcerer Tim, and the vicious Killer Rabbit, although comical in their intent, do reflect the very ancient English belief that the supernatural was all around.

The two greatest institutions of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church and the monarchy, both come under heavy satire by the Pythons.   In a scene depicting a peasant village devastated by an unnamed disease, we see a group of monks passing through while chanting in Latin.   However not only do they seem oblivious to the plight of the common villagers, they smack a board on their forehead in rhythm to the chant.   This is perhaps in reference to the practice of harming oneself as a display of piety used by some orders of medieval monks, but rather in the film it comes off as an insult in displaying the stubbornness of the Church.   Later a contingent of priests traveling in Arthur's company assists the knights by supplying the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, which destroys the mighty Killer Rabbit. However in typical Python fashion Brother Maynard, the leader of the priests, spouts nonsense from his texts in relation to the use of the weapon.   The Pythons often take jabs at the highly structured pomp of the Catholic Church, and Holy Grail is no exception.   

     The other foundation of the medieval system, the monarchy, also does not escape their intellectual blows.   Near the opening of the film, King Arthur comes into contact with a peasant couple who have some ideas about government that are not to his taste.   He first inquires about the identity of their lord, to which they respond that they have no lord and that they are an autonomous collective.   Arthur, becoming annoyed, announces his position as their King to elicit their respect.   "Well I didn't vote for you!" is the response of the peasant woman.   The King then backs up his claim to their obedience with the story of his gaining of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, and his divine right to rule.   The peasant man, oddly named Dennis, answers back that "supreme executive power derives from the mandate of masses".   The responses of the peasants come straight from immensely influential figures such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.   The struggle between the ideal of an absolute monarch and the Social Contact come to a head when Arthur becomes cross and throttles the poor serf.   The Pythons skillfully employ the ideas of the late 18 th century and its enlightened thinkers, in a medieval setting to great comedic effect.

                                       

     Of all the themes presented, none catch more of the satire than that of Chivalry itself.   Not only does it run the course of the entire film, but leads Arthur and his knights to many of their exploits.   The rules of the practice, faith in God and the Church, service to the feudal lord, and courtesy to women and the weak, are specifically shown when the knights split up to search separately.   Sir Galahad, who in the Arthurian legends was renowned for his purity and service to God, finds himself the guest of temptation at Castle Anthrax.   Surrounded by beautiful young women eager to seduce the handsome knight, Galahad displays the model of chastity in his defiance.   Upon stumbling into the bathing chamber however, he begins to rethink his position.   Just as he cracks, Lancelot bursts through the door and "rescues" Galahad from a very good time.   Later in the film, Lancelot receives a message from what he believes to be a distressed young damsel and sets off for another rescue.   However, upon rushing Swamp Castle he discovers that the damsel was merely the effeminate son of the castle's lord who had cold feet on his wedding day.   Yet before Lancelot discovered this, he had stormed in, killing innocent bystanders and wedding guests to reach the tallest tower, where he had envisioned a maiden distraught.   Chivalry had clouded his judgment for our entertainment value.   When the knights are united they encounter a castle held by a French lord on English soil, possibly an illusion to the Angevin Exiles of the reigns of John and Henry III.   The defenders of the castle, in a caricature of French manners, taunt Arthur and his knights with insults to their honor.   Their sense of wounded pride prompts them to attack against impossible odds only to be driven back when the saucy French begin to lob livestock over the parapets as artillery.   Arthur and his knights are continually foiled by their adherence to the principles of Chivalry.

     While Monty Python and the Holy Grail is meant for entertainment, as is evident of the huge following it has produced since its release 31 years ago, comedy is not the only idea that it gets across.   As a backdrop for this wonderfully written satire are several insights into the beliefs and institutions which were paramount in the lives of our ancestors.   Perhaps upon viewing the film multiple times, the average fan will begin to look past the coconut horses and the killer rabbit to see an accurate overview of the medieval spectrum.   As a student or just a simple appreciator of History, one may look past its faults and hope that a continued popularity will spur interest in Arthur, the Middle Ages, and Monty Python for generations to come.

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