Monty Python’s surreal, slapstick parodies of history, religion, medicine, philosophy, and law depended on a competent grasp of these subjects, and most of the troupe’s members, four of whom met at Oxford and Cambridge, went on to demonstrate their scholarly acumen outside of comedy, with books, guest lectures, professorships, and serious television shows.
Michael Palin even became president of the Royal Geographical Society for a few years. And Palin’s onetime Oxford pal and early writing partner Terry Jones—who passed away at 77 on January 21 after a long struggle with degenerative aphasia—didn’t do so badly for himself either, becoming a respected scholar of Medieval history and an authoritative popular writer on dozens of other subjects.
Indeed, as the Pythons did throughout their academic and comedic careers, Jones combined his interests as often as he could, either bringing historical knowledge to absurdist comedy or bringing humor to the study of history. Jones wrote and directed the pseudo-historical spoofs Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, and in 2004 he won an Emmy for his television program Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, an entertaining, informative series that incorporates sketch comedy-style reenactments and Terry Gilliam-like animations.
In the program, Jones debunks popular ideas about several stock medieval European characters familiar to us all, while he visits historical sites and sits down to chat with experts. These characters include The Peasant, The Damsel, The Minstrel, The Monk, and The Knights. The series became a popular book in 2007, itself a culmination of decades of work. Jones first book, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary came out in 1980. There, notes Matthew Rozsa at Salon:
[Jones] argued that the concept of Geoffrey Chaucer’s knight as the epitome of Christian chivalry ignored an uglier truth: That the Knight was a mercenary who worked for authoritarians that brutally oppressed ordinary people (an argument not dissimilar to the scene in which a peasant argues for democracy in The Holy Grail).
In 2003, Jones collaborated with several historians on Who Murdered Chaucer? A speculative study of the period in which many of the figures he later surveyed in his show and book emerged as distinctive types. As in his work with Monty Python, he didn’t only apply his contrarianism to medieval history. He also called the Renaissance “overrated” and “conservative,” and in his 2006 BBC One series Terry Jones’ Barbarians, he described the period we think of as the fall of Rome in positive terms, calling the city’s so-called “Sack” in 410 an invention of propaganda.
Jones’ work as a popular historian, political writer, and comedian “is not the full extent of [his] oeuvre,” writes Rozsa, “but it is enough to help us fathom the magnitude of the loss suffered on Tuesday night.” His legacy “was to try to make us more intelligent, more well-educated, more thoughtful. He also strove, of course, to make us have fun.” Python fans know this side of Jones well. Get to know him as a passionate interpreter of history in Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, which you can watch on YouTube here.
For an academic study of Jones' medieval work, see the collection: The Medieval Python The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones.