Monty Python’s Terry Jones (RIP) Was a Comedian, But Also a Medieval Historian: Get to Know His Other Side

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry & Lega­cy of Magna Car­ta Explained in Ani­mat­ed Videos by Mon­ty Python’s Ter­ry Jones

John Cleese Revis­its His 20 Years as an Ivy League Pro­fes­sor in His New Book, Pro­fes­sor at Large: The Cor­nell Years

Mon­ty Python’s Eric Idle Breaks Down His Most Icon­ic Char­ac­ters

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bob Doran says:

    On a quar­ter­ly basis, I vol­un­teer at our local library intro­duc­ing clas­sic films. For win­ter we had The Adven­tures of Robin Hood, which got me look­ing into the true life his­to­ry behind the semi-myth­i­cal char­ac­ters and, since King Richard the Lion Heart­ed was one of them, I researched a bit about the Cru­sades. When we talked after the film, a friend rec­om­mend­ed track­ing down a cou­ple of Ter­ry Jones’ pieces about the Cru­sades, which I had not yet done when I heard about his death. Thanks for shed­ding some light on the his­to­ri­an in Mr. Jones.

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