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Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

Searching for a book that could provide a general overview of the Middle Ages, I found Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. Yes, it’s he of Monty Python fame and, in the illustrated version of this book, he poses in costume for each of the various life-roles into which the book is divided. Delightfully written, it explores the diverse period of almost six hundred years commonly referred to as ‘Medieval times’ examining life, death and everything in-between from a range of angles and points of view. As mentioned earlier, chapters focus on specific roles over this period such as ‘knight’, ‘monk’, ‘damsel’, ‘minstrel’, ‘king’ and ‘peasant’ to name a few. Jones also examines the origin of various myths such as Robin Hood, and presents the quite radical notion that outlaws were essential to effective governance during this time (the argument is a persuasive one!). Covering wars, religious beliefs and attitudes, secular ideologies, sex and professional and personal relationships, the book is packed with well-known facts, witticisms and some wonderful vignettes (eg. How a minstrel changed the world at the Battle of Hastings), and explanations such as why a particular branch of monks don’t wear underpants. Seeking to explain and debunk many of the myths and stereotypes that exist about the Middle Ages and the people that lived throughout this turbulent period, Jones does a stellar job. But, it is an overview and quite broad and sweeping and while it explains, for example, that Richard the Lionheart only spent six months of his ten year reign in England, it still adheres to the predominant view that the man was a bastard without looking at some of the revisionist work that has been done. This occurs a few times, where one side only about specific roles or famous individuals or even myths or tasks is given and other interpretations are shunted to the side. But that’s fine: this is, after all, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives as the title says and he’s well within in his rights to provide his version. A damn fine one it is too that I enjoyed very much! There is also a BBC series based on this (or vice-a-versa) which I will now make a point of tracking down.

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