BBC Video // 2004 // 231 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson // May 1st, 2008
Knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, pious monks...Nonsense. The Middle Ages were far more entertaining than that!
Although Monty Python founder Terry Jones wrote and helmed this 2004 BBC TV series, it bears no relation to the Python comedy show -- except perhaps for the Gilliamesque bits of paper-doll cutout animation that grace each episode, and Terry Jones' proclivity for dressing up in period costumes. It's a serious overview of the period, but with a generous helping of dry wit.
Terry Jones is well-suited to narrate this delightful documentary series. With a degree in Modern History from Oxford and considerable historical savvy of the twelfth century, he proves to be a scholarly and affable host. Jones sashays across locations in England, Scotland, Italy, and France, taking us on a condensed tour of crumbling castles, awe-inspiring cathedrals, and ancient battle sites. That he manages to entertainingly integrate the scenery into the mosaic of medieval life in less than four hours is an accomplishment worthy of some kind of prestigious history teacher's award.
With a tip of the medieval cap to Geoffrey Chaucer, the eight episodes (spread across two discs) are named for various archetypical personages of the middle ages:
* "The Peasant"
Terry Jones introduces us to the myth of the medieval peasant by dressing up in medieval garb, carrying a load of sticks, and scratching his flea-bitten carcass copiously. He narrates: "Once upon a time there was a peasant. He had a hard, hard life, working all year round, little better off than a slave with no say in what went on. He was diseased, he was downtrodden, and he was dirty."
Jones continues with a discussion of The Peasant's Revolt of 1391 CE in which the peasants demanded the king abolish all forms of servitude, taxation, and the aristocracy. Using The Peasant's Revolt as a springboard, he promptly debunks our movie version construct of the peasantry as illiterate, unorganized oafs.
As it turns out, peasants valued literacy because it allowed them to read enough Latin to check references to themselves and their land in the court rolls; they had to organize themselves because the lord of the manor was often off fighting the king's wars; and they worked 50 to 60 days a year -- fewer days than the average twenty-first century laborer.
There are plenty more fascinating insights into subjects such as disastrous crop losses due to climate change in the Mediterranean; the Black Death and its affect on the feudal structure when the worker population was nearly halved; and the eventual replacement of peasants by herds of sheep.
The series opener employs the narrative structure that will be used for the rest of the episodes: Present the medieval stereotype we have come to know and love, then demolish it mercilessly by way of historical fact, leavened with a judicious measure of sardonic mirth.
* "The Monk"
Did the monastic monk really lead a life of solitude, prayer, poverty, and hard work? If so, why did so many people come to hate them so much?
Perhaps prayer for pay, tremendous wealth, and debauchery on a grand scale influenced public opinion. On a related note, you don't want to miss the special place in Hell, according to Chaucer, reserved especially for friars.
* "The Damsel"
Were there truly modest, chaste, beautiful damsels pining away in tall towers awaiting rescue by heroic knights? Not quite, since women in the Middle Ages were not expected to be helpless or shy. That particular myth was created by the Victorians, who saw the Middle Ages as a time of pre-industrial innocence and heroism. They created a picture of medieval womanhood that reflected their own ideals.
The true story of the changing role of women in medieval society is a fascinating story of female empowerment, quite the opposite of the shrinking violets of Victorian imagination.
* "The Minstrel"
"There was once a minstrel, a happy-go-lucky fellow wandering the country to sing at the courts of lords and kings. Everywhere he was greeted with open arms. Strumming his lute and spinning his tales of romance and derring-do, he'd charm the ladies and then move on. Oh, what a life!"
But, as Jones says, "Of course, it wasn't like that at all. Showbiz was just as fickle in the Middle Ages as it is today...and then as now, there was often a political agenda." He tells us that the word "minstrel" actually means little servant, and that they were low down in the social order. Minstrels counted as little more than menials in the courts of warlords who "...placed little value on fancy stuff such as arts and entertainment. Their main interests revolved around the subtleties of fighting and killing each other."
* "The Knight"
Were knights chivalrous, valiant, and constantly scouring the countryside for evil-doers and damsels in distress? You guessed it: a resounding "no."
The first tale that Jones relates is the infamous butchery of men, women, and children in 1377 in the Italian town of Cesena by Sir John Hawkwood and his knights. One report claimed that 5,000 unarmed civilians were slaughtered in a single day.
Jones quips, "What exactly was chivalry? It depended who you were. The knights themselves had no doubt what chivalry meant to them. It meant learning how to kill people, making money, and getting famous."
* "The Philosopher"
In this episode, the case is made that the philosopher -- the medieval version of a scientist -- was not as ignorant as many suppose. The rainbow color of light was observed by the thirteenth century monk Roger Bacon 400 years before Newton's experiments with prisms.
Supposed facts of Middle Age ignorance, such as the belief the world was flat, actually originated in the nineteenth century. Medieval sailors knew full well the world was round.
There are also discussions of herbal medicines; the innovation of gothic architecture's flying buttresses (as opposed to the solid mass of Romanesque architecture) that allowed huge stained-glass windows to be built into cathedrals; and the fact that the medieval Church was not opposed to science. It was later, around the time of Galileo, that the Vatican became frightened of science.
* "The Outlaw"
Jones asks, "Were there really outlaws like Robin Hood in medieval England? And if not, why do we think there were...and was the law so out of reach for ordinary people? And did the forest merely represent freedom? And of course the key question -- did outlaws never wear trousers?"
No, Virginia, Robin Hood -- he of the tights and little short tunic -- was not real. As for the other questions, you'll just have to find out for yourself when you watch the DVD. A hint: the forests were not nearly as free as one might suppose thanks to the enclosure of land by nobles. One punishment for poaching deer on a noble's self-proclaimed property was to lop off the hunter's pair of fingers that drew the bowstring.
* "The King"
We learn here that the good King Richard the First -- Richard the Lion Heart -- does not live up to his reputation as a dashing heroic crusader. The bad King Richard the Second (tyrannical, megalomaniac, narcissistic), as well as King Richard the Third (misshapen, demonic, and evil) turn out to have gotten some very bad press.
We also learn, for the first time on television, the name of a King of England that no one has ever heard of. I won't reveal it here as that would ruin the surprise.
As for the DVD, the audio is a clean Dolby stereo mix with clear dialogue -- all that's required for a documentary style TV series. The picture is also up to modern television standards: solid, vivid colors, with a crisp and bright anamorphic video. The aspect ratio is listed as 1.66:1 at Amazon, but according to the DVD keepcase the aspect ratio is 16:9. It appears to be the latter to me. In either case the picture will fill your widescreen TV quite nicely with no black bars. The first episode of another Terry Jones TV project about gladiators is the only extra. It's a crying shame there's not a single interview or audio commentary with Jones.
Jones' sympathies are with the underclass -- be they peasants, minstrels, or outlaws -- and he is not shy of tossing verbal darts at royalty and the priesthood. But he is also a keen observer who casts a jaundiced eye on human foibles great and small. He does not romanticize any group of people or their social mores, and struggles valiantly to chisel away the centuries-old encrustation of popular fantasy that obscures our view of the people who inhabited the Middle Ages.
Terry Jones' Medieval Lives probably requires more than a single viewing to digest all the historical information offered, and it's fun enough to withstand multiple visits. For those reasons, I heartily recommend a purchase.
If history were taught like this in high school, the enthusiastic clamor for history degrees would mean even more unemployed historians. The equivalent of being hoist on one's own petard, perhaps, but an enlightened citizenry might be the happy end result.
Review content copyright © 2008 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 231 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Gladiators: The Brutal Truth"