Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives
Terry Jones has it in for the Renaissance. It was the humanists of the Renaissance who created the standard image of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance, misery and superstition and it is this image that Medieval Lives, the book based on Jones’s BBC TV series, aims to dispel. According to Jones the men of the Renaissance could hardly have been more wrong. To him the medieval period is one of endless fascination, and its people not the benighted barbarians the humanists imagined but members of a rich and vibrant culture. Taking some of the standard stereotypes of medieval people we all have–the peasant, the outlaw, the monk, the damsel–he investigates the reality behind the image. What he reveals undermines our conventional views of the Middle Ages. Peasants were not all illiterate clods, spending their short and miserable lives in back-breaking labour on the land. Many of them could read a little–even Latin–and most worked fewer days of the year than their counterparts in the 19th century. Women in the period were not the downtrodden chattels of their lords and masters but were often more in charge of their destinies than they would be in later centuries.
All this slaying of the dragons of misrepresentation of the medieval era makes for exhilarating reading. Jones sometimes plays too much on his Python persona. Did we really need him to dress up for the camera so much in some of the book’s photographs? (The picture of him in drag as a coyly smirking damsel on page 191 is particularly scary.) Yet his own enthusiasm for his subject is infectious and this is a thoroughly entertaining and eye-opening book. —Nick Rennison
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