History With the Boring Bits Put Back

Terry Jones, former Python, describes how a perverse fascination with the boring bits of Chaucer converted him from being a clown into a historian of the 14th century.

Archbishop Arundel read a Papal Bull, 1399.

Every child is naturally interested in history. You want to know what went on before you; it’s the way you know who you are and where you stand on the planet. Unfortunately, though, it can so easily get wiped out of you. As a child I used to have little picture books on Tudors or Stuarts and suchlike, and I was fascinated by the pictures and wanted to find out more. But my fascination was killed at secondary school by having to do British nineteenth-century political history for O-Level, the Reform Act and the end of the Corn Laws and everything. When we’d taken the exams I couldn’t wait to go on to something else, but when I went to my first history lesson in the sixth form they said: ‘It’s a shame not to build on what we've done’, so we did it all over again for another two years – so that was all the history I ever learned at school.

What brought me back to history was reading Chaucer, whom I started to study properly when I was at university in Oxford. Chaucer writes so succinctly, so straight, and reproduces speech patterns in the verse so clearly it’s almost like hearing a tape recording made 600 years ago, the way you can just hear these voices as you read.

But it was the boring stuff in Chaucer that really fascinated me. I quickly realised he can’t truly have written boringly, because he’s so funny and writes so directly to the reader. I thought that the boring bits must just seem boring to us because of the way we’ve been taught them, or because our poor understanding makes them boring. So I started trying to see what he was talking about, for example in the thirty lines where he describes the Knight in the General Prologue – I felt there must be more to it than we’d been told. He wasn’t simply a ‘parfait gentle knight’, as Chaucer describes him. Chaucer usually says something that means something else, with some other layer of meaning, and if the Knight really was nothing more than a ‘parfait gentle knight’, then it was a pretty boring description, with the list of all these battles he had been in. Chaucer just isn’t that flatfooted for that to be all there is in it.

So I found myself inadvertently studying late fourteenth-century military history, to see if I could understand the significance of these battles and campaigns.

But it wasn’t until we started doing Monty Python, in the early 1970s, that I actually started working seriously on Chaucer. (Mike Palin was the Python who had studied history at university, though he’s now doing geography; whereas I studied English but now I’m writing about history.) In between writing and filming series, I had a certain amount of time to go off moonlighting in the British Museum, and I thought I’d write a paper on Chaucer’s knight. Then, when we made Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1976, I suddenly had some money and could afford to take a year off to write a book. So I wrote Chaucer’s Knight: the Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary – though without any expectation anyone would publish it. But it came out in 1980 and it was taken fairly seriously in Eng. lit. circles – as a book that academics love to hate. It was too iconoclastic to be accepted straight away but it did get people to think again.

When I began, I had had a simplistic idea that Chaucer would have been anti-war and that his description of the Knight must be ironic. In writing up the final text of the book, I thought I’d hidden those attitudes but that is what people picked up on. They often missed the real argument which I had developed over the ten years that I had been thinking about this – which is that Chaucer was writing in a context of changing military scenario. The feudal system had broken down, the old feudal host had gone by the board and instead there was a paid soldiery; and this had all sorts of results, such as when they declared peace in 1361 with the treaty of Brétigny, Edward tried to get all his men to go home but most of them didn’t want to go – the living in France was just too good.

Then came the formation of the companies like the Great Company and the commercialisation of warfare, something we are seeing again today. In Italy the employment of mercenary companies became endemic, as the tyrants like the Visconti needed to employ these mercenary armies to prop themselves up – and that in a way was the cradle of the Renaissance.

I had had an idea at the back of my mind for a long time that it wasn’t a coincidence that Chaucer disappeared within a couple of years of the deposition of Richard II. I was invited to give a talk at the Chaucer Congress in 1998 on Chaucer’s fate. It became a coroner’s inquest, and we brought in the experts – Robert Yaeger, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor – and I interrogated them. Afterwards everyone who took part  wanted to write a book about it. I ended up doing the lion’s share and spent two years writing, which I hadn’t intended to. My chapter grew and the others let me use their material and rework it, so that it became a seamless narrative, Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery which came out last autumn.

I like to think about historical illustrations in the same kind of way as I have approached Chaucer. I think there’s more in them than we sometimes imagine, and they often contain an accurate representation of real life. For example, take the illustration above. When Henry came back to England in 1399, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, was with him and the first thing Arundel did was to announce a crusade. It was total lies: the Pope had ordered no such thing. The more you look at this picture, the more you can see what’s going on. It shows Arundel reading a papal bull  – the one he’s made up – and if you look down at the people listening to him, you can see them saying ‘No I don’t believe that’, ‘Oh, come on’. It’s all there, in the drawing.

The picture comes from a manuscript by Jean Creton, a young Frenchman who was on a sort of sabbatical in Richard II’s court in 1398-99; as a young squire he was with Richard in Ireland and so he was an eyewitness to all those dramatic events. He wrote in verse, a Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II , but at the moment when Henry first met Richard, Creton suddenly said, ‘I am going to stop writing in verse because I want to report exactly what was said, because I was there and I heard every word and I understood perfectly well’. You can’t get reporting much closer to the real events than that. I have a feeling he may even have done his own illustrations: they are very much geared to the text. The tradition among historians has been to discount Creton because he was French and therefore biased, but now we are realising he is probably one of the best and most accurate sources. It was he who told us about Arundel announcing the Crusade – nobody else would have dared talk about it.

I suppose my first attempt to do some sort of history on television was in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Terry Gilliam and I, who were directing it together, wanted to get away from the tidy Hollywood idea of the Middle Ages and make it visceral – muddy and dirty and everybody had to have black teeth. It’s not necessarily more historically accurate, though, because when they brought up the Mary Rose it transpired that the mariners all had perfect dentition: it was before the opening of the West Indies and the sugar trade. In the same way people in the Middle Ages weren’t eating as much sugar as they were to do later, and their dentition wasn’t exactly what we had imagined.

Later I wanted to do a television series based on the Canterbury Tales characters, taking them as generic types; but the idea became too complicated as you would have had to explain what the Canterbury Tales was, before talking about those types. So my new series, Medieval Lives, just takes generic characters – a knight, a monk, a peasant, a damsel – and offers a modern stereotype of what we imagine such lives to have been like and then goes on to say what it was really like.

But, with the damsel for example, we had to try and say what it was like to be a woman over a period of some 600 years. We don’t just look at one woman in one place in one time, but use several examples. We had to have a story for each programme: for the damsel this is how the relationship between the sexes change through our period. It begins with women being treated as chattels, then rising to positions of note, especially in Richard II’s court where there was a great deal of equality between the sexes and women were taken seriously – Christine de Pisan exemplifies this. Women also played an important role in society as businesswomen – and we use Margery Kempe as an example here, not as a religious person but because she went into brewing and milling flour. It was only when those things didn’t work that she took up being a full-time religious hysteric – which you might not have thought had much future but it did for her. Women’s decline after that point is marked by the Renaissance, and things went downhill until the end of the twentieth century.

In a way it is a quite light-hearted series – we have animated medieval manuscripts, with characters jigging up and down. Some people may find this a bit tiresome but I’m happy to make the medieval imagery come alive because it is just so wonderful. The more you look at medieval illustrations the more you realise what is going on. We show a picture done by Henry of Meissen in 1304 of German minstrels, for example: you can see minstrelsy was not high art; the musicians are looking at each other, and one has got his bow up as if to say, ‘Wait for it’, while four of their friends have got hold of the corners of a mat that the lead musician is standing on: they are about to pull and he is going to fly up into the air.

You can see them as people just like us, muddled and having a bit of a laugh. What interests me most about history, probably, is the similarities between people at different periods. That is why I’m not really a historian – what historians are interested in are differences between people at different times; and what interest me are all those similarities.

  • Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives is broadcast by BBC2 from January 26th; the book Medieval Lives is published by BBC Books priced £18.99.