Jones, Terry & Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives.

London: BBC Books, 2004.

Terry Jones, one of the leading lights of the Monty Python team, is actually a pretty smart person and he doesn’t just do oddball comedy. He has a longstanding interest in history (even did a university degree) and this volume accompanies the eight-episode television series of the same name that he wrote for the BBC.

The point the author makes, early and often, is that “Dark Ages” is a complete misnomer, invented by the Renaissance to pooh-pooh its predecessors. I did an undergrad degree myself in Early Medieval and I tend to bristle at the common assumption that nothing worth mentioning happened between roughly the fall of Rome and end of the Plantagenets. Jones, who concerns himself almost entirely with Britain and ignores what was happening on the Continent, defines the period somewhat differently. He makes “medieval” begin at the Conquest (1066) and end at Henry VIII’s dissolution of the religious houses (1536), which is a bit strange. What did he think was happening during the six centuries between the traditional end of the Roman Empire in 476 and William I? And the Renaissance itself was well under way by the early 1300s.

In any case, he makes it clear that the medieval centuries were a time of great change, not stagnation. Social systems changed completely, agricultural developments led to an economic revolution, and the Black Death cut the population of England in half but resulted in a dramatic up-scaling of the lifestyle of the survivors. He shows all this by focusing on a certain sort of medieval person in each chapter — peasant, minstrel, outlaw, monk, philosopher, knight, damsel, and king. Actually, ignoring the funny costumes, he’s talking about labor, literature and music, the law, religion, intellectualism, warfare, women, and the man at the top of the social heap. And in almost every case, you’ll find that what you probably thought was true, probably isn’t. There’s a lot of good recent scholarship here. His style is relatively light (though not comic), which makes this an excellent, non-threatening introduction to what the medieval era was really all about.

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