Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (BBC/Raincoast Books, 2005)

Have you ever wondered what it was like to live in a different time and place? Of course you have. And most of us, when we seek to imagine this, choose to read some fictional work which allows us the freedom to drift off in a reverie and see ourselves as the character in the novel faced with the same decisions, and situations which surround him (or her). Then there's always a history book to choose! But history books can be so dry. And our fantasies are so hard to apply when faced with page after page of political discussion. Terry Jones, ex-Monty Python's Flying Circus, has just the solution! Jones studied history at St. Edmund Hall College, Oxford University, and he directed the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail so he is eminently qualified to write a guide book to the Middle Ages. Remember his film taught us how to identify the king ("He's the one who 'asn't got shit all over 'im!") Jones is joined by Alan Ereira, a writer and producer of historical films for the BBC, and author of other books of history. Plus . . . they have a sense of humour about the whole thing . . . which makes reading enjoyable.

This volume is announced as "The Book of the BBC Series" and I haven't seen the series yet, but I'm scouring the PBS schedule for it!  The book includes some pictures from the show, but more about them in a minute.

The book is divided into eight sections, each dealing with a respresentative character from the Middle Ages. "Peasant," "Minstrel," "Outlaw," "Monk," "Philosopher," "Knight," "Damsel" and "King," each one receives a chapter outlining their life. Their home is described, their status, the kind of daily work they might be involved in, social life, church life, and so on, each aspect illustrated with contemporary images and new photographs of historical sites. The photographs that are most enjoyable though, are on each title page. Terry Jones is presented in character. While he makes a convincing peasant, knight, king and monk, he's a bit terrifying as a damsel!

The first chapter is introductory and seeks to . . . well . . . I'll let the authors describe what they're trying to do:

We're not trying to prove that there was no such thing as cruelty in the Middle Ages or that we've lost out on some beautiful experience by introducing flushing lavatories. But we would like to readjust the spectacles through which we view the medieval world. And the first thing you might notice, when you try on these new spectacles of ours, is that the 'medieval world' itself starts to vanish -- or at least becomes remarkably blurred. Not a very good start for a new pair of specs, you might think . . .

So, they want us to look at the Middle Ages with new eyes. Not the eyes that brought an American Civil War approach to the Robin Hood legend in Kevin Costner's film . . . but eyes that see things as they were. Or as close to how they were as we can get after so many years. First of all, they have a real challenge defining when the Middle Ages were. After all, the first person to even come up with the idea that there was a "middle time" was Giovanni Andrea in 1469, who was "so besotted with the splendours of ancient Greece and Rome . . . [as] . . . the only basis for civilization," that he took pains to "distinguish [his own times] from the media tempesta (middle time) -- that bleak interlude between then and 'now' when the world was deep in dirt and ignorance." The authors provide the punchline, "of course, we could tell [Andrea] that he was himself living in the Middle Ages, poor deluded chap."

They maintain this same tone throughout the book, providing solid history with a light, conversational voice that makes all these details so much easier to assimilate. Want to know how famines got started? "At the start of a famine people would eat bad bread, often made with rye that had developed a fungus (ergot) that produced a burning sensation in the body and LSD-type hallucinations. Then came starvation." In a couple of lines or paragraphs, Jones and Ereira provide a basic understanding of a topic that could take volumes for other writers. They do the same with the justice system, feminism, divine right of kings, and even monastic life. It's fascinating, and eminently readable.

Oh, and there are LOTS of pictures. Twenty pictures in the "Knight" section alone! And many of them show knights with spears and swords! What do they have to say about these knights? "The chivalrous knight in shining armour never really did exist. All that rescuing damsels and helping the weak was just wishful thinking -- a construct of the medieval mind, taken up with enthusiasm by the Victorians and passed on to Hollywood film-makers of today . . . but maybe we are better off without chivalry. Its fine ideals were all to often used to perpetuate war -- which is what those who live by war want." Hmmm!

This is a wonderful book. Entertaining, thoughtful, filled with information and wit. It challenges both our ideas about the past, and our hopes for the future. Can't wait to see the series! 

[David Kidney]