Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

Author: Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
Title: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives
Publication Info: London : BBC, 2005.

Terry Jones of Monty Python fame is also a medieval scholar and this book is a companion to his BBC documentary history.  Each chapter focuses on a different type of person in medieval times from peasant to damsel to outlaw to king.  Jones’ challenges popular misconceptions of medieval history and turns them on their head with evidence of the period being one of great change with innovation and more opportunity for the lower sorts than typically imagined.  It’s a well-written guide to the medieval past with doses of humor and lots of historical evidence.

Favorite Passages:

Perhaps the most surprising example of that distinctiveness is that in England, uniquely in Europe, bold robber outlaws were necessary for the effective functioning of the kingdom.

England now had an extraordinary and unique legal structure, entirely invented by an ingenious and desperate monarchy. Its most remarkable feature was the amount of power, however messily administered, it placed in the hands of the local community. English law was quite unlike that on the Continent. There, law was run from above and was based on Church law (canon law) and Roman law. In England, it was totally dependent on a popular understanding of law, and the job of the courts was to enforce ‘common law’. The juries who laid accusations and tried cases were made up of people who supposedly knew what had happened. This meant they consisted very largely of people who were legally in various degrees of servitude. This would have a very striking effect on the development of the law. It meant that the ordinary Englishman, even though he was a villein or even a serf, was familiar with the law and the courts, not as a victim but as a participant in the legal process.

These were not maps. Mappa simply means ‘cloth’ and a mappa mundi is not a ‘map of the world’ but a ‘cloth of the world’. The fact that we have derived our word ‘map’ from these cloths is not the fault of the people of the Middle Ages. If there’s any blame to be apportioned it’s our fault for forgetting where the word comes from. And a cloth of the world had an entirely different purpose from an atlas (a seventeenth-century idea). A mappa mundi is a depiction of the world as a place of experiences, of human history, of notions and knowledge. It’s more like an encyclopaedia. It’s certainly not – and was never intended to be – a chart to be followed by travellers.

In the United States medical treatment is the third highest cause of death (iatrogenic death) after cancer and heart disease. So, despite our undoubted progress in understanding the chemistry and biological structure of the body, and great advances in the techniques of medical intervention, we are not exceeding the achievements of medieval doctors as much as we might expect. In their terms we are doing worse, because the objective of their care was not necessarily to save the body (which would, of course, be wonderful) but to help save the soul by allowing patients to know the hour of their death, and prepare for it. This was itself a genuine medical skill and, again, one that depended on seeing the patient as a human being.

The fact is, there is little reference to genuinely helpless high-born maidens in medieval literature. Perhaps this is not too surprising as the stories were often commissioned by noblewomen, to be read to their friends and family. We do not have enormous knowledge of their lives, but there is enough to show that the lady’s bedchamber was, in many cases, more like a salon, elegantly decorated, where she amused herself entertaining her women friends (generally her retainers, ‘damsels’ married to men of status in her husband’s service) and male visitors, and where they would ‘drink wine, play chess and listen to the harp’.*2 They would also read and be read to – silent reading was regarded as highly suspect, a sign of being antisocial or melancholy, suitable only for scholars.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****