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Terry Jones' Medieval Lives Paperback – March 27, 2007
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About the Author
Terry Jones is best known as a member of Monty Python but he has also written books on medieval England, Chaucer's Knight, the highly acclaimed Who Murdered Chaucer? and Crusades, as well as Terry Jones' Barbarians, which accompanied a major television series he presented in 2006. He is the author of several children's books including Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories, The Knight and the Squire and The Lady and the Squire. He has directed several feature films: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, Personal Services, Erik the Viking and The Wind in the Willows. Alan Ereira has worked as an award-winning producer and writer of history programmes on radio and television for over 40 years, and has collaborated with Terry for ten years on a number of historical films. His previous books include The People's England, The Invergordon Mutiny, The Heart of the World and (with Terry Jones) Crusades and Terry Jones' Barbarians.
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Despite that, however, it is serious history, even if it does constitute a somewhat rapid overview of the period. Their approach is to discuss the lives of eight types of people you might have run into during the almost five-hundred year period of the middle ages (which they define as having lasted in England from 1066 to 1536).
One of the constant themes is change – for example, in the lives of peasants. During the period the number of slaves declined as slaves were replaced by villeins – people who were obliged to work a certain number of days a week on their masters’ farms and additionally pay rents in the form of a portion of their crops. Over time the rents began to be paid in cash, and people became more free to move to other parts of the country, or to own small farms on their own. The lives of the other types of people changed over the years too – some improving, some getting now better, now worse (damsels, i.e. higher-class women, for example, were treated more tolerantly at some periods than others, and the changes were not uniformly improvements). Even the role of kings, the last of the types of people covered, changed over the period, but at least in their case many of the changes were initiated by the kings themselves, or were, at any rate, due to such good or bad qualities as they possessed. They also point out how much of our judgements of these kings of the past is due to historical records that may have been manipulated by those who came to power after them, so that those who we think of as ‘good’ kings may not have necessarily been perceived as such by the people of their own times.
I learned a lot from this book, and found little in it that contradicted what I have read in much more ‘serious’ histories of the period. If you would like to learn more about the middle ages but are intimidated by long recitals of minute details, this book is a good choice.
As a reader who's long been fascinated by the medieval period, I found this book stimulating and eye-opening in a few areas. (Some of the instances in the book were things I already knew. Some I'd suspected. And some were completely new to my mind.)
I cannot recommend this book too highly. I didn't give it five stars only because of some formatting glitches in the ebook I bought and a few typographical errors and such. It's a truly good book.
Most of what resonated with me concerns the sophistication of people at the time regarding their needs and wants. They occupied substantial homes, brewing and imbibing were well underway and French wines were imported. The story of minstrels and their comparison to modern PR men is also great fun as was the aggressively entrepreneurial monks, specifically the Cistercians. The holy men of the period were extremely well off. Records from Westminster Abbey betray a decadence in the consumption of food and drink. In fact, alcohol accounted for 19% of monks' energy intake when ours is roughly 5%.
Jones and Ereira and other popular historians of our day are doing a great job making history more digestible and fun. They are also righting wrongs by challenging commonly held beliefs and inaccurate school curriculum. The authors warn us not to be ignorant of our past and use the last line to reinforce the reality that so much of history is propaganda not fact.