In my history classes, I have students do a written assignment in which they historically evaluate a feature film that relates to class material. In other words, they must distinguish historically valuable information in the movie from material that is exaggerated, unlikely, or just downright wrong. I like using feature films in my classes. In spite of their flaws, they can bring the past to life more effectively than most documentaries. And this assignment, if done properly, requires high level thinking skills and a certain amount of research. If they write something about a documentary, it will come out as little more than a summary. Also, this exercise, along with feature film critiques that I slip into class, will get them to see that Hollywood may not always be a great source of information. Unfortunately, many people get more of their history from the movies than from professors and books. By writing a historical critique or two, students may take the “history” that they see in future films with a grain of salt.
If I were a student in a class that covers the medieval period in Europe, then I would write a paper on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” This is partly because it is one of the funniest movies ever made. It is also, however, more historically valuable than many serious films that seem accurate because they are serious. There are three scenes – all of which I show in my Early World Civilizations class – that are followed by a brief explanation of what they can teach about history.
First of all, the amazing special effects in this battle help the audience see and feel what it was like to experience medieval hand-to-hand combat. You can also see why this film required such a huge budget. That kind of realism isn’t cheap. But seriously . .
Most westerners are familiar with stories of chivalrous knights serving their master, fighting dragons, and saving damsels in distress. The Black Knight, however, is probably someone who is closer to reality than the legends. He does, of course, take the chivalrous ideal of bravery to a ridiculous extreme. Plus, his pain tolerance and capacity to instantly stop bleeding are, to say the least, unrealistically high. But it is his motive for fighting that is the most accurate. He is, for no apparent reason, guarding a miniature bridge that crosses a small ditch. Clearly, he is just looking for a reason to fight. Real knights, as I understand them, were more like thuggish, private mercenaries than the chivalrous “knights in shining armor” of legend. They looked for excuses to fight in order to show off their prowess or to help their lord control territory in the hopes of someday becoming lords themselves. It was a violent, chaotic time, filled with some authentic blood and guts.
I doubt that there were any communist peasants living on manors that had no lord. To a modern person living in a democratic society, however, the peasants make a hell of a lot of sense. First of all, the peasants’ descriptions of medieval Europe are right on the money. It was a pretty horrible place to live, with a small minority of the population living off of the labor of the peasant majority. It was also a place where the basis of government was a mixture of tradition and religion. So if you asked a king why he should be king, he would give you a story as lame as Arthur’s tale about a lady of the lake handing him some special sword. If you did not buy that story and you rebelled against the system, then, as the peasant said, you would be “repressed.”
The woman’s question, “Who are the Britons?” also reveals something about early Medieval Europe. What we today call Great Britain was no more of a nation during the early middle ages than the so-called kingdoms of western Europe. It was more a collection of mini-kingdoms ruled by local landlords, and the king was basically a figurehead. This is why you get legendary stories about a mythical King Arthur trying to put together a group of warriors to help turn him into a real king.
This is one of my favorite scenes in film history. It is, after all, fun to laugh at cleverly depicted stupid people. Of course, if a medieval person who believed in executing witches were ever to see this film, he would point out that it is not accurate. A legitimate witch trial would be based on real evidence, not on a person’s weight comparison with a duck. I would then be compelled to ask the obvious question: “So what is ‘real evidence’ in a witch trial? Would a broom, pointy hat, wart, or smoking cauldron be enough to convict? Or would a person just have to be sufficiently weird or have improper theology?” If you were to look at the actual evidence used as a basis for burning people at the stake, then this scene no longer seems so far-fetched. People really were that stupid.
The fact that thousands of people over the course of many centuries were executed either as heretics or witches is one of the greatest arguments in history for the separation of church and state. People can believe whatever they want, but theological ideas or superstitions that cannot be proven or demonstrated in any measurable way cannot be allowed into courtrooms. The term “legitimate witch trial” is an oxymoron.
In conclusion, there is one final reason why I like this movie as a historical resource. In these scenes, and throughout the film, people are filthy. Too often, in movies that claim to depict the past, the people are just too clean and well maintained. It’s almost like moviemakers are making a film set in the present and doing nothing more than dressing people up in old-fashioned costumes. But this movie, a silly comedy that makes no claim to accuracy, does a great job of showing how unsanitary, violent, ignorant, and unjust European medieval society really was. It makes me grateful to be living in 21st century America, a society that is cleaner, safer, and somewhat less ignorant and superstitious.
Ruby on May 02, 2018:
I'm writing an essay on the historical accuracy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail for my World History Class right now! I actually came across this essay while researching for it. The assignment is to find at least 15 things in the movie (scenes, costumes, props, customs, etc) that were present in the middle ages, then determine whether those things would have existed in the early middle ages, when the movie supposedly takes place, or in the late middle ages, and therefore inaccurate.
Sarah from Portugal on December 14, 2014:
Thank so much for this! I'm a bit Python fan and it's great to see described how they are much more valuable than the many laughs they bring. I hope, in a near future, to show my daughter this movie (still early for "the life of Brian", though)
Besarien from South Florida on December 14, 2014:
This film is how I learned what samite was and that Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, on the off chance that anyone ever asks. :)
To correct Alancaster149, Graham Chapman died of metastasized cancer. He did not take his own life, or if he did, he was soon "feeling better" thereafter.
rmcmillen on April 16, 2013:
I don't know about historical value, but Monty Python's comedic value is priceless. Most movies made in the last 10 to 12 years only strive to be as funny as Holy Grail was... and most strive without even striving if that makes any sense...... most seem as if they are trying to be that funny, and yet they completely miss the mark... and I'm talking about the DRAMAS!
In other words, movies today are horrible... which is why I wrote "A Call To Arms... Sort Of"..... we can only hope for a day when movies will return..... real movies...... movies worth paying the price of a ticket....... movies like Life of Brian!
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on May 30, 2012:
Monty Python gained their 'wings' at the Cambridge Footlights,Michael Palin and Terry Jones having been to Oxford University and the others to Cambridge. Despite doubts about their potential, the BBC agreed to a series of the Monty Python Flying Circus in 1969. They were active as a 'troupe' until 1983. Graham Chapman was their only casualty, taking his life because of his sexuality in October, 1989. The rest of the group has pursued solo careers in film and the performing arts, writing and documentaries. Michael Palin's memoirs - published a few years ago exposed rifts within 'Python'. Personally, I think "The Life of Brian" was their best, but came in for a lot of hostility - mainly from the Church - due to a misunderstanding of the film's 'message'. The big catchphrase of the film was 'What have the Romans ever done for us?', leading to a virtual shopping list of civil engineering features invested by the 'occupiers'.
Andy on May 29, 2012:
Brilliant essay. The Python troupe graduated from Oxford University and Cambridge University, so they were well-read and able to capture realism while still parodying the legend of King Arthur and his Knights' search for the Holy Grail. It was sheer genius to insert a modern-day TV historian describing the Arthurian legend for any of us viewers ignorant of the background, before he himself is run through by a violent knight. Their use of satire of certain events in history (witch trials, the black plague) is an excellent way to show just how awful that period was. As you wrote, many films show everyone freshly washed, when in reality most folks only had a single set of clothes, and feared bathing.
If you showed this film to a medieval crowd, they probably would not out that it is not accurate - they would execute your for practicing witchcraft.
I've spent years researching the background stories in this movie, and there really were people who believed that uttering "nih" (or some such power words) would give them power to inflict pain. Almost everything in the movie is based on some fable or story. You're very smart to show this film to your class, and start discussions.
Like the author's daughter and the reviewer's sons, my siblings and I have sat around the dining room table and quoted this movie, verbatim, for hours at a time (to the mystification of my parents).
Excellent article. Excellent author.
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on May 21, 2012:
Just as in the old days Ordinary Man/Peasant didn't have the time to think things through for himself and was easily led - how did Wat Tyler come about then? - nowadays 'yer average peasant' likes to leave the thinking to someone else. Same result. Every so often - like Wat Tyler - someone comes along and throws everyone into disarray, is 'dealt with' and the status quo is restored. Simple. Now thump that prayer book on your forehead and get on with it! Civilisation? Go run, it's the ones that take the time do the thinking that run the shop - as always!
Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on May 21, 2012:
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail “was also one of the finest films I've ever seen. It does however, like you say, illustrate some real truths about mediaeval society. The people really were every bit as dirty and diseased as they are portrayed in this film. Another very good film which graphically depicts the squalor of the Middle Ages is “Jabberwocky”. Thank you for a very interesting and enjoyable article.
Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on May 20, 2012:
My two 20-something sons can do a running patter of about 15 minutes of Monty Python/Holy Grail. It's a trip!
Paul Swendson (author) on May 20, 2012:
Thanks everyone. One of the more gratifying moments of the last few years was when my older daughter started memorizing some of the bits from this movie. Apparently, taste in humor is genetic.
Emer420 on May 20, 2012:
I have always been a fan of Monty Python. I loved this hub. I thought it was very well written and touched on some very important points.
Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on May 20, 2012:
"Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!" Where do I sign up for your class? That you could find a way to teach from this hilarious movie is a testament to your skill as an educator. Up!
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 20, 2012:
You've made me look at one of the best comedy films in a new light. The filthy peasants, the hovels, mud, the dead wagon (bring out yer dead) are, indeed, closer to reality than many such period pieces. Voted up and interesting.