The Historical Value of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"
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. So here 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:
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.
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.
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.