Hanna, Monty Python
“Help, I’m being repressed!!”: Historical Value in Satirical Films
Completely accurate historical films with conventional plots are overrated. Monty Python and The Holy Grailhas a bit of everything for everyone, historians or not. Invincible knights and mystical sorcerers? Sure! Clever and creative French men? Why not! Death, disease, and a bunch of suppressed peasants? Sounds great! Excluding a few die-hard historians or enthusiasts, almost no one wants to watch an hour and thirty-two minutes of what England was actuallylike in 932 C.E.. Monty Python aimed to capture its audience’s attention through humour, and reached a massive audience with its satirized version of the Middle Ages. Although the film does not at any point strictly adhere to historical events, it still has many merits and contributes in its own unique way to the genre of historical films. This particular movie shows that history does not have to represented with extreme accuracy in order to inspire interest in its viewers and to be entertaining.
Film is one of the best ways to get people interested in history. It makes history both accessible and interesting to a wide audience as it tells the stories of the past through a narrative structure which invests the audience in a protagonist and their journey. For the most part, historical events are made up of a million tiny moments in time that can’t be reasonably portrayed in a way would remain interesting to an audience. In an effort to solve this problem, filmmakers condense history into a neat timeline, with a conventional plot and a satisfying ending. However, this isn’t the way that life works. People’s lives are full of random events and coincidences that push them along their own personal storyline, and they can’t possibly be summarized as a whole within the runtime of a movie. Monty Python’shumour and wacky plot conventions draws in viewers, and its own messy, splintered timeline of events is perhaps more accurate to how both history and life actually work.
The filmmaking process involves a wide array of professionals: historians, writers, designers, animators, producers, and actors. Depending on the budget of the film and the wishes of producers regarding what type of film they want to create, the end product can turn out to be either extremely historically accurate or less so. In this specific case, the budget of the movie was not the factor that dictated accuracy or historical depth (not to say that the producers aimed to make the movie accurate in the first place). The script itself is a huge part of the film which contributes towards its historical validity. Monty Pythoncontains some dialogue with historical truth and undertones, especially in regards to the oppression of the peasantry in feudal society.Despite this, it is important to keep in mind that an aim of the movie is to play off of the general romanticized expectations of how life might have been like in the early tenth century. It presents the Middle Ages as, “...modernity in drag, even for the most serious scholars.”
Crammed amidst the general silliness of the movie are several accurate pieces and allusions to medieval history. Interestingly, the timeline of the main plot is fairly accurate in the context of medieval England. It is set in the early tenth century only about one hundred years from the feudal revolution, where knights and ideals of chivalry became a prominent aspect of culture and subject of literature. The movie and main storyline of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is based upon the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose fictional History of the Kings of Britainidealized life in a chivalric, feudal society and popularized Arthurian legends.Additionally, the movie is supplemented by the works of Chrétien de Troyes, another medieval author who wrote about the Grail.In scenes such as the Castle Anthrax, Andrew Capellanus’ guidelines for courtly etiquette and love are satirized.The movie is structured in a way to give historical ‘easter eggs’ to historians and medievalists while still being highly enjoyable to a general audience.
An argument against the value of the movie is that its satirical qualities degrade the validity of its historical content. However, mashed in between comedic dialogue and scenes of grown men running around with coconuts are elements of medieval culture: including the ideals of chivalry, courtly love and behaviour, as well as how life might have been like in a feudal and manorial society. Of course, the more ridiculous aspects of the movie shouldn’t be considered as factual, as medieval people probably did not know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, African or European. In the high Middle Ages, courtly love literature was also not entirely accurate or representing of society. Monty Pythonplays off of the common illusion created by the romanticization of the Middle Ages and in a way, continues the traditions of courtly love literature.
Monty Python’s incorporation of a modern storyline into the main plot of the film makes the viewer question the reality or accuracy of the story which they are being told. Historians should keep this questioning attitude in mind as they analyse sources and stories told by seemingly reliable figures, or they could potentially end up just like the Famous Historian as seen in the film. The cop-out (literally) ending is something also seen historically: not every narrative is wrapped up in a satisfying way, and things don’t always work out in the favour of historically important figures. The protagonists of history don’t always have a happy ending, or lead resolved lives, even though the majority of them aren’t arrested at the end of their quest.
The medium of film is extremely effective in providing a bite-sized chunk of a historical period that encourages those who enjoy it to research on their own time. It allows viewers to get invested in a protagonist's story, and helps them to build a picture in their minds of what a historical period might have been like. Monty Python is successful as a pseudo-historical film because it combines the common romantic view of the Middle Ages with sneaky references to medieval literature and courtly culture. By doing so, it has the potential to get people interested in medieval studies, and encourages the questioning of its material.
Austin, Greta. "Were the Peasants Really So Clean? The Middle Ages in Film." Film History 14,
no. 2 (2002): 136-41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3815616.
De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Grail, from Perceval.” Translated by Ruth Harwood Cline.European
Literature from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. http://clark.bengalenglish.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Perceval_and_the_Holy_Grail_Passage.pdf
Geoffrey of Monmouth. History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Aaron Thompson. Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses Publications, Medieval Latin Series, 1999.
"Medieval Sourcebook: Andreas Capellanus: The Art of Courtly Love, (btw. 1174-1186)." Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/capellanus.asp.
Greta Austin, "Were the Peasants Really So Clean? The Middle Ages in Film," Film History 14, no. 2 (2002): 140.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Aaron Thompson (Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses Publications, Medieval Latin Series, 1999)
Chrétien de Troyes, “The Grail, from Perceval,” trans. Ruth Harwood Cline. European Literature from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, 623.
"Medieval Sourcebook: Andreas Capellanus: The Art of Courtly Love, (btw. 1174-1186)." Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed April 06, 2019, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/capellanus.asp.