Medieval Lives

Terry Jones’ Medieval LivesTerry Jones is perhaps best known as one of the members of the British comedy troupe Monty Python. Anyone who has followed his career since his Python days knows that he has become a respected medievalist, something my Medieval Literature professor told us one day in discussing Chaucer’s Knight. Jones’s Medieval Lives may be seen as a companion to the series of the same name.

The book is broken down into eight chapters the explore the lives of people of different classes and occupations, sweeping away the glorification given to some (knights) and undue pity given to others (peasant). It’s a refreshing exploration of what medieval life was really like with the most intense focus on medieval life in England, which is clearly Jones’s background. The eight groups Jones explores in this book are peasants, minstrels, outlaws, monks, philosophers, knights, damsels, and kings. My favorite chapter on kings discusses incorrect perceptions and propaganda surrounding medieval English kings and is brilliantly constructed around analysis of the three Richards:

Kings of England can be divided into three types: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That, you can take it from us, is a reliable fact… Take all the kings of England called Richard: there’s Good King Richard I—Richard the Lionheart, the idealistic crusader and champion of England—or was he? Bad King Richard II— the vain, megalomaniac tyrant—or has his name been traduced by those who wished him ill? And Ugly King Richard III—the deformed monster of Shakespeare’s imagination—or is he nothing more than that: the product of our greatest playwright’s imagination? (“King,” location 3040)

Jones’s explanation of why Good King Richard the Lionheart was a terrible English king, why Richard II was a fairly good king, and Richard III not at all Shakespeare’s villainous tyrant made for interesting reading, though as an anglophile with a bizarre fascination for the British monarchy, much of it was not new to me.

I also enjoyed Jones’s deconstruction of the knight in the Middle Ages, particularly my favorite William Marshal. I liked Jones’s description of the value of knighthood, perfectly encapsulated by the English defeat of the French at Agincourt: “The flower of French chivalry was cut down by archers on sixpence a day” (“Knight,” location 2523). So much for the French assumption that the English would face them on horseback like proper knights!

Jones’s chapter on damsels gives the lie to the old saw that medieval women were powerless and in constant need of rescue. I was particularly interested in Jones’s discussion of the evolution of the Lady of Shalott:

In the original story the lady was not weak and helpless at all, and she was not under any curse. Nor was she passive and pathetic. She was a wilful, stubborn woman who boldly declared her passionate love for Lancelot. Her tragedy was that it was not returned. (“Damsel,” location 2755).

Later, Tennyson would describe her plight differently:

The story of the Lady of Shalott created an extraordinarily resonant echo in the Victorian and Edwardian imagination; Pre-Raphaelite artists, looking for images that expressed what they saw as a truly medieval perspective, returned to it time and time again… It is an image of womanhood as essentially confined and restricted; full participation in the world is forbidden and fatal. This is sentimentally regretted, but tragically unalterable. (“Damsel,” location 2748-2753).

The entire book is worthy of quotes, and I highlighted and annotated it more heavily than any other book I’ve read on my Kindle. Suffice it to say it’s as entertaining and funny as one would expect from a member of Monty Python and informative and educational enough that you’ll learn quite a lot of history as you read. I highly recommend it. As Jones says in my favorite quote in the book, “History consists of the tales we like to tell each other about our predecessors” (“King,” location 3046). If you’ve ever wondered what “tales” you’ve been told about medieval people, pick up this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

Summer Reading

Summer is rapidly approaching. I have one more week of teaching, one more week of finals, and a couple of days of post-planning, after which my teaching responsibilities for 2009-2010 will have ended. Of course, before you tell me how lucky I am to have two months off (it’s not actually three), don’t forget I am actually not paid for that time. Most teachers are paid for ten months, but have their pay divided among twelve. Also, no teacher—let me rephrase that—no good teacher I know really takes that time off. Most of us usually spend that time planning for the next year, doing professional reading, and taking professional development courses or college courses. I’ll be doing all three. However, more time will also mean more time for reading. Here are the books on my radar (subject to change) for summer reading.

The Story of BritainThe Adventure of English: The Biography of a LanguageMedieval Lives

Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of England and Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language are on tap as I plan my British Literature and Composition courses. I have also checked out the DVD companion for Bragg’s book from my school library. Both books should help me plan my courses. Terry Jones’s Medieval Lives should add some dimension to studies of Chaucer next year.

In terms of professional reading, I plan to finish some books I’ve started, specifically:

Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do  About It The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching

Even if I am not teaching 9th grade next year, which is the grade level at which our grammar instruction is focused, I still think a solid foundation in how to teach grammar in a way that will stick and will make a difference in student writing is a good idea. In addition, I would like to try to read this book:


In this day of easy cut and paste, plagiarism is much easier, and I believe, more tempting than ever before.

Finally, for pleasure reading, I plan to select from the following:

I thoroughly enjoyed Syrie James’s second novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and as a fan of Jane Austen, I look forward to The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I originally purchased both The Forgotten Garden and The Meaning of Night for potential reading for the last R.I.P. Reading Challenge. My husband is thoroughly enjoying The Meaning of Night, and he highly recommends it.

These first two books will indulge my interest in the Romantic poets. The first book, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, explores the story of Byron’s own contribution to the famous writing challenge that produced Frankenstein and the first vampire novel. Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets explores the lives of Byron, the Shelleys, and Keats. As a child, I was extremely interested in dinosaurs and paleontology. Of course I want to read Remarkable Creatures, the first novel I know of written about Mary Anning, who discovered the fossil of an ichthyosaur and two plesiosaurs near her home at Lyme Regis.

The Little Stranger comes highly recommended from our art teacher. Emily’s Ghost promises to be an interesting novel about Emily Brontë: most of the novels about the Brontës either focus on Charlotte or broaden the focus on the Brontës in general. The Dream of Perpetual Motion will be my first steampunk novel.