3 August 2011

If you want to learn about history, watch Monty Python

One thing that always gets me about Monty Python’s movies is their historical accuracy. No, really.

Yes, they are comedy, and yes there are ridiculous situations. But the Python team always played their comedy straight, and part of that was placing everything in a context full of accurate detail.

For example, consider medieval combat. The Hollywood version has people running around, leaping onto horses, swords clashing at high speed, and so on. The reality was much more like the fight with the Black Knight in “Holy Grail”. A medieval long sword was 5′ long and weighed around 8 lbs, so swinging it was a slow and cumbersome affair, and a full suit of chain mail armor added around 50 lbs to the wearer, so jumping and leaping were out of the question. Forget about swanning around casually in plate mail.

Medieval sanitation is also usually depicted inaccurately. My history teacher once observed that if Bill and Ted ever had traveled back to the middle ages, the first thing they would have noted on emerging from the phone booth would have been the stench. (Including the stench of Joan of Arc, who probably didn’t bathe more than a few times a year.) The Constitutional Peasants are funny because they’re covered in historically accurate filth, collecting mud and shit for use in wattle and daub construction; yet they have an anachronistically modern view of political systems. As accurately noted in the Bring Out Your Dead scene, kings and nobles were generally the only people in the middle ages who wouldn’t spend most of their time at least partially covered in shit.

The witch trial? Also historically accurate, believe it or not. The English Witchfinder General really did throw women into water to see if they were witches–and if they floated, they were declared guilty and burned alive.

As an aside, we can probably thank Terry Jones for much of this historical detail, as he’s a medieval historian. His TV series about The Crusades is excellent, if you ever get a chance to watch it.

Next, consider not the lilies of the field, but rather the prophets in “Life of Brian”. It’s believed that the Holy Land circa 0CE was crawling with people predicting a messiah, so the depiction of rows of mad prophets is probably close to the truth.

Then there’s Latin pronunciation. Today’s modern Latin pronunciation isn’t the way Romans would have spoken; in particular, the ‘V’ letter was spoken like an English ‘W’. So the jokes based on Caesar’s speech impediment are, again, based on historical fact, with ‘w’ for ‘v’ changed to ‘w’ for ‘r’ for comedic reasons. And if the “Romanes Eunt Domus?!” sketch seems true to life, it’s because John Cleese was a Latin teacher.

© mathew 2017