Book by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
Actors will occasionally talk about the need to escape a career-defining role, while some musicians spend a lot time trying to distance themselves from earlier work with band mates. Comedians have their version in the need to escape the shadow of famous partnerships. I don’t have the sense that the members of Monty Python suffered greatly under the yoke of past glories. They all kept reinventing themselves (and, indeed, revisiting past work in new ways as well as at the pleasure of their fans).
On their surface, their insane skits made us forget the educations that preceded Monty Python. After all, they were the future historians and doctors of Britain (teamed with an American expatriate animator). The writing revealed a depth of knowledge unexpectedly mixed with the lowest of low humor.
The historian is Terry Jones. Reportedly, he was the reason that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was so dirty (as in mud and not prurience). He was tired of seeing pristine pictures of a period when human existence involved a lot of muck- apparently you can’t take the historian out of the artist.
we act as though art is a walled place with no bleed through to the rest of our lives. We’re perfectly happy to use a knife and fork without a thought to the artist who designed them, even if we appreciate the way they make us feel about eating. (For that matter, am I the only person with a favorite set of forks in the house?)
Jones took his training and created a series of books that challenged assumptions about the Crusades, Ancient Rome, and the Middle Ages. Essentially, these books questioned the underpinnings of western society with wit and a preponderance of knowledge. His book on the barbarians of Roman times presented a distinctly outsider view of the Roman Empire. Too easily, we have bought the idea created by Romans that those outside their borders were ignorant savages, when the Goths and Huns may well be responsible for much of what we value nowadays.
His treatise on the Crusades made clear the misguided nature of all those pointless efforts to retake the Holy Land. Once again, he reminded us that we come from a world of pain and filth and misunderstanding. The artist keeps questioning the historian, allowing us in on the conversation.
Naturally, Jones had collaborators who deserve immense credit, no less so than John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam. Perhaps I am guilty of the great man theory of artistic creation. That probably deserves deeper thought and maybe I’ll get around to it someday. In the mean time, Terry Jones definitely made sure we learned a little something in this life.
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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 175 more to go.
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