Terry Jones’ love of history is well-known, and this book, which seemed to be based on a BBC series of the same name, goes more deeply and detailedly in the richness of late medieval history in English than one would expect. Written with Alan Ereira, parts of pieces of Jones’ comedic voice remains in the the text. Separated into the medieval roles, Jones uses these roles to construct a counter-narrative to many of the stereotypes around medieval history through focusing in on specific instances and highlighting specific anecdotes to clarify the his major points.
It is clearly organized, and the focus on specific anecdotes are useful, but definitely feel more cinematic than scholarly. However, there are reasons why Jones’ did this that are beyond limits based on the BBC series: Jones has a bone to pick with much of the historigraphy around the Renaissance. As he said in an interview “…And I’m sick to death of that ridiculous assumption that that before the Renaissance human beings had no sense of individuality.” Jones aims to illustrate that this is clearly a misunderstanding of self-conception of humanity in the medieval period. The anecdotes persalize things on an individual level. Furthermore, Jones’ is good a pointing out that our conceptions of the medieval period are often more based on Victorian misconceptions and projecting violence of the Renaissance and the early modern period back unto medieval period.
The book is particularly good on the selective criterion for understanding the Plantagent kings as well as omissions from the king’s list like Louis the first and last, who was ruler during the first Baron’s War. It also is particularly strong in the areas about popular medieval conceptions of women. A close reading of Chaucer would have confirmed a lot of what Jones is saying, but he and Ereira do a particularly good job of finding both historical and literary sources to make their point here. A weak point may be on medieval medicine where Jones seems to think that treatments developed in the medieval period that ther roots of some modern treatments were more effective than they were. He does not mention how dangerous a lot of the medical precedures used by Galen are, and then he justifies it by morality rates in modern hospitals due to infection. The two cases aren’t really good analogies for severeal reasons: Most of which having to do with the fact we understand what hospital morality is so high, but medieval doctors didn’t understand why so many of their leeched patiences died anyway.
While Ian Mortimer’s “Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England” show be paired with this as it is much more substantive and should probably be read with this book, Jones light take on history is still substantive enough for the non-specialist to learn significant amounts and for the specialist to be fairly amused.