Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (BBC Books, 2005) by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

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.

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8 thoughts on “Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (BBC Books, 2005) by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

  1. “…And I’m sick to death of that ridiculous assumption that that before the Renaissance human beings had no sense of individuality.”

    I guess I never thought of individuality arising that late in history.

    I’ve recently been reading a lot about the topic of individuality and related issues. There are many opinions about when individuality first emerged and why it did so. Obviously, at some point, there were people who had social identities that were so different from ours that we’d have a hard time recognizing them in terms of our modern sense of individuality.

    I’m in favor of the theories that pushes that back to the earliest civilizations. But it is impossible to prove as the evidence is so scanty. Writers of the past weren’t seeking to offer us moderns psychological insight about how they experienced self identity. Still, if we consider the available writings, one does at times sense an almost alien sensibility in ancient writings.

    I don’t know the Medieval period in great detail. I have no idea how the sense of self may have shifted or not during that time.

    • I think people tend to confuse the political significance of individuality with its existence at all. Although most religious thought is on individual terms, at least, after Christianity, Buddhism, and mystery cults, which pushes it a good thousand to 1500 years prior to early modernity and the Renaissance.

    • Some have pointed out that if you go far back in history there is no category just for religion. It was simply their reality and their society, not a separate activity that they did once a week. Maybe that does relate to individuality.

      We separate many things that ancient people probably didn’t. We separate religion from everyday life. We separate one individual from another and separate all individuals from the social, as if social is what people do rather than who they are.

      It is hard for us to imagine people who might not have had clearly distinct boundaries between all these aspects of human experience.

      Anyway, why do some people think that individuality only showed up during Medieval times? It isn’t apparent to me what the argument would be based upon. Is it simply an argument for individualistic values supposedly being based upon Christian values and being spread along with Christianity throughout Europe?

      If so, that is the argument apparently made by Larry Siedentop in his book “Inventing the Individual”. I haven’t read that book, but I was looking at reviews of it. I wonder if the author genuinely believes individuality didn’t exist prior to Christianity. I also wonder why he wouldn’t consider the larger social context out of which Christianity formed, the religion having been a product of multicultural syncretism.

      Anyway, I doubt the growing dominance of Christianity led many Europeans to feel more like independent free individuals. As the Church came to power in Rome, it led to rather oppressive social conditions. I’m not sure what was particularly individualistic about that development. Very few people probably saw their relationship to God via the Church as an individualistic experience.

      • The category of religion is only possible in secularized states, but the idea that individual conscience being judged instead of an ethnoi is a step in that direction. You really should dig into the pre-Axial age religions more, including First Temple and pre-Temple Judaism. Judgement was not just individual, but social. That remains true in Christianity too.

        The difference I have with you is that I don’t think the development of individualism begin in freedom.

        “As the Church came to power in Rome”

        I tend to doubt that the church was the cause, I do not ascribe that much power to ideas. The church came to dominance in the most profound crisis of the Roman Empire until the Western fall, which really starts the conditions in the 2nd and 3rd century. The oppressive conditions were already being established as currency could not be maintained and more people lived on a estates to escape oppressive taxes.

        “Very few people probably saw their relationship to God via the Church as an individualistic experience.”

        Yet, it is, in the main, individual souls judged, not the ethnoi. That said, I suspect you have a sound suspicion here because I don’t think Christianity was a cause, I think it was an effect. The development of similar ideas in completely separate contexts at different parts of the world are nearly the same developmental crises (see Buddhism and the crises of Indian subcontinent between 400 BCE and 50 BCE, the major reformation of Judaism in response to the various diaporas, etc)

        That said, I am going to read that Seidentrop book too. I tend to think that individuality has been with us since we were hunter-gathers, but the need to regulate it is always an imperative to any settled community.

        We live in history, but the crooked timber is shaped by time, yet it remains mostly the same wood.

      • “The category of religion is only possible in secularized states, but the idea that individual conscience being judged instead of an ethnoi is a step in that direction.”

        I suppose so. That intuitively makes sense.

        “You really should dig into the pre-Axial age religions more, including First Temple and pre-Temple Judaism.”

        I have been recently reading more about the ancient societies, including pre-Axial Age religions. My knowledge is fairly general at this point, though. It’s rather fascinating because it forces me to broaden the context of my thinking and reconsider certain understandings. I enjoy looking to the past in order to see how things were once different and what that might mean.

        “Judgement was not just individual, but social.

        The social aspect is what has been interesting me. Mainstream thought in modern society doesn’t offer much insight about humans as a social animal. We moderns tend to see social identities as what we choose, rather than something integral to who we are. Or else we try to simplify and objectify our social identities, such as genetically deterministic ethnocentrism.

        “The difference I have with you is that I don’t think the development of individualism begin in freedom.”

        I’m not sure what I think. I’ve been learning much that is new to me lately. My position isn’t settled at the moment.

        “I tend to doubt that the church was the cause, I do not ascribe that much power to ideas.”

        I’m not sure about causes when looking back that far in history. I tend to think Christianity was simply a convenient ideology for those in power at the time. I don’t know that the specific ideas mattered that much. Most of the ideas in Christianity weren’t original or unique to Christianity.

        “Yet, it is, in the main, individual souls judged, not the ethnoi.”

        I’d have to give that some more thought. I wonder what it means for individuals to be judged.

        Christian theology is rather confused on this point, as humans are born sinners by default. We are judged as individuals only to the extent we don’t escape the original judgment of Adam that wasn’t our individual fault. Individuality is framed by and dependent upon the social fate, and in some sense individualism seems like a mirage in this account. Our individuality is faulty because the shared nature of humanity is cursed, and so our individuality will inevitably fail and hence the necessity of faith where Jesus stands in for us as individuals.

        It’s a bizarre theology, when one thinks about it. It’s hard to know what individuality means in early Christianity.

        “The development of similar ideas in completely separate contexts at different parts of the world are nearly the same developmental crises”

        That is what intrigues me most of all. There is more that went on than any given religion or society. It’s likely that individuality was more of a result than a cause of any of the changes. I’ve felt perplexed by individuality for a long time, especially as it relates to free will.

        “That said, I am going to read that Seidentrop book too.”

        I’ll be curious to learn the details of his argument. Maybe he’ll make a case for something unique that Christianity brought to the development of individualism, beyond what Christianity borrowed from previous and contemporary religions.

      • I think Christian theology is profoundly confused on this point, and the fact it still saw natural disasters as divine punishment SOMETIMES, but not others, even in early history is an indication of the kind of dual problem it had.

        And you are right, even some of the church fathers realizes the problem that an idea like absolute original sin had on Christianity. Interesting, the Eastern Orthodox church actually didn’t see that as the primary point of the fall in the way Augustine did, and while Augustine is important, they developed an almost entirely different theodicy.

      • “Interesting, the Eastern Orthodox church actually didn’t see that as the primary point of the fall in the way Augustine did, and while Augustine is important, they developed an almost entirely different theodicy.”

        I’m not as familiar with the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I know absolute nothing about their teachings on sin and the fall. If there is a difference on that account, how might their view of individuality differ? Does the Eastern Orthodox majority countries have distinct expressions of individuality?

      • They have a completely different view of why the fall was a problem, it wasn’t some kind of in-born stain upon the human character. It is closer to the Jewish version.

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