The Medieval Review 13.07.13

Yeager, R.F. and Toshiyuki Takamiya. The Medieval Python: The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones . The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. xii, 265. $100.00. ISBN: 978-0-230-11267-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Tison Pugh
University of Central Florida
Tison.Pugh@ucf.edu

Subverting the standard forms of encomium, the editors of The Medieval Python: The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones declare this volume to be not a Festschrift but an "Unfestschrift" (4). The immediate question this neologism raises is: shouldn't an Unfestschrift pillory Jones rather than praise him? On the contrary, the essayists of The Medieval Python pay tribute to Jones for his career that intertwines cinema, academic studies, children's literature, and various forms of medievalism. Few voices of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have so ably--and so entertainingly--bridged the divide between academic and popular discourses of the Middle Ages as Jones's. From his membership in the celebrated comic troupe Monty Python to his solo efforts, he has consistently asked his audiences to laugh learnedly and to speculate provocatively over the meaning of the Middle Ages, and so his work surely merits a retrospective analysis for its contributions to the field.

The Medieval Python begins with Sanae Ikeda's "The Medieval Works of Terry Jones," a select bibliography of Jones's forays in medievalism that focuses on his films, television programs, articles, books, reviews, and children's books. In "Young Jones at Oxford, 1961–1962," V. A. Kolve paints "a memory piece" (13) of Oxford life during his time there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he overlapped with Jones for a year. Chris Given-Wilson, in "The Earl of Arundel, the War with France, and the Anger of King Richard II," observes Richard's use of anger as a rhetorical tool in his scuffles with the Earl of Arundel, concluding that "Richard...was not just an angry young man. He seems to have been a rather poor actor" (36). In "Terry Jones's Richard II," Nigel Saul rebuts Jones's defenses of Richard II, which were mounted most prominently in Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery. Saul pays particular attention to Richard's sense of ruling for the common good, which he argues was of minimal concern to the monarch.

One can virtually hear the famous Monty Python riff, "And now for something completely different," as the volume then segues into Michael Palin's "Terry Jones: The Complete Medievalist." In this brief essay Jones's troupe-mate reminisces over their times together and concludes that Jones "is a scholar, a teacher, and a respected academic. He is also, thank goodness, a very silly person" (58). The volume then lurches back to the scholarly arena with a series of essays addressing medieval literature. Derek Pearsall, in "Medieval Monks and Friars: Differing Literary Perceptions," explores how the contrasting religious lifestyles of monks and friars play out in various medieval and Renaissance texts. Two essayists, Peter Nicholson and R. F. Yeager, focus on John Gower. In "Gower's Manuscript of the Confessio Amantis," Nicholson details how Jones's investigations into revisions of the Fairfax manuscript led him to reconsider Gower's role in their creation, concluding that "Gower must have been more directly involved in the actual creation of the manuscripts of his works than I was willing to credit in my earlier essay" (83). In "Gower in Winter: Last Poems," Yeager examines the manuscript portraits of Gower as an aged man, reading these images alongside the poet's minor Latin poems as instances of defensive self-fashioning in light of the Lancastrian reign. John M. Bowers completes this mini-unit on medieval literature with "The Naughty Bits: Dating Chaucer's House of Fame and Legend of Good Women," in which he, while sprinkling in numerous Python allusions, questions longstanding critical commonplaces about the dating of Chaucer's dream visions, taking as his inspiration Jones's proposed redating of "An ABC" to the end of Chaucer's career.

From literature the volume jumps back to history, with Michael Bennett addressing, in "'Honi soit qui mal y pense': Adultery and Anxieties about Paternity in Late Medieval England," a tournament dinner presided over by Richard II. During this feast an English and a Scottish knight exchanged insults about the adulterous tendencies of the wives of their regions, with the Scottish knight "proving" Englishwomen's enjoyment of the "closet intimacy" with "cooks and churls, serfs and villeins" (120). Mark Ormrod acknowledges Jones's Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary for encouraging scholars to look at the darker motivations of medieval knights. In his "Needy Knights and Wealthy Widows: The Encounters of John Cornewall and Lettice Kirriel, 1378–1382," he employs this perspective to gauge Lettice Kirriel's parliamentary petitions for assistance in fending off Sir John Cornewall's attacks, as he traces their legal disputes to their mediated resolution.

As should be increasingly clear by this point, an Unfestschrift makes little claim to the rudimentary tenets of organization and structure, and so readers should not be surprised when they reach another "something completely different": Martha Driver's "Making Medievalism: Teaching the Middle Ages through Film." In this pedagogical essay Driver reviews the classroom potential of Jones's Medieval Lives, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Erik the Viking, pointing out the utility of various moments in these works that illuminate a deeper critical understanding of the Middle Ages for students. In another essay focusing on Jones's corpus, "The 'Silly' Pacifism of Geoffrey Chaucer and Terry Jones," William Quinn ranges from Chaucer's Knight and Tale of Melibee to Jones's Terry Jones's War on the War on Terror: Observations and Denunciations by a Founding Member of Monty Python, pondering the ways in which humorists engage with crusades, wars, and other violent conflicts.

With a nod to Jones's Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who refuses to yield to King Arthur despite the lopping off of all of his limbs, Richard Firth Green traces the figure of the "bellicose amputee" in English literature in "Legs and the Man: The History of a Medieval Motif." The essay catalogs these limbless belligerents in such works as Sir Eglamour of Artois, the Alliterative Morte Arture, the sixteenth-century broadside Chevy Chase, and Thomas Hood's "Faithless Nellie Gray," among others. In "Chaucer, Langland, and the Hundred Years' War," David Wallace suggests that this conflict "infiltrates [Chaucer's] Canterbury Tales with his very first trio of portraits" in the General Prologue (202), suggesting as well the benefits of examining Langland's Piers Plowman through this historical lens. In another short piece addressing the Canterbury Tales, Priscilla Martin invites her readers to consider the psychology of Chaucer's plowman in "Jack and John: The Plowman's Tale." This short story moves from the character's alienation ("Loads of dung. That's my life" [207]) to his appreciation of the spiritual bounties of pilgrimage. It also further complicates the meaning of an Unfestschrift, for this creative fantasia makes no pretense of its value as scholarship, to which it seems even an Unfestschrift should aspire.

The essays that conclude The Medieval Python move temporally to the Renaissance. In "A Prayer Roll Fit for a Tudor Prince," John J. Thompson examines London, British Library, MS Additional 88929, a liturgical text inconclusively associated with Henry VIII. Thompson documents its movement between the congregational and courtly spheres and the effects of these changes in venue on its readership and reception. Toshiyuki Takamiya's "Macbeth and Malory in the 1625 Edition of Peter Heylyn's Microcosmus: A Nearly Unfortunate Tale" explores the incorporation of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Malory's Morte d'Arthur in the Microcosmus as efforts to curry favor with the monarchy.

Most of the essays in The Medieval Python offer at least a brief tribute to Jones and his scholarship. The affection is real and the praise merited: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jones's other works have brought countless students to classrooms focusing on medieval topics, and for this contribution the field owes Jones sincere gratitude. Still, even these compliments stretch a bit. Takamiya proposes, "I strongly suspect Terry Jones--no stranger to prolific controversy--would have loved to portray this extraordinary man [Peter Heylyn] in one of the Monty Python episodes" (229). As erudite as much of Jones's humor is, the hilarities of a Heylynian sketch would likely not succeed except among the most rarefied of audiences. But then perhaps the genre of an Unfestschrift simply invites such hyperbole.

It is sufficiently challenging to define the parameters of Festschrifts, those unwieldy hodgepodges of genuine respect for learned scholars that often lack any coherency other than a vague sense that the collected essays echo, if at times only tangentially, the scholarly interests of the honoree. From the assemblage of essays in The Medieval Python certain mini-genres can be discerned: prose odes of praise and reminiscence (Kolve, Palin), historical scholarship (Given-Wilson, Saul, Bennett, Ormrod), literary scholarship (Pearsall, Nicholson, Yeager, Bowers, Green, Wallace), Renaissance studies (Thompson, Takamiya), pedagogy (Driver), and creative writing (Martin). Beyond these hazy structures, the parameters of this Unfestschrift lack any sort of unifying principle, yet most of the essays--particularly those of Given-Wilson, Saul, Pearsall, Nicholson, Bowers, Bennett, Ormrod, Driver, Quinn, and Green--contribute meaningfully to their respective fields of study. All in all The Medieval Python speaks to specialists rather than to general readers, which is in some ways a shame: as Jones has ably demonstrated throughout his wide-ranging career, it is possible and pleasurable to bring the Middle Ages alive with wit both outrageous and learned, and thus to bridge the ostensible gap between the scholarly community and the general public. It truly would be a wonder had this Unfestschrift accomplished the same. Yet it is no small accomplishment to compile the insights of so many esteemed scholars into a single volume, if only haphazardly so and without the type of sustained inquiry that their honoree so richly merits.