What I found about Terry was difficult is he cared passionately about everything. We all care about some things, but we don’t care so much about others, so we can compromise on them. Terry cared about everything. It didn’t matter how tiny the detail. –John Cleese
When I saw the news about Terry Jones I felt an odd sense of urgency: I should write something, but I was so afraid I’d mess it up that I froze. This doesn’t happen to me often and it’s taken me an entire day to figure out why: Terry Jones is not my personal favorite Python (that’s Palin) but I think he was the most important Python.
Jones is the reason we have Python at all. The BBC had a standard practice of wiping shows so they could re-use the tapes. (This is why we don’t have a lot of Spike Milligan’s stuff, or older shows from Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke.) The studio was planning to do the same to Monty Python, but luckily Jones heard about it first. He rescued the master tapes, made copies, and stashed them safely in his attic. Years later, when the show had become a cult hit through word of mouth and U.S. broadcasters wanted to bring the show to America, they were able to draw on Jones’ copies.
But as amazing as that is, I’d like to take a moment to talk about what he did after the show, and why it was so important.
As a smol Leah I was already interested in studying history and religion, an interest ignited by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But it was Life of Brian that really created a path for my brain. Everything could be poked, everything could be teased, because they’d done their research. You can learn things from Life of Brian. You can watch the movie and laugh uproariously—but also come away understanding the political tensions of the time, that there were other prophets preaching on corners and drumming up followings, that crucifixion was a machine of terrorism and subjugation. The clothes are pretty accurate! The stoning scene is pretty accurate! As others have pointed out, the Gourd vs. Shoe argument isn’t just a vague commentary on the silliness of religious factions, it’s a very pointed riff on a moment in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus’ followers demand a sign, and he snaps back that the only sign they’re getting is the sign of Jonah (i.e. getting swallowed by a leviathan and regurgitated three days later), which also provides a handy allusion to a fun moment in that book: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.”
(That’s the King James translation—later ones went with the more prosaic word “plant” but I love the specificity of “gourd.”)
I didn’t even know about that sideways gourd reference until I started researching this piece. I learned something new, yesterday, because I was thinking through ways to write about Terry Jones. Now that scene will make me even happier than it already does, and it’s all because the nerds of Monty Python were serious enough about comedy that they could build that kind of scaffolding into a bit.
Now what did Jones do after Python? He did some movies and some screenwriting, often smuggling some great life lessons in when you least expect it, as when Sarah has to learn to pay better attention to the Labyrinth because “things aren’t always what they seem in this place”, or when Erik the Viking discovers that he’ll need to provide his own answers in life, because the Norse pantheon he worships is made up of bratty children.
But among these projects, Jones’ real passions seemed to lie in doing serious academic work on the Medieval period. He analyzed the character of the Knight in the Canterbury, casting him not as a figure of nobility, but as a mercenary. While the thesis itself has met with critique, it’s still a useful jumping-off point to discuss modern assumptions about medieval warfare and chivalry codes. And he did three television series: Crusades, Medieval Lives, and Barbarians, all with the aim of showing people that life didn’t start with the Renaissance.
For instance, in Medieval Lives, he dives into the details of different medieval types: the Peasant, the Damsel, the Monk, etc. In each case, he dredges up information that shows us that Medieval lives were far richer than we’ve probably been led to believe. In my favorite instance, he points out that peasants in a particular area had to work their lord’s land about 50-60 full 24-hour days of the year…while the people who worked at the BMW plant that currently sits on the land give 80 days of labor to their company each year. He subverts the common idea of the Monk as an ascetic removed from the world by showing how each monastic order in turn worked in the world, along with fun tidbits like how some monasteries had taps and running water. He points out that Minstrels were expected to multitask by playing multiple instruments, juggling, training animals, and acting as night watchmen and occasionally spies—much more like modern hustle culture than you might at first assume.
Now, why was this important?
Like everyone who has ever lived, we’re living in an age of exceptionalism. Most of us believe that life right now is the standard against which all other life should be judged. We think our age is the most important, the most chaotic, the most dystopic, the most whatever. Jones used historical comedy, and later, comedic history, to gently point out that we’re full of shit. The people of First Century Judea were just as capable of hypocrisy and silliness. The people of the Middle Ages were just as complex as any of us living now. And there have been plenty of times in history, from the 14th Century court of Richard II to the mid-’60s offices of the BBC, when there were massive leaps in art, science, and free thought that must have felt inevitable and permanent. And yet each time those jumps have been crushed by plague, political upheaval, or religious crackdown. What Jones taught us through all of his work was to pay attention to the details, preserve as much of the history as we can—stash it in the attic if we have to—and never take history at face value.