In this book Terry Jones discusses his view of the Middle Ages, as he attempts to show that our view of the period as being one of darkness and stagnation is only half the picture. Jones explains how our view of the Middle Ages have been skewed by nearly five centuries worth of negative propaganda. From Renaissance scholars who disparaged the Middle Ages to make their own period seem greater in comparison (Jones notes that the Renaissance men were backward looking and conservative) to 19th century Romantics who created bizarre Medieval stereotypes for their own amusement. Later on 20th century filmakers would combine these sterotypes, and in doing so, they created "a period of history that never existed" - that is, the Medieval World which we often imagine to exist is actually based on biased sources from centuries past, written by people with axes to grind, or by romantic day-dreamers.
Jones attempts to tackle these stereotypes head on, and he uses first hand accounts, the most up-to-date scholarly research and modern archaeology to create a different view of the Middle Ages in Britain.
Each chapter tackles a different stereotype, examples being: The Peasant, the Minstrel, the Outlaw, the Monk, the Philosopher, Knight, Damsel, and King.
Jones gleefully deconstructs these images and shows us another side to these groups. For instance he argues that Medieval peasants often had more days off work and rights than their descendants in the Victorian industrial age, or that fourteenth century Medieval women had a sort of semi-emancipation (making them much better off than their descendants in the Renaissance) or that Knights, far from being dashing, were often the Medieval equivalent of Mercenaries and arms dealers.
Jones also explodes many infamous myths that have entered into popular cutlure, such as the flat earth and mass witch burning. He explains that the old story of Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World to proove that the world is round has its origins in Washington Irving's novel about the man, and provides several first hand accounts from the Middle Ages that show that educated men at least, knew that the world was round. He also shows that the worst cases of witch burning occured during the Early Modern period (16th to 17th centuries) and that small scale witch hunts did not occur until the very last decades of the Middle Ages. In these cases there seems to be a chronological mix up with many of the brutalities of the Renaissance being imposed on the Middle Ages instead.
This is a fascinating and lively read through 500 years worth of Britain's Medieval History. That said, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. Jones tends to be overly enthusiastic, and as one reviewer pointed out, he does tend to take exceptions as a rule. For instance he points out how archaeology has revealed how Medieval Welsh Peasant houses were well stocked with French wine, or that they were spacious, well built and comfortable. Yet this doesn't necessarily mean that every peasant house was the same.
Still, Jones should be congratulated for attempting to give another view on the period. A few years back a viral article became very popular on the internet called 'Life in the 1500s'. It detailed all sorts of 'facts' about Medieval life, none of which were true. Yet most people accepted them as such, simply because we automatically believe evey negative thing we hear about the Middle Ages. It seems fair therefore that Jones should attempt to balance out this negative image with facts. He doesn't attempt to create a view of the Middle Ages as an idyllic golden age, (as a matter of fact he discusses the brutality of war and the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church) but in his own words, he would like to "adjust the spectacles by which we view the Middle Ages". He does a good but not thoroughly convincing job.
This is a well written, enjoyable and witty book, and one that deserves to be read by any history or Medieval buff, or anyone who'd like to understand this fascinating period.