At the time of writing, it is quite bizarre that this BBC series is only available to British purchasers by buying the BBC America edition!
Eight half-hour episodes sees Terry pulling part received notions of what life was like for the peasant, the monk, the damsel, the minstrel, the knight, the philosopher, the outlaw, and the king in medieval England. Actually, he also ventures regularly across the border to his native Wales, down to the sunshine of Tuscan Italy and Provencal Avignon, to French Poitiers and Normandy, and a couple of times to Scotland. The series comes with effective use of animation techniques involving extracts from genuine medieval manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter and the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. In addition, this set comes with an extra, a fifty-minute film called `Gladiators - the Brutal Truth' from 1999.
As in his series on `The Barbarians', where Jones argued that it was the Romans who were more barbaric than the tribes who defeated them, in this series of medieval lives he takes the clichéd stereotypes of medieval life and often turns things on their heads. For example, he argues that peasants actually had a lot of control over their lives. Indeed, one could argue that Jones has a leftwing political agenda, being pro-peasant and pro-philosopher, but anti-monk and anti-knight. If so, then I am not complaining, although his series is devoid of feminism: there are no women peasants featured, no nuns. The only episode to concentrate on women is the damsel in distress, although Jones points out that that concept was created by Victorian men
Much of what Jones has to say is a little simplified in its detail, of course, but it is said with his usual gusto and good humour. For example, "Your average lord could make more money out of sheep than he could out of peasants. For a start, there's a lot more wool on a shape, and you can eat them, which is possible with peasant but socially tricky." He compares the Cistercians to MacMonasticism ("Once prayer acquired a monetary value, the game was up"), and notes that "The chivalric laws of war had absolutely nothing to do with the Geneva Convention." Sir John Hawkwood was a tanner's son from Essex, but his escapades in Italy meant "mercenary and knight had become one and the same."
In the final episode, Jones concentrates on the three kings of England named Richard, who he compares to the good, the bad, and the ugly in the modern English mind. But Jones is not having that; he rightly plays topsy and inverts their reputations: Richard I "was king of England, but he was scarcely an English king"; Richard II was, if anything, "too soft on his enemies"; and as for Richard III, Jones puts up a good case for the supposed murderer of the `Princes in the Tower'.
Terry Jones's conclusion is that "History isn't necessarily what happened; it's very often what somebody wants us to think happened."