Laughing at the Medieval: Arthurian Legends, Monty Python and A Knight’s Tale

Author: Julia Richards

Sub-editor: Honor Rush

Image Credit: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. The Daily Sentinel,34679.

The role of comedy is instrumental to medievalist films such as Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) and A Knight’s Tale (2001), serving to both ridicule the Medieval and acknowledge its essentiality in Medieval text traditions. In Comic Medievalism, Louise D’Arcens highlights the importance of comedy in propagating a dialogue between the past and the present with the goal of ‘collapsing temporal distinctions’ to fuse the past with modern views and values through comedic portrayals.  On the contrary, Hannu Salmi reveals comedy in medievalist films to be problematic as it complicates academic perceptions of Medievalism through anachronisms, historical inaccuracies, and incongruous temporalities, thus undermining its validity. Rather than dismissing comedic medieval depictions as ‘popular culture’, I posit that these films instead increase medieval literature’s accessibility for modern audiences given the well-researched, copious intertextuality that legitimises their representations. To nuance the importance of comedy in these films, I will examine the notion of ‘comic medievalism’ through a case study of Monty Python and The Holy Grail and A Knight’s Tale concerning their Medieval source texts: Le Morte D’Arthur (Malory) and The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer). Comedy is fundamental in these adaptations for its ability to perpetuate entertainment for a modern-day audience, whilst maintaining the nostalgic comedic undertones in medieval literature. Therefore, I will demonstrate why comedic adaptations are just as worthy as a more serious reimagining of the Middle Ages because it still demonstrates historic fidelity. 

D’Arcens demonstrates the importance of comic medievalism in texts such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and A Knight’s Tale, suggesting that their humour is full of juxtapositions, both ‘laughing at the Middle Ages’, yet also emphasising the “multi-temporality of medievalism’. On one hand, Monty Python depends on absurdist comedy that distorts conventional emotions, expectations, and truths; employing jokes, slapstick, and political wit to represent a ‘familiar world’. Yet in translation, it is made bizarre by eroding conventional narratives of history. On the other hand, A Knight’s Tale employs similar features, yet it relies on multi-temporality to conjure laughter, thus drawing similarities between the past and the present. Whilst both films seek to ‘poke fun’ at the Medieval, they also engage in source texts such as The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte D’Arthur, demonstrating that comedy, particularly about Chaucer, was highly ingrained in medievalist text traditions. For instance, in Comic Medievalism, D’Arcens draws parallels between Chaucer’s The Tale of Sir Thopas, and Monty Python’s The Tale of Sir Robin. Both Sir Robin and Sir Thopas are humorous characters because they are presented as knightly, embodying chivalry, heroism, and loyalty. However, they are in fact ignoble, weak, and pathetic, both fleeing upon discovering ‘…a geaunt with hevedes three’. This humour is epitomised by the comedic song ‘Brave Sir Robin’, where his squire laments the various ways Sir Robin was ‘not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways’, including having ‘his eyes gouged out, and his elbows broken’, yet ‘when danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled’. This scene subverts historical notions of knighthood by mocking its ingrained historic value in medieval literature. Its farcical undercurrent softens the graphic violence a knight would have encountered to make it more palatable for audiences without detracting from its historical validity. Alternatively, Helgeland evokes comedy through the incorporation of modern aesthetics such as the Nike symbol ‘joust do it’ on William’s armour, within an incongruous time. As Hannah Wilkes acknowledges, this comedy is effective for its translation of the medieval into modern terms, increasing its ‘accessibility’ for a teenage audience. 

Hence, medievalist texts not only mock the Medieval, but they also overtly parallel evocations of comedy in source texts such as Chaucer, generating a relationship between the past and the present. 

D’Arcens explicates the significance of comedy in the medievalist tradition by challenging traditional perceptions of the Medieval and conjuring a temporal reality. According to Marcia Landy, Monty Python’s comedy is effective because they employ both ‘anarchic’ and ‘surreal’ elements to disrupt traditional impressions of history, presenting them as ‘strange through inverting, reversing and undermining traditional forms of storytelling’. Essentially, Monty Python contests normative historic views, questioning beliefs of the past through a mockery of gallant deeds, daring adventures, and romance. The Python team achieves this by presenting traditionally medieval circumstances like duelling, as being abnormal or uncanny which gives the scene its absurdist and bizarre comedic attributes. This is evident in the scene of ‘The Black Knight’, which bears similarities to the drama of the battle illustrated in the 1973 film and medieval text: Gawain and the Green Knight. This moment is comedic because it distorts the audiences’ expectations of a duel, ultimately hyperbolising the situation to the ridiculous. Instead of relinquishing defeat after having all his limbs lashed from his body by King Arthur (Graham Chapman), the Black Knight (John Cleese) begs for more, exclaiming it’s ‘Tis but a scratch’, and it’s ‘just a flesh wound’. Notwithstanding the hilarity of this moment, this scene is extremely well informed. It is reminiscent of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who is epitomised by his fighting vigour and reluctance to give up as evident when he exclaims: ‘My head flew to my feet, and yet flinched I never / and you, before harm hits, at heart do shudder’. In employing comedy in this scene, the Monty Python team pays homage to the medieval fictional characters such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whilst also mocking them through their extravagant and supernaturalist performances.  

Similarly, A Knight’s Tale utilises comedy to reflect the relationship between the past and the present, particularly using music and dance. Louise D’Arcens, however, draws attention to the problematic nature of this film, as it raises concerns about the presentation of both Medieval and medievalism  and their source texts.. For her, the film ‘privileges the medieval ‘original’’, thus dictating what is acceptable in medieval adaptations. On the contrary, I consider this film to galvanise a positive relationship between the past and present, between history and modernity, and between history and comedy. While it does deviate from historically accurate medieval dances, music, and costumes, and has been criticised for its ‘glam-rock’ aesthetic, Kathleen Forni attests that it conjures humorous anachronisms to Medieval times. The ‘Golden Years’ dance sequence exemplifies this notion, particularly when the court performs a traditional ‘pavane’ dance sequence to music that supersedes Medieval dance moves with a more contemporary style. The comedy of this scene is epitomised by the incongruous nature of the music and dance with its period, employing tropes used by Monty Python that distorts the scene with something surprising to the audience. Similarly, music is fundamental in A Knight’s Tale’s comedic backdrop because a young audience will engage more with songs of which they’re familiar with. For instance, the ‘We Will Rock You’ tournament scene conjures imagery of a modern football game due to its reception as a sporting anthem, thus drawing a parallel between the Medieval obsession with jousting and our modern-day preoccupation with sporting games. D’Arcens recognises that this film ‘has failed (however deliberately) to capture the historical past’, yet is fundamental for a young teenage audience’s engagement with medievalism. Ultimately, through the historical anachronisms of A Knight’s Tale, Helgeland incorporates comedy to generate discourse between the past and present as inspiration for a new generation of medievalists. 

The role of comedy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail juxtaposes the romanticisation of medieval texts, such as Le Morte Arthur, by mocking its representation through a comedic reimagination. In Comic Medievalism, D’Arcens explains that there are two main types of medievalist films. One seeks to romance the Medieval through music, costuming, or aesthetics like Logan’s 1967 film Camelot, while the second dramatises the Medieval through violence and gore, like Scott’s Robin Hood (2010). According to Landy, historians and literary scholarship have preferred a romanticised perception of the medieval (190) which makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail innovative in historical cinema because it disintegrates romanticism and transforms it into a farce to propagate different views of history ‘that runs against the grain of conventional wisdom’. For example, Monty Python exaggerates the romantic nature of Malory’s texts, both drawing similarities to ‘The Tale of Sir Galahad’, yet rendering it comical through innuendoes, absurdity, and situational comedy. In the film, ‘Sir Galahad the Chaste’, the knight enters the Castle, Anthrax, in a search for the Holy Grail, only to be greeted by Zoot (Carol Cleveland) and her companions begging him to indulge them, as punishment for deceiving him. Similarly, in Le Morte D’Arthur, Galahad who is ‘a maid and [who had] sinned never’ is thrust into the ‘Castle of Maidens’ which is notorious for ‘seven deadly sins’ until he is rescued by Sir Lancelot. The similarities between the texts imply that Monty Python had a profound understanding of Malory, choosing to employ comedy to mock the romance of the ‘Knights of the Round Table’. Not only do these comedic elements dissuade the text from taking itself seriously, but it also emphasises the humour that was already prevalent within the original text, which had been overlooked due to a preoccupation with being fastidious. 

Similarly, Helgeland’s characterisation of Geoffrey Chaucer utilises comedy to dismantle his reputation as the ‘father of English poetry’ through a pastiche depiction deriding traditional costuming. Christopher Cannon asserts that Chaucer’s revered status in English literature is attributed to the perception that his works were exceptional, original, and ground-breaking.  On the contrary, Helgeland depicts Chaucer as a nude drunkard who gambles his life away, declaring ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’s the name, writing’s the game’. Through this, David Cowart argues that Helgeland galvanises an appreciation for ‘the historical and diachronic differences between the voice of one literary age to another’.  While Chaucer’s reimagination within the film profoundly juxtaposes historical understandings of his character, it enables history to be interpreted with a modernist slant, fusing contemporary views and values with traditional conceptions of historical figures. For instance, Chaucer’s hyperbolic introductions to Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein directly opposes the mannerisms of Count Adhemar’s squire, who is presented as sophisticated, and serious. He laments that he met William ‘atop a mountain near Jerusalem’ and that he is the ‘Seeker of Serenity’, ‘Protector of Italian Virginity’ and ‘the Enforcer of our Lord God’. In this scene, dramatic irony is thus instrumental in evoking humour because the audience is aware that all of Chaucer’s laments are lies. The famous Sir Ulrich is suggested to be in fact, a peasant named William Thatcher. Stephanie Trigg asserts that Helgeland’s characterisation of Chaucer is essential both to the comedy of this film and to the convergence of art and history disciplines, suggesting that both subjects can coalesce to promote entertainment. However, it is also an ode to the role of comedy within the fabliau stories of The Canterbury Tales such as The Reeve’s Tale, subverting the romance trope normally associated with Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.  Helgeland’s subversion suggests that Chaucer should not only be attributed to the father of English literature but perhaps to the father of comedy. Ultimately, Helgeland employs comedy to conjure a new image of Chaucer, reversing common perceptions of him and therefore commodifying historical figures and reimagining them in absurdist depictions. Thus, the comedy in A Knight’s Tale seeks to ridicule the Medieval, yet it also facilitates a dialogue between modernity and the past, questioning the true nature of Geoffrey Chaucer. 

Likewise, D’Arcens highlights the prevalence of comedy as a ‘conceptual framework’ for both remembering and narrating the Medieval which propagates new historiography and perpetuates the metaphoric ‘death of the historian’.  Judith Bennett laments that medievalist adaptations are problematic because modern theoretical backgrounds such as Marxism, Feminism, or Postcolonialism are incongruous with historical epochs. However, I argue that such frameworks are instrumental in evoking comedy because they generate an absurdity that makes people laugh. In The Holy Grail for instance, when King Arthur stumbles across Dennis the peasant, he is perplexed to hear him discussing Marxist ideals of governance in juxtaposition to the futility of the notion of the ‘divine right to rule’.  Dennis remarks how it is ridiculous that Arthur treats him as ‘inferior’, when he is ‘hanging onto outdated imperialist dogma, which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society’, only to be brought back to his social position by Dennis’s wife who says while sitting in mud: ‘there is some lovely filth down here’. This moment is comedic because it transgresses a temporal boundary, implying that this medieval peasant has been enlightened by the Marxist theory that was relevant at the time this film was made, during the 1970s and in the context of the Cold War. According to Cheryl Glenn, this situation would of course have been unlikely because most peasants during the Middle Ages were illiterate, and therefore highly unlikely to be discussing ;anarcho-syndicalist communes’. But perhaps this is reflective of the 1215 Magna Carta, which insinuated similar discussions about the aristocracy concerning the divine rights of kings, and governance, notwithstanding the concerns it raises on its historical validity. Murrell laments that Monty Python rectifies this by conjuring their history, symbolically killing the ‘Famous Historian’ when a knight slices his head off with no warning, whilst also deconstructing boundaries between the Medieval and the present. Ultimately, this aims to ridicule the historiography that was present during the 20th century, which privileged the views of Oxford and Cambridge professors. Thus, this scene acknowledges the Python’s deviance from traditional history, aiming to rewrite a history of comedy, which is a theme that is profoundly ingrained within medievalist films.  

Ultimately, as D’Arcens suggests, comedy is instrumental to the medievalist tradition, serving both to mock the romanticisation of the epoch, but to also pay homage to humour within medieval texts. Whilst the comedy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail explores historical anachronisms between the 1970s and the medieval era, it is also a well-researched and intertextual film that draws upon source texts, summoning a history of its own. On the other hand, A Knight’s Tale deviates from The Canterbury Tales to twist conventional understandings of Chaucer, reimagining him as a comedic figure as an ode to his contribution to comedy within the medieval tradition. Both these films employ historical anachronisms, aesthetics, and temporalities for comedy to reflect the absurdity of modern views and values in a medieval context thereby drawing similarities between the past and present. Ultimately, both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and A Knight’s Tale have had a profound impact on the medievalist tradition, particularly through their use of comedy, purposed to both reimagine the Medieval by ‘laughing at the Middle Ages’, whilst also demonstrating the prevalence of humour within medieval legends.



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