Terry Jones as Historian: opinions?

I've recently watched Terry Jones' "Crusades" series, and thought it was fantastic - with the possible exception of the bit with the Speedos, but then, it's Terry Jones, you've got to expect him to strip sooner or later. :-p I found that while a clear bias on his part was visible, it was very clear what was his opinion and what was 'historical', so I thought in the end that since it was obviously his opinion and he wasn't not trying to pass it off as the only correct view, there's nothing wrong with making the judgements he did.

The whole thing was nicely done, entertaining, a great touch with the talking artworks, and he's a remarkably pleasant, nonintrusive presenter, compared with some of the posing gits out there, who spend half the screen time staring wistfully into middle distance.

*Not-so-subtly coughs the words 'Dan' and 'Snow.'*

I haven't actually read anything of Jones' yet, or watched any of his other stuff (though I think I might have seen a bit of 'Barbarians' once). I'm wondering what to go onto next, but the very mixed reviews I've read are a bit of a concern. You get people who say his (co-authored of course) books are entertaining but fundamentally inaccurate, other people who say they're brilliant, and others still who say they're one-dimensional revisionist nonsense.

So: being a historian myself with quite strong views against judging the past by the standards of the present, I wonder if any of you have read/watched Terry Jones' historical work, and what you think. I found his arguments in "Crusades" quite even, despite, as I said, the evident bias ... are his other things more forceful, or about the same?

I asked myself certain questions:

1) Am I allowing my fandom to distort my historical viewpoint?

2) I happen to agree with his views, but does that make it OK that he's judgemental? (I think it's fine to think these things, but I wouldn't personally put them on paper as history.) Is he all that judgemental, or are reviewers being overly fussy?

3) My specialism is mostly after the periods he talks about, should I read other things first so I can approach his stuff with more background knowledge?

Basically, if the only virtue of Terry Jones' historical work is that it's entertaining, I'll stick to being entertained by his comedy until I know enough about what he covers to judge his stuff from an informed perspective. I'd be a hypocrite if I said history had to be taken completely seriously, because that's not the way I feel about it ... but I still don't want to be misled. Then again, if all the criticism is just coming from right-wing bigots and intellectual snobs, I'll give it a go. I'd really appreciate some views on this!

But anyway, sorry for a long and rather serious post. On a lighter note: SPLUNGE!

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Comments

Kimdino: I left school (in 1977) with the opinion that history was extremely boring and irrelevant, an opinion shared by the majority of us. Luckily I was rescued by a computer game (Darklands) piqueing my interest and, having taken my study much further, I am now aware what a beautiful and IMPORTANT subject history is.

I have since seen a nephew, also having had his interest destroyed by the education system, have his interest kindled by Mark Steels broadcasts. Dry facts can only bore people, explorations can intrigue them while comedy can add sparkle. Explorations and comedy both need opinions to go forward.

I can also see the great dangers in leaving history to be filtered into propaganda by government directives and how important it is for us all to look for ourselves into many sources For example, here in the UK Cromwells Republic is quickly brushed over by the school curriculum (embarrassing to the monarchy?), yet this is the birth of the modern capitalist state and thus one of the most important periods IMHO. So I believe that anything that gets peoples attention and, very importantly, prompt them to query established interpretations needs to be encouraged.

I believe that we have established that Terrys stuff is factually correct (after having independently checked other sources (important point)), his opinions are equally important as they teach us to question the interpretations. Having seen his opinions on the Roman Empire in Barbarians any viewer will now have two conflicting views on what the Romans were. Which is correct? Well, they will have to go and look for themselves. A good presenter will have piqued their interest enough to make the effort.

So on to my point. We NEED people like Terry Jones making these programmes complete with their take (i.e. opinions). We also need knowledgable historians, such as you, to watch them in order to ensure that the hoped-for explosion of such programmes stays factual.

Ivan Orsecock: I too am interested in determining whether Mr. Creosote's take on history is purely op-ed, academically plausible or truly factual.

I suspect it's a bit of all three (I'm going out on a limb there).

On the one hand, Biggles' programs do seem to "want" to upset the standard view. Not that that's bad. As Frank Zappa said, "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible."

Sir Bedevere is Oxford educated and therefore adept at the art of reading obtuse and ancient manuscripts. By no means does that mean that he is any more capable of interpreting them correctly than you or I. (Well, maybe a little.) But none the less, and especially considering that he had the BBC's research department behind him (or at least vetting him), I'd say that his knowledge is up to snuff.

Lastly, (and this is the hardest part for me to write, because I am an American high school drop-out [true]) as Chris-in-the-Morning (the high school drop-out DJ from 'Northern Exposure' [fictional]) said ‎"The truth slips and turns, the facts remain the same."

In the end, I'd like to accept the Naked Organist's views, as they jibe well with my own. I do believe that history is written by the victors (and the Romans/Catholics were the scribes). As a descendant of the vanquished, I am emotionally vested in believing that my ancestors were not the simpleton monster barbarians they are portrayed to be. On the other hand, truth wins out, and if anyone can provide a salient counter-argument, I'm listening.

With Warmest Regards,

Sir Ivan Orsecock (Mrs.)

(Strewth, that's a mouthful, ma'am)

genji: I've just finished watching The Crusades and there is a moment in there when one scholar makes the point that if you want to separate romanticism from history you have to read lots of historians' and contemporaneous accounts (and often in their original languages) - i.e. don't take this documentary as your only source. With that point made quite emphatically, I don't see how anyone can criticise it as inaccurate. As everyone here has pointed out - it's a historical account, and therefore an opinion.

Anyway, I thought the washer women story was funny, as was the experiment to see if Richard I would have sank into the sand. That blacksmith was a bit of a prat, though.

thewastelandr: I'm in the same boat as you, HCAO. Currently I'm reading Who Murdered Chaucer (actually I've just begun it - on chapter 1 still) and it's extremely interesting. As I haven't gotten far into it at all, it seems kind of conspiracy theory-esque but makes sense. As a student of historiography and history, it is hard for me to take what Jonsey says as authoritative, but he does have some good supporting sources. We'll see... keep us posted on your progress!

genji at 6:45 am October 10

I'd also like to read your opinion of his book, thew., as you get further into it.

Here Comes Another One at 5:13 am October 13

Oh, I'm hanging out for Who Murdered Chaucer. I'm finding it a bit difficult to get hold of in paperback. I'll get it though. I'll look forward to discussing with you guys.

Genji, re your comment on Crusades, that's exactly what I think. That point is made quite a few times in the series, so if Barbarians is anything like it I can't see a problem.

I laughed at those bits you mentioned too, but I also found the blacksmith funny. Not that he was necessarily meant to be ... :-)

genji at 7:04 am October 13

I think Barbarians is similar. Much of it is speculative, if well-researched and evidenced. As a whole its intention is to undermine the accepted view of history (i.e. the Roman, documented view) and his opinions seem fairly reasonable... well, more reasonable than Who Killed Chaucer? anyway.

A lot of the ideas he explores in Barbarians resurface in the 'Secret Histories' documentaries (or perhaps it's vice versa - I think the Hidden/Secret Histories were made earlier) and his Ancient Inventions series.

I think he's always up for a good conspiracy (I haven't watched his Great Map Mystery series yet but I think that's about conspiracies too) but he always presents his theories in good humour and without sensationalising them. I think that approach also helps to reduce the 'forcefulness' of his presentation - he's not telling you what it is that it is, just offering ideas.

Here Comes Another One: I agree with you both, & thanks for commenting. MrsCutout, if you're studying the period & you think he's accurate, that's good to know.

My first impression, before reading reviews, was that he was great at what he did, and had a huge knowledge of his subject, and that as I said above, & as you said, MrsCutout, you can always tell where his opinion is his opinion. And I feel the same as you, genji, in that I admire him for his own sake, & not just for being a Python. Actually, since I posted this I discovered something that alleviated my doubts considerably, & proved that reviews are not necessarily the best place to start.

I read the beginning of Barbarians as a Kindle sample, and I realised that what Jones & Ereira say about Rome is nothing more or less than what academic, 'serious' historians say about the British Empire. On empire & identity & construction of the 'other', &c, I am on much firmer ground, and 19th-century Britain is my specialism. I realised that the fuss must be coming from distorted cultural perspectives - exactly as Barbarians argues. We're conditioned to concentrate on the negatives of the British empire but it's obviously not OK to say the same about Rome, despite the same actions & attitudes being present there, not to mention a striking similarity of the construction of Roman imperial identity to the same in late 19th-century Britain. I admit I'm no expert on Rome, but I found my examination of the arguments rather telling.

mrsCutout at 3:14 pm October 08

Hmm...That'svery interesting you know! About Roman and British never thought og that!Great! Well i am learning about the crusades now at school id that's considered studying but it's a periode i am realy interested in and for that reason I have bought and read a few books on the issue so yes i do think he's accurate from what I've read...Anyway it's tru about the Romans come to think of it! You know the Romans were in fact barbarians.Uncililised if I can say that .It always annoys me that they compare abcient greeks with Romans you know they had nothing in common appart from the lkanguage...and that was ours and they took it!I mean look at their way of having fun :The Colloseum.They put people in there fight to death and they liked it.The greeks had the Olympics.Noble games where you fought for honour and nobody was allowed to kill. Now I wouldn't know about 19th century Britain cause Ive studied few of that so i wouldn't like to say something ...You would know better here!
but yes i do agree reviwes re not the best way to stat..Just watch and then read haha!

Here Comes Another One at 7:18 pm October 08

Do you know, I think I will! :-)

mrsCutout: i am actualy studying now the historical periode Jone's is reffering to in his two docus I've seen,thh crussades and barbarians.I need to point out that I do agree with you he does make judgements but it's also very clear that it's his own view and people don't have to accept it.I mean it's too hard not to judge -as a historian I suppose you are aware of that-but remember he has studied history as well.He knows what he's talking about that's for sure! I for once love both f the docus and not because he's a python.I watched them before I was familiar with them and I thought they were splendidly done.He not only presented historical things but he also made it fun!I know that judgin history isn't correct.The first thing ou learn is this.But still he's not writting or presenting as a historian but as someone who wants to inform people on such things.Don't forget that even top historians like Thoukididis on very rare occasions did give their personal opinions.But it's up to you I think it's interesting to watch the rest of his work I think he's quite accurate with what he sais.You know better though.Just watch and judge yourselfe!

genji: As a historian you're better placed than I am to critique his efforts. I enjoy what I've seen because it's Mr. Jones - not because he's a Python, I just happen to like Mr. Jones. If what he presents is wildly inaccurate, well - that's just another historian's opinion, and historian's seldom agree amongst themselves.

Also, as a historian, I doubt that Mr. Jones's perspective is the only perspective you'll take on board, so I wouldn't think your fandom will overly distort your opinion.