Laureation address – Terry Jones

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Terry Jones
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Dr Chris Jones
School of English

Terry Jones

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Terry Jones for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us…
A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Terry Jones, scholar of mediaeval history and literature, has been deepening our understanding of the past for several decades – ever since, in fact, ‘he first began to ride out’, as Geoffrey Chaucer, one of Terry Jones’s great passions, put it, at the start of The Knight’s Tale. This is one of the great landmarks of world literature, and Jones is the author of one of the most important academic books on the subject. Saying something new about a work like The Knight’s Tale is hard; it’s like saying something new about Shakespeare: it’s all been done before. And scholars long thought they understood this poem well: it’s a sincere portrait of a fourteenth-century chivalrous knight whom we can all look up to – someone who loves truth and honour, nobility and courtesy. Or is it? Wasn’t that siege at Alexandria in 1366, where the knight is said to have campaigned, notorious even during the Middle Ages in Europe as one of the bloodiest massacres perpetrated by a Christian army in the East? And wasn’t the Lord of Palatia, for whom the knight is said to have served, a mercenary-employing tyrant? From examining hundreds of contemporary sources in Latin, French, Italian and Middle English, Terry Jones’s painstaking detective work reveals Chaucer’s poem as a masterpiece of invective wit, satirising the institution of military chivalry, even as it seems to praise it. Chaucer’s knight is not, it seems, a character we should aspire to be like in our own lives, but a bloody, free-booting mercenary, adventuring in the Middle East for dubious motivations, with little regard for the dangerous consequences of his actions. If that makes The Knight’s Tale sound all too contemporary, that’s no accident, but part of Jones’s great skill as a critic. Great literature always remains contemporary, although sometimes unhappily so. More recently Jones wrote his own invective about contemporary western military intervention in the Middle East in a series of passionate and outspoken articles subsequently published as Terry Jones’s War on the War on Terror.

To those who know of Jones’s deep engagement with the far past through the many lively and fascinating history documentaries he has presented on television – critically and popularly acclaimed shows such as Crusades, Medieval Lives, and Barbarians – it may come as something of a surprise to learn that Jones is also a mediaeval scholar of distinction in his own right. (But then surprise is one of his chief weapons.) Undoubtedly Jones’s great talents as an entertainer equip him well to communicate and popularise historical research. Jones is so good at that, I would suggest, because he is also one of those historical researchers, who understands the problems of history writing, and of why the past matters, from the inside. Jones can often be found attending academic conferences of mediaevalists, not playing the big TV star, but quietly sitting at the back, asking questions, debating ideas, learning, and ultimately publishing his valuable contributions to our shared discipline: research on Richard II, on Henry IV’s court poet, and on who murdered Chaucer. Today research universities need friends and allies beyond the academy more than ever – allies who can engage the public with scholarly research in intelligent ways. And we within academia are both lucky and honoured to share our endeavours with Terry Jones. In all his varied literary and media activities, whether he’s writing about fourteenth-century literature, contemporary foreign policy, presenting television programmes about gladiators in antiquity, or even writing a libretto and directing the opera for the Royal Opera House, Jones’s work is marked with rigour, verve, brio and a commitment to truth.

But he’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy. For all these are accomplishments great enough, but they are all the more extraordinary for being merely his second career, following that which he achieved as a much-loved member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This team of six comic writers and performers, with its four TV series in the late 1960s and early 1970s, followed by several block-busting feature films, changed British society fundamentally forever with its irreverent, anarchically surreal and iconoclastically anti-authoritarian humour that has given us so many catchphrases and images, now engrained in our culture. Python is sometimes said to be to comedy what the Beatles were to pop music, and Jones is acknowledged, by the other members of the group, to be at the very heart of Monty Python. It was Jones who was responsible for the Spanish Inquisition sketch and Jones who played the nude organist at the start of each show. Jones also directed Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (a film that more or less replaced the ‘real’ Middle Ages with its own image in the imagination of a whole generation). He directed the Life of Brian, in which he memorably portrays Mandy, mother of the hapless Brian, a first-century Everyman figure from the Holy Lands, who has been mistaken for a messiah. This plotline was thought so provocative by the original film company that they withdrew their financial backing just three days before filming began, causing George Harrison to set up his own film company, so that the Pythons could create what is now routinely voted the funniest film of all time in countless public polls. Monty Python’s influence has been so pervasive that the adjective ‘pythonesque’ can now be found in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for absurd and surrealist humour – a fact that has reputedly caused Terry Jones some dismay: the Pythons were meant to be anti-establishment. Being a definition in the OED is not anti-establishment.

The combination of creator of a revolutionary new comedy phenomenon and mediaeval scholar may seem like an unlikely marriage of talents. But Chaucer, I think, provides the link. He too was a satirist of the establishment and a comic writer of sometimes absurd and fantastical proportions. Chaucer was the Monty Python of his day, and Terry Jones is a true Chaucerian in his mastery of wit. Chaucer finishes his portrait of his knight by saying he was ‘worthy and wise’, which is true of Terry Jones; that he is ‘as meek as a maid’, which is perhaps true of Mandy in Life of Brian; that he ‘never said a rude word to anyone in all his life’ (which certainly cannot be said of Terry Jones). But what one can truly say without any Chaucerian irony is that Terry Jones is indeed a verray, parfit gentil knight.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to the public understanding of mediaeval history and literature, and to the Oxford English Dictionary, I invite you to confer on Terry Jones the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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