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The Surprisingly Astute Lessons We Can Learn From 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'

Updated January 24, 2020 35.3k views11 items
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One of the surest signs of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's greatness is its lasting effect. Since premiering in 1975, the movie has influenced generations of comedians and comedy writers, spawned the Broadway adaptation Spamalot, and become one of the most quoted films in pop culture. Its jokes are irreverent and timeless, but some of the best scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are great not only because of their comedic genius, but because they make surprisingly good points about what they're satirizing - as well as society as a whole.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be a parody of Arthurian legends first written in the Middle Ages, but it acts as a continuing satire of the stories we pass down through generations and the values we attribute to the characters, symbols, and themes within them. Though the movie follows the ultimately silly and sometimes nonsensical gallops of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table through the Kingdom of Camelot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail still has a lot of wisdom up its sleeve.

  • Despite 85% Of The Population Being Peasants, Arthurian Legend Makes Them Seem Like A Minority

    Photo: Cinema 5

    According to the British Library, 85% of all people in medieval Europe were peasants, but - as pointed out by Monty PythonArthurian legend leads many to think the vast majority of people in the Middle Ages (or at least those who were important) were knights and nobles. Peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are rarely mentioned; those who do appear are minor to the plot, incredibly stupid, and disgusting. Some wallow in the muck, others propose to make a bridge out of someone to prove they are made of wood and thus a witch, and one is even shown in the background of a scene smashing a cat against a wall.

    In Arthurian legend, peasants are a passive collective, and Monty Python takes that to its logical extreme. There is only one named peasant - Dennis. But he, unlike every other peasant, stands up against the repression of the system. And though most of his spiel is an anachronistic Marxist criticism on the medieval political system, it also points out that the same repressed class is repressed in countless stories and legends told about the time period.

  • The Kingdom Of Camelot Would Not Have Been Pristine, But A Rather A Disgusting Cesspit Of Filth

    Photo: Cinema 5

    When pop culture presents medieval kings, queens, knights, and nobility, they are typically romanticized and made to look clean and pristine. The Monty Python troupe leads the way in upending that unrealistic image. Peasants in the film live their lives amid dirt, disease, and squalor; knights are covered in either their own blood or someone else's. Not even King Arthur himself can keep a clean veneer as the French dump feces on him late in the film.

    Medieval European hygiene was minimal. Despite people often washing their hands and faces, full-body bathing was uncommon, soap was only rarely used, and people cleaned their teeth with twigs. Yes, they cleaned themselves to the best of their abilities, but because there was rarely running water, nor any expectations to stay clean like in Byzantium or the Arabic empire, there would have been no way medieval Europeans would have stayed completely unsullied by dirt and bodily fluids.

    Monty Python blatantly points this out during the "Bring out your dead" scene when King Arthur gallops by a collector and his cart full of cadavers. "[He] must be a king," the collector tells a fellow peasant. 

    "Why?" the peasant responds.

    "He hasn't got sh*t all over him."

  • Passions Of A Crowd Can Often Overshadow Any Logic, Especially During A Witch Hunt

    Photo: Cinema 5

    When a whole village of peasants is screaming, "A witch! Burn her!" - convinced they need to rid their village of her - it can be hard for anyone to resist getting caught up in the excitement. Monty Python deftly points out that - even in the face of ridiculous logic and a lack of any definitive evidence - the power of the crowd can be hard to resist.

    During one of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's early scenes, a village dresses up a woman in a funnel hat and a carrot nose in order to convince Sir Bedivere that she's a witch, and must therefore be burned. Bedivere, brilliant as he is, is not easily convinced by their demands and accusations. For starters, it's obvious that one of the peasants wasn't, in fact, turned into a newt, despite his claim to the contrary. So, Bedivere devises a logical formula: Wood burns. Witches burn because they are made of wood. Wood floats. Ducks also float. Therefore: "If she weighs the same as a duck, she's made of wood... A witch!"

    If you follow the logical reasoning, as some academics have, the rationale itself is obviously unsound, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone. Nor does the fact that the two sides of Bedivere's scales are obviously not evenly weighed. With no idea as to why the woman was accused, and lacking any hard evidence, everyone is swept up by the hysteria and condemns her.

  • If Faced By A Three-Headed Giant, Run Away

    Photo: Cinema 5

    In "The Tale of Sir Robin," Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot is faced with what may be the most perilous of perils. Despite many signs telling the not-so-brave knight to turn away - not to mention the carcasses of three other knights pinned to a tree by a lance - Robin and his group of minstrels gallop directly into the path of a three-headed giant. Robin tries to talk his way out of the situation, but his minstrels antagonize the giant - and Robin, incidentally - by declaring Robin's (nonexistent) bravery in song. Sir Robin is faced with a confrontation so common in historical legends and stories: He must fight a monster terrorizing the countryside. 

    But why would he do that? Everyone who has come before him was slain by the giant's hand, there's a multitude of signs warning that the same will happen to any traveler, and he was just threatened by that very giant. He has two options: to stand and fight, or run away. If he fights, chances are he will perish just like everyone else. He takes the smarter option.

    Sir Robin may be called a coward for doing so, but Monty Python is merely underscoring how absurd this common tale of "heroism" really is.