12 Times 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' Was Surprisingly Historically Accurate

Sure, catapulting cattle, head-smacking monks, and a knight willing to fight until he is limbless are all elements played for laughs in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but there’s a bit of truth in each. In fact, there are kernels of historical accuracy where you might least expect them.

Considering the Pythons' academic backgrounds, it's no surprise that some truth underlies much of Holy Grail's absurdity. With the exception of the American Terry Gilliam, the performers hail from Oxford or Cambridge University. Terry Jones would even go on to write several works of medieval history.

In the Middle Ages, counting was often difficult for even the high-born; a great vowel shift in the 12th century affected the way people pronounced seemingly simple words; and convicting a witch was as simple as acknowledging that a person was different. And those aren't the only instances of Holy Grail's surprisingly accurate history.

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  • Medieval Clergy Needed Very Little Evidence To Convict A Witch

    Medieval Clergy Needed Very Little Evidence To Convict A Witch
    Photo: Cinema 5

    In Holy Grail, we see a young woman accused of witchcraft by an angry mob. The mob is eager to burn the "witch," but Sir Bedevere stops them from going through with it - at least until they can prove she weighs as much as a duck. If her weight is equal to the duck, he claims, then she is probably made of wood and therefore a witch. That's why witches burn, after all.

    The questions Bedevere poses to the mob, and his test for determining witchcraft, are utterly absurd to a modern audience, but they do hold a sliver of historical accuracy. Nonconformists, or anyone considered an outsider, were deemed by the medieval Catholic Church to be a public danger. Simply deviating from the norm was sensationalized and criminalized. Clerics preached of the eminent threat these groups presented and insisted that their nonconformity was the work of the devil.

    Even women who could not conceive and people born with medical abnormalities were attributed to Satan, as evil resided in both the moral and physical realms. Jews who practiced openly, those accused of homosexual behavior, and, of course, those who were said to practice sorcery were considered offenders deserving of execution. Many accused witches were antagonized until they confessed, then most often hanged or burned.

  • Knights Were Thuggish And Found Any Reason To Fight

    Knights Were Thuggish And Found Any Reason To Fight
    Photo: Cinema 5

    Though the Black Knight’s insistence that his loss of limbs is “just a flesh wound” is silly, his willingness to throw down against King Arthur for no apparent reason is not that far-fetched. While a knight’s stated duty was to protect those beneath him while upholding a code of conduct prescribed by the clergy, this was often not the case.

    As nobility did not work, knights grew restless when there were no clashes to be fought. Medieval tournaments were created to provide an outlet for the warlike impulses of aristocrats. These pageants of military prowess channelled a knight’s aggression and desire for glory by displaying their noble lineage, chivalry, and military skills in front of huge crowds.

  • Medieval Peoples Used Livestock As Biological Siege Weaponry

    Medieval Peoples Used Livestock As Biological Siege Weaponry
    Photo: Cinema 5

    Fetchez la vache!” commands the taunting French guard before catapulting a cow toward the Knights of the Round Table. Though it’s played for laughs, the use of biological weaponry did, in fact, occur throughout history. 

    The first recorded instance of biological weaponry took place during the Carthaginian Wars in the fifth century BC, when the Greco-Romans contaminated their adversaries' food and water sources with rotting animal carcasses. In 190 BC, the Second Macedonian War saw the army of Antiochus III hurl pottery filled with poisonous snakes aboard Roman ships, and plague-riddled cadavers were launched into enemy territory during the Mongol siege of Kaffa in 1347.

  • Grave Diggers Collected Cadavers En Masse During The Black Plague

    Grave Diggers Collected Cadavers En Masse During The Black Plague
    Photo: Cinema 5

    When the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, raged in Europe, it struck down so many people that grave diggers really did go through towns collecting the deceased. The highly contagious plague is estimated to have wiped out one-third to one-half of the European population during the late Middle Ages.

    While individual burials were standard prior to the outbreak, most traditional funerary practices were suspended due to the extraordinarily high number of casualties. Mass graves became the only way to keep up, and cadavers were often piled five-deep in long trenches.

    Fear of contamination led family members to expel their deceased loved ones from their homes as soon as possible. Men of low social standing, known as the Becchini, were tasked with lugging carts through the streets to collect discarded citizens and lug them away. Sometimes the sick would even be piled onto carts alongside the deceased, as their demise was an inevitability. So there is, in fact, some dark truth to the “I’m not dead yet” bit in the film.

  • Knights May Have Had Trouble Counting Since They Were Not Educated

    Knights May Have Had Trouble Counting Since They Were Not Educated
    Photo: Cinema 5

    Though gifted in the art of war, medieval knights were often uneducated in subjects like mathematics. Until the 12th century, basic arithmetic and geometry were more or less unknown in Western Europe to all but the clergy. Not even basic calculation was taught to most.

    King Arthur bumbling his attempt to count in the Holy Hand Grenade scene - uttering, “One, two, five,” before being corrected with someone saying, “Three, Sir!” - is not as absurd as it may seem.

  • Peasant Life Was Dingy, But They Did Have Plenty Of Free Time

    Peasant Life Was Dingy, But They Did Have Plenty Of Free Time
    Photo: Cinema 5

    Peasants of medieval times were filthy and constantly endangered by disease, starvation, and the skirmishes of the upper classes. In Holy Grail, peasants are able to identify the king because he doesn’t have “sh*t all over him.”

    When peasants worked, it was hard and unforgiving, but they also had two to six months of “vacation time” each year, as well as time off for holidays and all manner of special events. This may explain the peasants of the film engaging in absolutely ridiculous activities to pass the time, such as bludgeoning streams and repeatedly hurling a cat into a wall.