I used to think that the medieval insults and childish taunts from Knight to Knight in the tale of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was just a clever joke – maybe even pushed a little too far!
But not at all!
Python Terry Jones is far too clever a historian for that – behind all this abuse there is a basis of historical fact.
Before laying siege to a City, the invaders would indeed show their contempt for their opposition by throwing a dead animal or two over the city walls, but it was usually a dead donkey or a dog, preferably poisoned or at least rotting – certainly nothing that they might actually be able to eat!
It was common to first dispatch a few arrows, with notes attached threatening terrible tortures before death and damnation, which usually arrived in the guise of a mercenary army later that day – a time to get well shriven indeed!
In the pitiless summer heat of July 1365 mercenaries set fire to all the crops in the hills surrounding the city of Florence, and commenced a war of fear firing arrows bearing notes with taunts of “Pisa sends you this!” They jeered and taunted, and then the greatest insult – mock money in the form of “florins” – this coinage being the pride of all things Florentine at the time. The enemy set up their own mint to make florins with images of a lion (symbol of Florence) being pinned beneath an eagle (symbol of Pisa) .
Their next step was to erect a gallows on which they hung a dead donkey, before hanging two more donkeys and a dog, as a symbol of cowardice, onto the City gates. Their given names, tied round their necks, just happened to be those of key members of the Florentine Government!!
Before we feel too sorry for the besieged Florentine however, we should remember that many years before in 1289 the armies of Florence, having defeated the armies of Arezzo, threw no less than thirty dead asses – complete with mock mitres on their heads, to pour scorn on the defeated ruler – a bishop!
The brave knights of yore were genuinely keen on humiliating their enemies – if not with a flying cow -then a mitred ass would do!
Re-watching The Holy Grail on DVD after many years has been fun, also because they have an ‘extra’ a sequence with Terry Jones and Michael Palin reliving their experience and explaining a lot of the “in joke” stories behind the filming.
In fact, it seems it was a miracle that the film got made at all, as nearly all the castle scenes, including the interiors of Camelot and Swamp Castle, and exteriors of Castle Anthrax, French Castle and the opening castle, were all shot at the privately owned Doune Castle, with its various rooms redecorated and re-used many times because only days before shooting was about to begin the Scottish Heritage group deemed their script inappropriate and cancelled their contract to work there.
This film has paid-off in spades for Doune Castle however, because, to this day tourists turn up with pairs of coconut shells and “ride” into the castle – and should they forget to bring such assets with them – guess what – The castle has supplies to sell in their bookshop!
“Always ‘appy to oblige MAAM!