Monty Python and History in Public

Stealing an idea from my good friend and colleague Tara Strauch, I have started sharing songs with my students in the moments before class begins this semester. These are in theory linked to the topic for that day, though not always. This past Friday for example, I was ready for the week to end and some Neil Young seemed in order. Yesterday morning, at least for my two early classes, I decided to break things up a little. This was partly due to my difficulty in coming up with a good, or at least funny, song related to the Reformation and the subsequent complications in conceptions of a “Christian West.” It was also because I was in the mood for some Monty Python, and no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

That particular classic piece of British comedy won out after a brief consideration of the “Adventures of Martin Luther”, a faux-film-short depicting the life and work of Martin Luther in Germany in the grip of the sixteenth century. I went with the Spanish Inquisition because, honestly, all the things I liked about the Martin Luther sketch come in the first twenty seconds and would subsequently need to be explained. Then it devolves into some weird impressions that I’m not sure my students would particularly enjoy, and some particularly ahistorical representations of Martin Luther.

Monty Python played with history quite a bit, of course. In another class where I had the time to explain why I think the first twenty seconds of the Martin Luther clip are quite so funny, we could talk at length about how Monty Python chose to play around with specific collective historical assumptions, and spread that out. I’ve always been interested in how we continually do this when we talk about history publicly, and in particular how we play around with these ideas in various creative works from dystopian dramas to humor. Considering how much time is spent in college classrooms decrying uncritical adoption of monolithic historical narratives, it should perhaps not be surprising historians do not always do all that well with the many boundaries crossed in popular representations of history. Still, I’m surprised. How can this not be interesting?

Monty Python in particular raise all kinds of ways in which different, important, elements of historical understanding intersect: how have we been taught history? Which elements are important? What does it mean to us now? That final question raises the issue of when “now” is, as the “now” of the video’s production is not our present. So, what has changed since then? In particular, how does the work of Monty Python reflect the changing social and cultural parameters of postwar Britain? What does it mean when the Irish professor shows mid-twentieth century British comedy sketches about medieval to early modern European ideological movements at the beginning of a class meeting?

I could go on like this, you know. Asking questions repeatedly without stopping to address them. I have a PhD.

My instinct is to embrace the questions, but it is difficult when I really do want to hear what the students thought of the Erasmus reading I assigned and move on to the scheduled discussion. We will save it for another day. In short, when I do have more time to unpack things like this with the students I encourage them to keep asking questions. I leave unsaid the steadily more depressing fact that things I like, whether in music, television, film or fiction, are inevitably the province of the old or at least the no longer young.

There is a larger discussion here, too, about how historians interact with the wider public and subsequently what our professional obligations should be, not to mention the contours of our public role in sharing knowledge and policing blatantly disingenuous invocations of supposed historical precedent to shape larger conversations. I will get to all of those at some point over the life of this site, but for now I am happy to reflect on my choices for videos to open class discussions. It’s always tough to pick a favorite: the philosophers’ football match or the frustrated hyper-politically-aware medieval peasant?

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