Monty Python and the Holy Grail is funny and accurate - and that's why we love it, say historians

The classic 1975 comedy sees the Pythons retell the story of Arthur
The classic 1975 comedy sees the Pythons retell the story of Arthur - Pictorial Press/Alamy

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is hugely popular among medievalists, it has emerged - not because of its humour, but because of its historical accuracy.

The classic 1975 comedy sees the Pythons – Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – retell the story of King Arthur as he travels in search for the long-lost grail with a pair of coconuts for a trusty steed and a band of foolish knights by his side.

Greg Jenner, who co-wrote the Horrible Histories children’s show, said the film came out on top when he surveyed 100 medievalists on their favourite historical film for his thesis while doing a history masters 20 years ago.

“They loved how silly it was, they loved how creative it was,” he said. “I think they liked the fact that because it’s so silly it wasn’t a threat to the seriousness of medieval history,” while it is littered with in-jokes.

Prof Carolyne Larrington, a specialist in medieval literature at St John’s College, Oxford, said she has used the film to teach her students.

“The basic story of looking for the grail, failing to find the grail, getting distracted or sidetracked into things like the castle of maidens, having to go through riddle contests or fighting various monsters, that’s all the stuff of medieval romance,” she said.

“It’s very vivid and it does dramatise all kinds of fundamental, popular tropes of the medieval life.”

Jenner said alongside the humour, such as the inventive demise of Joseph of Arimathea, whose writing on a cave wall (“He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of aaarrrrggh”), are subtle jokes about the origins of the Arthur myth.

The decision to make the “baddies” of the film French, who “already have a Grail”, speaks to history of the legend making it into stories outside of Britain and before Thomas Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, Jenner told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He added: “In terms of its literature, Chrétien de Troyes and various other writers in Europe had been playing around with these characters of Lancelot and Arthur and so on before it ends up in English literature.”

The skit involving the black knight, who uttered “‘tis but a scratch!” while refusing to back down despite the loss of his limbs, was even linked by British Library curators to a 15th-century manuscript cartoon they found in 2020 while digitising their collection.

History professors have used the film to teach their students
History professors have used the film to teach their students - EMI/REX/Shutterstock

The cartoon showed two mythical men continuing to fight despite one having lost his leg and another his head. “We realised that the joke is essentially the same as the Monty Python Black Knight joke - the combatants refuse to give up,” Ellie Jackson, curator of illuminated manuscripts, told the BBC at the time.

Dr Guy Perry, fellow at Keble College, Oxford, said the Pythons – all of whom except Gilliam studied at Oxford or Cambridge – “clearly knew their stuff”.

He said the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch scene, in which Arthur is handed an orb with lengthy instructions (“Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three“) was a “classic” satire of the medieval church’s liturgy.

“There is a good joke there – the holy lance which allegedly pierced Christ’s side was discovered at Antioch during the First Crusade so the guys clearly knew about that and it’s funny to make it a grenade, not a spear,” he said.

For Prof Levi Roach, head of the University of Exeter’s history department, the strength of Monty Python’s Holy Grail is there is “a lot of truth” in it.

“It’s obviously a parody and runs fast and loose with some facts. It’s not trying to be factual,” he said. “But it is trying to get at an essence of the Middle Ages.”