The Bright Side of the Knife: Dismemberment in Medieval Europe and the Modern Imagination

The Bright Side of the Knife: Dismemberment in Medieval Europe and the Modern Imagination

By Lila Yawn

Wounds in the Middle Ages, edited by Anne Kirkham and Cordelia Warr (Ashgate, 2014)

Introduction: King Arthur canters into a forest clearing accompanied by his trusty squire. An imposting knight in black blocks his path. In the ensuing duel this Black Knight charges again and again, swinging ponderously, but the agile Arthur dodges and parries. Finally, with a surprise downstroke, the king lops off his opponent’s left arm. A red geyser spurts from a black shoulder. Considering the dispute resolved, Arthur orders the loser to stand aside, but the assumption is taken as an affront. “Tis but a scratch!” the knight shouts indignantly, looking at the void where his arm once was.

Fans of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) known how the story ends. The Black Knight charges the king, loses his right arm to Excalibur – ‘a flesh wound’ he say – and then each of his legs. At last, the knight calls the fight a draw, but even then, as Arthur and his squire, Patsy, trot off into the woods, the head on a limbless torso taunts them as ‘yellow bastards’ and threatens to bite off their legs.

Graham Chapman (Arthur), John Cleese (the Black Knight), and their fellow Pythons gave the twentieth century some of its funniest images of the middle ages, and some of its most widely diffused and invoked. Together with hazardous quests, plagues, peasant squalor, witches, trials by ordeal, and makeshift projectiles (including catapulted livestock and annoying monosyllables), dismemberment in Monty Python’s dark Arthurian world is a commonplace: an on-the-job nuisance to be ignored or treated with disdain, or a roadside hazard inflicted by even the most improbable of assassins.

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Top Image: John Cleese and Graham Chapman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

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