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Journal Title or Book Title
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching (SMART)
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Following their infamous “Bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the grimy Dead Collector (Eric Idle) and his filth-ridden Peasant Customer (John Cleese) are momentarily stunned by the entrance of an immaculate King Arthur (Graham Chapman, riding an imaginary horse) and his less-than-immaculate page Patsy (Teny Gilliam, banging two empty coconut halves together). As Arthur passes by, the two peasant types wryly comment on the state of kinghood in medieval England:
Peasant Customer: “Who’s that, then?”
Dead Collector: “I dunno. Must be a king.”
Peasant Customer: “Why?”
Dead Collector: “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”*
As is often the case with a Monty Python sketch, there’s more going on in this scene than simple potty humor. The two shit-covered philosophers make a good point: one can identify Arthur by what he’s not. He’s not a filthy peasant, for one, and therefore (following a comic binary logic), he “must be a king.” In fact, the Dead Collector and his Customer employ a form of the medieval via negativa: the understanding of what something is by establishing what something is not a philosophy of negation. I believe that this important medieval theological tool can still be a useful pedagogical tool in the medieval classroom today, a via to link modem Arthurian cinema to medieval Arthurian literature.
Massey, Jeff Ph.D., ""What's Wrong with this Picture?": Teaching Arthuriana via the Via Negativa" (2005). Faculty Works: English. 7.