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Saturday Silliness: Supreme Executive Power

November 2, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Annoying Peasant

“Help! Help! I’m Being Repressed!!!”

So with all this talk going around of government overreach, incompetence, and The Imperial Presidency, I couldn’t help but think of the annoying peasant scene from Monthy Python and The Holy Grail. If you haven’t seen the film then it’s basically…

Actually…nevermind. If you’re one of the mythical beings who hasn’t seen it, just go fix that, it’s important! And don’t come back until you know every word by heart!


Though it’s meant as a silly satire of the over-zealous know-it-all political activist, it illustrates a few interesting historical points.

First, it’s a brilliant example of the “emperor has no clothes” dynamic, where even the lowest peasant knows that the heroic myths used to sell the legitimacy of kings are complete nonsense. For those enamored with “The Arthur Legend”, this doesn’t take glory out of the story itself, but it’s important to remember its symbolism is just that- a literary symbol, something which represents a certain set of values at a given point in time. This should be especially humbling for most European nations, whose sense of national identity and “place in history” usually arise from very tenuous and mythical origins.

Second, it plays into a new view of “The Middle Ages” that says, contrary to what most people believe, perhaps medieval monarchs did not exercise quite the absolute authority we always thought they had. We should remember that before the printing press, the telephone, and the internet, communication and control over that communication was a lot different than the kind we live with today. I certainly don’t think we should ever wish to go back to the 11th Century, but we would do well not to exaggerate the control kings, lords, and clergymen had over their populations.

Besides, if you’re living in the English countryside, with no connections to London by rail, telegraph, or even paved roads, what’s stopping you from forming that “anarcho-syndicalist commune”?

In many ways, the period of time we call “The Dark Ages” were really not as dark as we used to think. Labeling the time between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance “The Dark Ages” serves a useful teleological purpose for those looking to aggrandize themselves in our modern age, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. For more on this, I’d recommend this episode of Crash Course. For A LOT more on this, you should check out historian Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome.

And even though I’m not an anarchist myself, it’s true there is quite a lot of violence inherent in the systems we employ today to govern ourselves, one more important point which may be lost to some viewers.

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