Medieval Coconuts

I was pleased to read this article by my friend Kathleen Kennedy, on The Mary Sue:

Coconuts in Medieval England Weren’t as Rare as Monty Python and the Holy Grail Made You Think

Allow us to get medieval on you.

Forty years old this year, the coconut sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be one of the most iconic opening scenes in film history. The pillar of chivalry, Arthur, King of the Britons, appears riding an imaginary horse like a child on a playground. His faithful servant, Patsy, accompanies him, banging two coconut halves together to make the sound of the horse’s hooves. Arthur and Patsy are very, very serious about their quest. They are the only ones who are.

The whole scene concentrates on those coconuts. The put-upon straight-man of the film, Arthur, gamely tries to explain the existence of coconuts in medieval England (“they could have been carried”). The grail remains all but forgotten as the guards on the castle walls uproariously tear down his explanations. (“Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate?”)

The coconut sketch unpacks the work of comedy. Comedy points out what can’t be commented on, the unspoken, and even the unspeakable. The Emperor’s nakedness is eternally comedic. Monty Python’s coconuts are horses, except that they absolutely are not horses, but coconuts. Worse, they’re coconuts, but coconuts cannot exist in Arthur’s medieval England.

These impossible coconut-horses literally echo throughout the movie, and so does the sketch, as before he is forced to examine a witch, Sir Bedevere attempts to fly a coconut-laden swallow. Audiences are left in stitches and thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of coconuts existing in medieval England.

Except medieval England was lousy with coconuts. No, really, and Monty Python may well have known it.

They’re Oxbridge men, after all, and several Oxford and Cambridge colleges still preserve coconuts given to them in the fifteenth century. Here’s a fifteenth-century coconut cup that came to Oxford more recently. While parts of it were added more recently, the original elements are medieval. This is the only medieval English coconut cup currently displayed online, and it shows how the shell was strapped into a goblet form using a harness of silver or gold. The English continued to make coconut cups after the medieval period—in the sixteenth century, seventeenth century, and beyond. They were numerous enough that by the fifteenth century, individual households might boast several coconut cups. One humble esquire highlighted the prestige of these cups when he willed his coconut cup to his heir in tail male, just like the Bennett estate in Pride and Prejudice or the Crawley estate in Downton Abbey.

More at the link.