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The Horrible Histories series is a favourite with both schools and Home Educators, but Terry Deary never intended his books to be used in education. He originally set out to write a joke book, based on a historical subject, but freed from the constraints of school - he discovered what so many of us have also found - history really is fun. Instead of a joke book with a bit of history, Deary ended up with a history book - with quite a lot of jokes. But these books were never intended as educational texts, they were written to entertain, and his Horrible Histories - Measly Middle Ages does just that, it entertains both children and adults. It is difficult to read any of Deary's books without learning something, but learning is incidental - the fun comes first.
The Measly Middle Ages begins in 1066 with the invasion of the Nutty Norman Knights and ends in 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered America and the age of exploration begins. There is a very useful timeline at the front which takes a slightly more serious tone than the rest of the book - but only just. The rest of the book is written in Deary's unique anti-establishment style with plenty of gruesome facts, jokes and of course urine and excrement.
This book is recommended for ages 9 -12, but I feel it suits a much larger age group form ages 7- to adult. My sons really enjoyed the more disgusting facts, such as washing clothes in aged pee and the thought of bare bums sticking out over the Thames dropping wee surprises for boats passing underneath. They also had a laugh at lying monarchs and gullible leaders of peasant uprisings, cruel though it may be, and some of the cartoon illustrations. In all honesty they did not enjoy the book as much as the DVD, which is almost all crude jokes, but they did have fun reading this, and that is the real point of this series to keep reading fun. I'm sure my oldest son will remember some of the history involved, and I think children learn far more when they are having fun, but for the most part this book is a collection of short funny stories, which just happen to involve history. My sons do like the fact that the stories are true though. It is the fact that people really did these things that makes it funny.
I can't imagine that I would have ever picked a Horrible Histories book if I did not have children, but there is actually quite a lot in this book to interest adults as well. While the role of the average woman in the Middle Ages was far from marvelous, Deary has written about some women who went completely against the norms of the time, becoming pirates, warriors, and skilled negotiators. I have to admit I enjoyed this as much as the children. Some of the other subjects covered include: The Norman invasion, peasants revolts, the black death, medieval medicine, The Angevins, The Lancastrians, food (best not read at tea time), religion, and the lives of women and children. I especially like Deary's joking about Magna Carta, which will make the meaning of this charter very clear and easy to remember.
There are some parts of this book that cast schools, teachers and most especially school dinners in a negative light. While some parents have objected to this, the children find it further cause for amusement, and one does have to remember that Deary has go at all forms of establishment. He also compares the churches of the times to robbers - but his comments are all very true. This series is intended only for those with a sense of humour, and having corresponded with the author myself, I am quite certain that he really doesn't care if he offends those without much humour.
This book does not require any previous knowledge of history. It is written is such a way that a child who has never heard of the Middle Ages can enjoy this every bit as much as an adult with a serious interest in history. And as an adult with a passion for history, I found the book entertaining and amusing, but I also found that I learned a few facts as well. If you believe history was really meant to be a fun and entertaining subject, I would highly recommend this book, regardless of age.
* This review first appeared on The Bookbag. My thanks to scholastic for providing me a review copy.
Please note, the picture above depicts the older, out of print copy of this book. While I am usually all for saving a few quid by buying used books, in this case I really would recommend splashing out for the newest edition with the rat on the front and 20 Horrible Years logo. The older versions had 144 pages while the new edition has 240. There has been no additional text added, but the text is now larger, and better spaced making it easier for young readers, and especially those with any reading difficulties. Some extra illustrations have been added as well. New copies of this book sell for £5.59 on Amazon. Used copies start at £4.51. The older, out of print edition can be picked up from £1.97 used, including postage direct from Amazon.
I've really gotten into the Horrible Histories series lately - ever since picking up my first book from the series at a charity shop- mainly for my daughter, but I had to read it with her, and I got really into them.
I've been lucky enough recently to visit a charity shop and buy a whole load of the series for 29p each, as well as some of the 'Horrible Science' and 'Horrible Geography' series - which are written in a similar style but with a completely different author and illustrator .
This series, Horrible Histories, is written by Terry Deary, who has written some 200 books, and illustrated by Martin Brown .
The cover has the Horrible Histories logo printed in red in a cream box, below which is another cream coloured box with 'The Measly Middle Ages' written in green in a nice old fashioned text, the 'M' in measly illustrated in the artistic style you'll see in many manuscripts of the time. There is an ilustration of a jokey little cartoon, with a man looking a bit ill and stating 'I feel like black death warmed up' while some women, clearly well to do, look on in horror.
Well, as you can tell, the book covers the Middle Ages, a period not rigidly defined by historians, but which, for the purposes of this book, covers the period between 410 AD and 1492 AD . Quite a long period there, over 1000 years . Like the other books in the series, it presents the well known facts briefly - kings, major battles, big events - and then spends a lot more time on the more interesting and more gruesome things . How did people live ? How did they die? What did they eat ?
I read this together with my daughter, and we enjoyed it very much- My daughter is six, while I expect the book is probably aimed at children of about 8 or 9 if reading alone . She learned a fair bit I think, and found some sections amusing or shocking - in fact, one of the things that tickled me the most was that housewives would collect the families urine, let it stew in a bucket til it was good and strong, and then use it almost as a bleach in their washing . Think I'm taking the P? Thats nothing - boys boarding schools used to collect all the urine from their students and sell it to local tanneries, where it was used in the production of leather!
The text is a comfortable size for a child to read, although it frequently changes fonts, occasionally resembling scrawled handwriting . The information is presented in easy bite size chunks, and broken up with cartoons, jokes, poems, and the occasional recipe . There are sections on table manners of the time, as well as examples of the rules monks lived by .
All in all, I found this book very enjoyable . I consider myself fairly clued up on history, but there were things here I didn't know . I would heartily recommend these books to anyone with a child with an interest in history, or even to adults as a fun little read . The cover price is 4.99, although you can buy it cheaper on amazon, or keep an eye out for books in the series in charity shops .