My kids know that Richard III was beaten by Henry VII in the War of the Roses, that Elagabalus was a cruel teenage Roman emperor, and that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas after signing to have King Charles I executed.
My kids aren’t history buffs: They are just as pleased to know that people in the Middle Ages washed their clothes in urine, William Wallace died having his guts ripped out and that, for fun, Roman Emperor Nero beat people up on their way home from work, stabbing them if they fought back. My kids’ eclectic historical knowledge is all thanks to an oddly comic and sometimes disgusting British book series, initially aimed at a children’s audience, called Horrible Histories, by Terry Deary.
The series, which includes dozens of paperbacks, began in 1993 as an alternative introduction to Western civilization. Titles in this wacky, weird and woeful collection include Awful Egyptians, Terrible Tudors, Measly Middle Ages, Savage Stone Age and Rotten Romans. Each includes short historical sketches with little-known and often gory details, foul facts, and answers questions such as: What did Roman soldiers wear under their kilts? Why did Egyptians worship dung beetles? And why did rich Romans need a vomitorium?
The history is definitely entry level, but it’s surprisingly accurate and intelligent. More than other kid’s books on the shelf, these compendiums absolutely refuse to dumb down any of the historical knowledge, leading readers to want to know more. My kids liked a spoof of Richard III so much that they then watched a documentary about the 15th century king, who last year was discovered buried under a London parking lot.
Although Horrible Histories is a sensation in Britain, our family recently discovered this series by watching the resulting spin-off TV series produced by the BBC. The show just wrapped up its fifth and final season. Producers realized early on that, like crossover fiction such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, Horrible Histories books and films were appealing to all ages. In fact, songs from the comedy shows have gone on to become YouTube sensations — gaining as many as two million hits.
So if you’ve decided that you’re going to better yourself this New Year by learning more history, you could do worse than beginning with Horrible Histories. I’m currently reading The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, and have to admit that a good amount of the information about the Roman occupation I already knew from Horrible Histories. If nothing else, Horrible Histories will certainly help you appreciate the world we live in today.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.