Review: Measly Middle Ages by Terry Deary

Title: Measly Middle Ages

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

Genre: Nonfiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published in 1990

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 5/5 stars

I guess you already know from my previous review that Terry Deary is one of my favourite authors because he knows how to retell history in a laid-back and funny way.  Now I’m going to talk about a historical period that began to interest me since I have learnt about Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in my English Medieval Literature class. Though Romantic writers tried to reinvent and paint the Dark Ages in pinkish shades, it’s pretty hard for me to understand how come courtesy, beautiful love poems and songs could live side by side with religious dogmatism and lack of basic hygiene, two causes that triggered the plague and many other bizarre diseases.

According to Measly Middle Ages timeline, one of the most despotic, bloodthirsty and ignorant historical periods, from my point of view, stretches from post-Roman England to the time of Alfred the Great, the Norman Conquest, the Angevin rule, The War of the Roses, to Christopher Columbus‘ discovery.

In this book, you can find out how people lived in the Middle Ages, how women and children were treated, what rules they had to obey, what kind of clothes and accessories people wore and how monks lived. You will also read about the Norman Conquest and the feudal rule, the Angevin Dynasty, the Black Death and inefficient medieval remedies, odd facts about food and drinks and so on.

If you wonder which chapter I found the most interesting and intriguing, the answer is Rotten Religion. In the Middle Ages, people’s ignorance and naivety were exploited by monks and priests, who forged all sorts of holy relics and other items which apparently cured any illness. For example, “Saint Apollonia is the patron of toothache, thus she could cure your tortured tootsie-peg. (…) Hundred of monasteries had a tooth from her mouth. Big mouth? No, simply another miracle, the monks explained. Henry VI of England collected a ton of them” (Loc. 908-911).

If we think about Medieval schools, the monks and priests were the only teachers of the time. Life in the countryside, as well as in towns, was very hard, therefore, many small boys and girls were sent by their parents to join the church as monks and nuns. Here, the author reveals the letter of a boy, who has been studying in a monastery and the way he describes his daily routine: harsh discipline, an exhausting schedule not fit for a child no older than 8 or 9, firm teachers, scarce food, fasting, praying and a lot of Bible reading. I don’t know about you, but when I read this letter, it occurred to me that Medieval school is as bad as Victorian school.

Towards the end of the book, Terry Deary writes that in Tudor times life began to be slightly better and people believed that the crude and Measly Middle Ages seemed very far away; however, if we look through the newspapers of our day, we may notice that those horrible times have not ended completely just yet.


Review: Savage Stone Age by Terry Deary

Title: Savage Stone Age

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published in 1999

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2008

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 4/5 stars

Do you remember those days when you were in class and your history teacher overwhelmed you with more than a dozen crucial events and important dates? I guess everybody experienced that feeling of boredom at least once in their lifetime, along with the natural question: “Is history all that plain and difficult to like?

The answer is “no” because history – as well as any other school subject – has its dirty secrets and gruesome facts, which, unfortunately, are not taught because of their inappropriateness or doubtful existence. However, you can find a pleasant alternative to the multitude of documentaries and various articles you might find on the Internet; that alternative is British writer’s Terry Deary series of books Horrible Histories, a more terrible, measly, slimy, vile and funny approach to history, seasoned with jokes, irony and British humour.

The collection is made out of small books – almost 150 pages each – which usually give extraordinary and peculiar information about famous English monarchs and common people who lived in a certain time and space. Besides the history of England, which begins with Cut-Throat Celts and ends with The 20th Century, the author also published Savage Stone Age, Rotten Romans, Groovy Greeks, Awful Egyptians, Incredible Incas, Angry Aztecs, Horrible Histories Special: France, Horrible Histories Special: USA, Pirates and so on.

A few years ago I accidentally discovered the BBC adaptation of Terry Deary’s books entitled also Horrible Histories on Youtube, but only in late 2013, it occurred to me that I should read one of his books. At first, I didn’t know what to expect, but after reading three of his books, I must confess that Terry Deary became one of my favourite writers. Why? Because of the things mentioned above and many more.

The first book I’m going to talk about is Savage Stone Age and is actually the third one I’ve read, but its special subject forces me to put it in the top of the list. Throughout this book you will read about the timeline of human evolution and the three prehistoric periods of mankind (in a brief introductory chapter), how Stone Agers lived, the animals they hunted till becoming extinct. We will also learn more about the food they ate, how they cooked it, about their weird beliefs and gruesome burials, about brainy archaeologists, treasure hunters, accidental discoveries, stone circles legends and mysteries (including many fascinating facts about Stonehenge) and many other curious facts which won’t let you put the book or reading device down.

I don’t want to spoil your read, in case you plan to go through this book, but I will give you a tiny hint. For example, in the chapter Rotten Rituals, among many bizarre and pretty horrible funeral rituals, you will find out that there are many stone circles spread across Britain and their presence brings luck and good energies. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly what they were made for. Tradition says that if a girl wanted to know who will be her future husband, she had to travel to Arthur’s Stone (at Gower near Swansea, Wales), “wait until midnight when the moon is full and put cakes, milk and honey on the ancient stone. Crawl around the stone on your hands and knees and if the vision of your lover appears, then you will marry him. If not, then he’s probably too busy watching telly.” (Loc. 969-970)

There are also some little tests, through which Terry Deary challenges you to remember what you have learnt about the Stone Age Period. But don’t worry if you get the answers wrong, because you are doing it just for fun. For instance, there’s a test where the author asks you a few questions about the way Stone Agers lived and you have to choose the correct answer. If you get all the answers right, then you are a modern human being. If you get fewer answers right, depending on the number of wrong answers, you are a Neanderthal, chimpanzee or less than that.

Before ending this review, I must tell you that, although Savage Stone Age is a book for children, it helped me understand better my anthropology class and those history lessons from my childhood. Through the jokes and anecdotes inserted between the lines, the author reminds us that history can be child’s play and its main role is to captivate the audience because history also means story.