Review: Four Plays of Aeschylus by Aeschylus and E. D. A. Morshead

Title: Four Plays of Aeschylus

Author: Aeschylus

Translator: E. D. A. Morshead

Genre: Tragedy

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Public Domain Books

Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I’ve already written a review in Romanian for Prometheus Bound, it would have been strange if I didn’t write something about the entire volume that includes four of Aeschylus’ tragedies: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound.

What you need to know about Aeschylus is that he is one of the three emblematic figures of Greek tragedy along with Sophocles and Euripides. It is said that Aeschylus wrote around one hundred plays during his lifetime, but only seven survived the test of time, four of which I’ve mentioned above, while the other three form the Oresteia Trilogy. Aeschylus is also known for introducing the second actor on the stage. He gradually diminished the role of the chorus and he shifted the focus from the lyricism of the composition to the dialogue – an important change that gives the tragedy its dramatic characteristics we all recognize even today. For his artistic achievements, Aeschylus is also called the Father of Tragedy and he is praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics.

The Suppliant Maidens (Ἱκέτιδες) is the earliest play of Aeschylus’ that survived to the present day, but it is less known in contrast with his other works. I actually read this one last because the subject didn’t appeal to me that much and I found the play pretty mediocre in theme and ‘action’. The subject has its roots in Greek mythology and it is the story of Danaus’ daughters who flee from Egypt to Argos, in order to avoid their incestuous marriages to the sons of Aegyptus, who were their cousins. The maidens (escorted by their father) find shelter in Argos hoping not to be captured by their suitors. In order to help the newcomers, Pelasgus (the King of Argos) asks his people to vote and their decision is crucial for the maidens’ destinies. Though the other two parts of the trilogy are lost, there are some scarce references to what happens to the maidens in Prometheus Bound and in one of Horace’s Odes.

E. D. A. Moreshead wrote about The Persians (Πέρσαι) that it “was brought out in 472 B.C., eight years after the sea-fight of Salamis which it commemorates” (p. 5), a play that had a great significance for those who fought against the Persian Empire in the Battles of Termopilæ, Marathon, Salamis and Plataea. The Persians might be the second play of a trilogy “standing between the Phineus and the Glaucus” (Idem.), Phineus being a prophet like Tiresias, who foreshadowed the conflict that is depicted in The Persians. I won’t spoil your read, but I will only add that, through this play, Aeschylus sends a patriotic message to his fellow Athenians and he revives their past victories against the Persians or the triumph of civilisation against barbarism, as Ovidiu Drîmba writes in his study of the history of theatre.

The Seven Against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας) depicts the siege of Thebes along with the cruel fate of the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, who were cursed by their father, the late King Oedipus, for not taking care of their blind parent and for their selfishness and thirst for power. From my point of view, the most lyrical and heartbreaking parts of the play are those recited by the Chorus of Maidens, who depict the terrific battle scenes and address helpless and desperate prayers to the gods to protect the city and not let it fall into the hands of their enemy. The irony is that the name Thebes doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, but Cadmea or Cadmus. The one that gave the play the name we all know was actually Aristophanes, who referred to it in his comedy Frogs as “the Seven against Thebes, a drama instinct with War, which anyone who beheld must have yearned to be a warrior” (p. 6).

In Prometheus Bound (Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης), Titan Prometheus is punished by Zeus for creating the first humans, for stealing the Sacred Fire from Mt. Olympus and for giving it to the earthlings to start the process of civilisation. Though Prometheus is bound to a rock on Mt. Elbrus and Zeus uses various types of torture to make the titan repent, Prometheus stands tall and doesn’t have any reason to be ashamed or to apologize for what he has done. He has the power to predict the future and that future will not be a bright one for Mighty Zeus. Prometheus is not afraid of Zeus because he is immortal; therefore, all he has to do is to endure all the torture until his saviour will fulfil the prophecy. Unfortunately for us, the second and third plays of the Promethean trilogy are lost, but we can find out who the saviour is by reading the Greek myths.

Overall, the plays were very interesting, due to their unique structure and well-known characters from history and myths, but the language was pretty old and sometimes difficult to understand – a factor that made the reading too slow for my liking. I’m sure that I would have enjoyed this volume a little more if the writing had been a bit more modern, but this is a matter of taste.

 

Review: The Black Death and The Dancing Mania by Justus Friederich Karl Hecker

Title: The Black Death and The Dancing Mania

Author: Justus Friederich Karl Hecker

Translated by Benjamin Guy Babington

Genre: Non-Fiction. History, Medicine

First Published in 1832

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Published by Cassell & Co.

Rating 5/5 stars

Ever since I’ve heard about the Black Death and the Dancing Mania — in history class or in the Horrible Histories TV series — I wanted to understand better how they appeared, why, which were the symptoms of these odd diseases and how they died out.

The book I’m going to talk about today comprises of two studiesThe Black Death and The Dancing Mania — written by the German Professor of Medicine Justus Friederich Karl Hecker, also is considered the father of historical pathology. In these two works published in 1832, the  physician analyzes the main characteristics of the two pandemics, the causes which led the way to their spreading, the diseases viewed from the religious perspective, their various forms, the cures or procedures used by famous doctors of the Middle Ages and the way in which these diseases affected the human mind.

Even though Prof. Hecker doesn’t say anything about rats or fleas — which carried the plague from Asia to Europe and Africa — he gives an account of how the plague manifested itself in different countries of the world. Documents show that some people died from respiratory problems while others had blisters and buboes on their skin – located especially in the axilla and in the groin area – or other victims bled through the nose or other anatomical orifices. Through incisions and the opening of the buboes, some patients recovered, but these procedures took place towards the period when the epidemic began to decrease.

From a psychological and religious point of view, people saw the Black Death as a punishment sent from God, in order to make them pay for their sins. Medieval people, especially those from the lower ranks of the feudal system, were strong believers in supernatural phenomena because they were illiterate and poor, living in filth and ignorance. They were rude and their minds were subdued by the Church, which was very powerful. Meanwhile, the kings and noblemen lived in luxury and debauchery without caring too much for their subjects.

Due to the circumstances mentioned above, it is impossible to know the exact number of plague victims, but in the main European cities somewhere around ~10.000 and 100.000 people died. Because of this huge number of deaths, the deceased were randomly buried in large pits or in layers or even thrown into the river – such was the case in Avignon. Hecker writes that some plague victims were buried alive because of the general hysteria regarding the pandemic. Eventually, the pestilence died out and most of the towns and cities were depopulated or some were even abandoned because people had fled after the disease broke out, leaving behind sick children, parents, relatives and friends.

The Dancing Mania appeared in Western Europe and it probably had its roots in the human psyche. It might have been a negative mental response to the Black Death. During convulsions, the victims moved uncontrollably as in a dance, had hallucinations regarding religion, shouted and eventually fell with exhaustion or even dropped dead. People used to gather in public places to see the gruesome scenes and some of the spectators caught the mysterious dancing virus; therefore they joined the group affected by the disease. Priests began to perform exorcisms on the people possessed by the strange illness – known also as St. John’s Dance or St. Vitus’s dance – and that proved to be effective. The physician believes that the Dancing Mania might be an ‘ancestor’ of epilepsy, chorea and of hysteria. A particular branch of this unusual mania manifested itself in Italy — spreading from Apulia to the entire country — and it was called Tarantism, the cause of the illness being the bite of a tarantula.

In the last chapter, Professor Hecker reveals other lesser known mental disorders, convulsions and hysterical fits which alarmed people from certain communities during the seventeenth and nineteenth century. The examples the author gives show that women were most affected because: “Now every species of enthusiasm, every strong affection, very violent passion may lead to convulsions — to mental disorders — to a concussion of the nerves, from the sensorium to the very finest extremities of the spinal cord” (Page 127). It sounds a bit like hysteria, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m not a medical student to tell if Hecker was right or wrong about those mysterious diseases, but we mustn’t forget that the affected women usually belonged to the lower class. Who knows how hard and how many hours a day they were working and in what terrible conditions they lived?  In this chapter you will also find three awkward manias which resemble St. John’s Dance, fanatical sects, such as the Convulsionnaires in France and the Jumpers in Britain, religious ecstasy and the terrifying treatments of the convulsive people.

I will end this review here, hoping that it was an interesting read for you and I invite you to look through these two fascinating works of Justus Friederich Karl Hecker, if these subjects interest you

Review: The Real Midnight in Paris by Paul Brody

A History of the Expatriate Writers in Paris That Made Up the Lost Generation

Title: The Real Midnight in Paris

Subtitle: A History of the Expatriate Writers in Paris That Made Up the Lost Generation

Author: Paul Brody

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Literature, Literary Guide

First Published in 2012

Published by BookCaps Study Guides

Imprint: HistoryCaps

Rating: 4/5 stars

Several months ago I wrote a Romanian review for Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. Due to this amazing film and also to my fascination with the City of Lights, I bought a short literary guide in e-book format entitled The Real Midnight in Paris, written by Paul Brody.

The author explains who the expatriates were and why they settled in Paris after the Great War ended instead of returning to their homeland. “This group of young artists, most of them born between 1895 and 1900, would become known as the Lost Generation. In 1920s, Paris, they were all between 20 and 30 years old and eager to test the boundaries of life” (page 1). As the previous quote already suggests, these young people had a strong interest in arts, especially literature that brought them together as well as “the seismic shift in culture that signalled the painful birth of the Modern World” (Idem).

Perhaps, no one anticipated then that the First World War and the Second World War would change dramatically the way people used to live, their culture in general, politics, mentalities and so on. The Great War was also the first historical event where most of the men belonging to the middle class had to fight. We should mention here writers such as Ernest Hemingway or Wilfred Owen, who died in the line of duty. Thus, traumas, disillusions and frustrations linked to the war not only left their mark on the young survivors’ minds, but they also influenced and shaped the works they created.

Moreover, these intellectuals, who came from restrictive and conservative countries, saw Paris as the refuge they needed, due to the “climate of intellectual freedom and experimentation was unlike anywhere else in the Western world” (page 2). Because of this, thousands of American and European expatriates flocked to the City of Lights, where they could experiment, share and debate with other artists their outstanding ideas in the now famous literary salons, cafes and publishing houses. Besides the modernity and freedom for artists and their arts, Paris also reminded them of the Old World, with its charming boulevards and the ornate buildings of the 19th century, which became the cliché image of the Romantic Paris, which some of us love and others hate.

In the first two chapters, you will read about the historical background of the Great War, the post-war effects that led artists and writers like those who will establish the Avant-garde movement to move to Paris, the most important Salons, Cafes and Bookshops – such as Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare and Company and “Gertrude Stein’s Saturday evening salons” (page 13). In such gathering places, literature and art radically deviated from the traditional norms and principles thanks to the outburst of various movements we still recognise today: Cubism, Dadaism or Surrealism. Next, you will learn which historical factors put an end to the Lost Generation and then Paul Broody gives you some essential information about the Forerunners of the Lost Generation such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. Later on, in the chapter entitled Primary Representatives of the Lost Generation, you will read about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers and artists. The final factual chapter ends the study with the Critical Reception regarding the works of the Lost Generation.

Before I go, I must add that this study was pretty good. Some would say it is too short, but I think that, for a beginner, it is a guide that gives you a taste of the 20s and if you are longing for more, you have the seventh chapter where you can find enough titles for further reading, such as the works of the main writers of the Lost Generation. If you need to better understand this literary period, but don’t want to read too much, this guide may be the book for you.

Review: Wicked Words by Terry Deary

Title: Wicked Words

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown                

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

First Published: 1996

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2013

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories Special

Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I’m no stranger to the English language, I was still curious to read what Terry Deary had to say about it, the origins of some of its words and the great writers who influenced and changed its shape for ever. As you already know from the title, today I’m going to review Terry Deary’s Wicked Words, the third Horrible Histories book I’ve read this year.

In the Introduction, we are told that words are power and they can hurt as deep as a sword. But, In order to gain this power and learn how to use it, we have to read this book. So, the purpose of this short volume is to make the young readers be both accustomed to and entertained by the English language and its secrets. Before the timeline, there’s a chapter dedicated to prehistoric times, the first language humans spoke (which made the difference between our survival and extinction) and what archaeological findings reveal about this topic. The Horrible Histories timeline for the English language stretches from Rome’s rule over Britain to the 20th century. But it also includes Gutenberg’s printing press, two of the most influential English writers and Dr Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary.

The table of content of this book is arranged alphabetically and each letter comprises a chapter or two and an aspect of the English language. Personally, I would have preferred the chronological order because it was strange to read about Dickens before Shakespeare. But let’s move on. In this book, you will read about the history of the English language (divided into six brief parts), Anglo-Saxon literature, stylistic literary devices such as alliteration, great English writers and poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, William Caxton, words and their etymologies, euphemisms, slang words, swear words and many more. You will also find fragments from, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Vision of Piers Plawman, The Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol etc. However, but beware, the endings of these literary works are spoiled in this book; so skip those parts if you haven’t read them yet.

In the end, I think that this book is great for children who are interested in language and grammar because Terry Deary explains everything clearly and inserts jokes, games riddles and stories along the way. For me, on the other hand, this book didn’t have a lot of new information to offer because I already knew enough about the English language and its history. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of the football metaphor for the various invasions of Britain, but I guess it might work for younger readers. Overall, it was a nice read, so please give this book a try, if you or your kids are into languages and British humour.

Review: Maggie Elisabeth Harrington by D.J. Swykert

I Live in Two Worlds

Book 1 of Maggie Elisabeth Harrington

 

Title: Maggie Elisabeth Harrington

Subtitle: I Live in Two Worlds

Author: D.J. Swykert

Genre: Literary Fiction

First Published in 2013

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2016

Published by Magic MasterMinds LLC

Series: Maggie Elisabeth Harrington

Rating: 2/5 stars

In March, I received a message through the contact form from author D. J. Swykert, who informed me about his book entitled Maggie Elisabeth Harrington (a fictional story with a real person as its protagonist) and he was looking forward for reviews. I read a few pages from the first chapter and the story sounded like something I would be interested in. However, as I read the book, I began to enjoy it less and less until I had to push myself to finish it just because it was a short novel.

 Maggie Elisabeth Harrington is a thirteen-year-old girl living in a small mining town in upper Michigan, called Central Mine, with her stern father and grandmother. Maggie is a lonely and idealistic girl, but she also loves animals and ache suffers when someone harms them, whether those animals are the kittens her father drowns every summer or the mother-wolf shot for the bounty. Maggie hates the rules imposed by the Methodist Church or the moral standards set by society because she is a free-spirited girl who wants to live her life however she wants to, if possible with her crush, Tommie Stetter, the son of her father’s boss. Maggie is a very caring person, she longs for love and it hurts her to notice that her father doesn’t have any paternal feeling for her as if he hates her or considers her guilty for her mother’s premature death. Her grandmother doesn’t talk too much either, but, at least, she treats Maggie better than her father and she gives her chores to do inside and around the house.

Because of her feeling of helplessness, she has every summer when her father drowns the kittens, Maggie promises herself that when she will grow up, she will not tolerate cruelty to animals any longer and she will do something about it. The challenge she will have to face will be to save the wolf pups and take care of them without anyone knowing it with the exception of Tommie and his sister and Maggie’s best friend, Annie, who will give them shelter and scraps of food. “This is how a wolf pack came into my life. I do not know why God has given them to me to look after, but I am glad to have them. I am not feeling lonely anymore. My life is becoming full, the way I have always hoped it would be.” (Loc. 599)

Maggie has strong and modern opinions about religion too, which actually astonished me at first because her story takes place in the 1890s, in Victorian times. “I don’t understand why you have to make life so complicated when it’s really very easy. If you don’t harm anything, and don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, and you work real hard for the things you have, I don’t understand why you have to do all this praying and studying to get into heaven.” (Loc. 249) She also questions the very existence of God Himself, which is pretty hard to believe that a thirteen-year-old girl can think so maturely and profoundly. But Maggie’s qualities stop here.

I hate to say this, but Maggie’s voice becomes very annoying as the book progresses.  She has a few obsessive ideas in her mind and repeats them a lot. I think it wasn’t necessary for her to remind me in every single chapter one of the following thoughts that cross her mind:  she’s not sure if God exists or not, she loves Tommie and she thinks he’s very handsome, Annie is a very practical person, Maggie is angry with her father for drowning the kittens or she is afraid that someone wants to kill her wheels for the bounty. Though the book is not very long, I felt like I was reading an endlessly because the story drags on and on and it’s too explanatory, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination. If the story had been a little shorter (without every thought that crosses Maggie’s mind) and the other characters had been better fleshed out, I would have enjoyed this novel more than I did. It also had a lot of telling that made the reading experience even harder. However, what saved the book was the historical setting and the depiction of the harsh life the miners and their families had.

In short, if you are interested in how a teenage girl sees life, love, religion and the environment and if you enjoy character-driven stories set in the past, then give Maggie Elisabeth Harrington a try.

Review: Vile Victorians by Terry Deary

Title: Vile Victorians

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

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

First Published in 1994

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Of all the Horrible Histories books I own, I was mostly excited to read Vile Victorians because some of my favourite writers belong to this period and because the 19th century is fascinating to me. With these ideas in mind and with child-like anticipation, I picked up Terry Deary’s book hoping to learn new and disgusting things that happened during Queen Victoria’s reign.

 In the Introduction, Terry Deary writes that there are two kinds of histories: the horrible history and the glorious history. It really depends on the teacher if one chooses to relate the truth about that certain period or one is carried away by the great deeds of the remarkable people from the past. Also, the author warns the reader that this book is not suited for sensitive persons; therefore: “If you have a weak stomach then don’t read it or, if you have to read it, then read it with your eyes closed.” (Loc. 27) Now, this is the funniest disclaimer I’ve ever read. However, I think that such a warning would have been necessary before the first chapter of Horrible Histories Gruesome Guide: London too because that book really grossed me out.

The Vile Victorians’ timeline stretches from Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 to her death in 1902 and the author highlights the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of this historical era. In this book, you will read about: Queen Victoria, Victorian childhood and its hardships, Victorian schools, games, Victorian literature, aspects of Victorian life (towns, work and funerals), strange food, Victorian army, villains and so on.

Although I was very excited to read this book, it didn’t impress me as much as I’ve expected to because I already knew some of the information about Victorian Britain from the Horrible Histories TV show I watched a few years ago. Indeed, there are a lot of shocking facts that you probably didn’t know and some are very hard to believe, but if you read at least one of Charles Dickens’s novels, you will notice how hard life was for the poor and for the children living in London and in other parts of Britain. Small kids were forced to work in warehouses or in mines for many hours, putting their health at risk and their lives in danger for very few money. On the other hand, Victorian schools weren’t any better either, because teachers were very harsh and the pupils were usually punished for insignificant reasons. Another topic I’ve found both interesting and sad was the way girls were selected to become maids in the Victorian household and the schedule a maid had from the moment she was awake to her bedtime.

Besides Terry Deary’s jovial and witty style, I enjoyed the way he mocks writers playwright and poet for the excessive melodrama found in their works and he also gives some examples, including a small excerpt from Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop. There are also a few stories that will break your heart and question the sanity of adults and human nature in general.

In the end, Terry Deary concludes that the Victorian age wasn’t overall that bad because Britain had electricity and cars at the turn of the century. The author believes that the following quote from A Tale of Two Cities would have described Victorian Britain perfectly, not only France and its tumultuous Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”(Loc. 1300)

Review: London by Terry Deary

Title: London

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown                 

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

First Published: 2005

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories Gruesome Guides

Rating: 4/5 stars

The first time I’ve begun reading a few pages from Horrible Histories Gruesome Guides: London was some years ago before visiting Britain’s capital. However, when I came back, other books caught my attention, so I left it unfinished for a while. In March I finally picked it up again feeling determined to finish it.

In the introduction, Terry Deary puts side by side two testimonials of two priests regarding the London of 1190, which are complete opposites. What does that tell us about history? It is never accurate because everyone sees the world through one’s perspective. In order to understand how people really lived in London throughout the centuries, “this book will only tell you the horrible bits of London’s history –about the bad, not the brave, the horrible, not the happy, the dreadful, disgusting and dirty, not the dear, drippy and delightful.” (Loc. 40-41)

And this book was gruesome indeed with a timeline that stretches from Ancient times to the Victorian era. You will read about legends linked to London and its history, interesting facts about The Tower of London, how horrible people treated animals for their entertainment in the Middle Ages and not only then, criminals and executions, ten dangerous and dirty jobs in London, stories about abused children and forced labour, some bits of information about some iconic buildings in London London’s underground and so on. Every time period has something interesting or disgusting to reveal. Besides the funny illustrations made by Martin Brown, there’s also a map of historical London at the end of the book.

Though the Horrible Histories books are usually very whimsical and you learn new thing while having fun, taking tests and laughing out loud at the jokes the author cracks, this time I think that the gruesomeness surpassed the humour because the animal beatings and fights, the stories about criminals and executions and those about child abuse, filth and disease made my stomach turn. However, I understand the purpose of this book. Usually, we learn at school about the bright side of history and about the brave or brilliant people who changed the world; but there’s also a darker or filthier side of history that is more appealing to us because it revolves around the ordinary people – the sick, the orphan the illiterate and the poor.

What do you think about this book? Have you read it? Leave your answers below.

Review: Terrible Tudors by Terry Deary

Title: Terrible Tudors

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

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

First Published in 1993

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 5/5 stars

Through Terrible Tudors, I entered Terry Deary‘s world and, to this day, this book is still the one I enjoyed the most. However, I’m sure there are many Horrible Histories volumes that await to be read and reviewed and I bet those will be as fascinating as the one I’m going to talk about here.

The Terrible Tudor timeline stretches from the end of The War of the Roses to the last day Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Besides the Tudor dynasty, you will read about life and death in Tudor times including awful doctors and remedies that didn’t work, school and rules, crime, thieves’ slang and punishments, “terrible Shakespeare” (this is how Terry Deary gratulates the English bard), theatre, the mystery of Christopher Marlowe‘s sudden disappearance, witches and superstitions, strange food and endless banquets, Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada, life for women and so on.

Before revealing an interesting aspect I found in the chapter entitled Terrible Shakespeare, I cannot restrain myself from writing some peculiar facts about Queen Elizabeth I (or Gloriana, a term my headmaster taught me in high school). The English Sovereign was very ugly, had very bad teeth, a quick-temper and bathed only four times a year.  Are you surprised in a bad way? Oh, but her majesty was cleaner than King Louis XIV, who took only three baths per year.

Now let’s leave the filth behind – there’s a lot of that in Tudor England anyway – and return to Shakespeare. I won’t bore you with Shakespearean insults because you might already know some of them from the multitude of articles found on the internet about this subject, but I’m sure that you haven’t heard of Shakespeare’s curse. Yes, King Tut is not alone when it comes to curses. Some people speculate that plays unknown to us might be buried along with Shakespeare’s body, but nobody had the courage to open the tomb and put the curse to the test. Have I stirred your interest a little?  Here is the epitaph the bard wrote himself:

“BLEST BE THE MAN THAT SPARES THESE STONES
AND CURST BE HE THAT MOVES MY BONES
” (Loc.665)

In the end, Terry Deary asks the reader if one wants to live in Tudor times. Are we thankful that we live in a different and better era or do we agree with the history books that the Tudor period was the “Golden Age of Good Queen Bess and Jolly Old Henry VIII?” (Loc. 1540)

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.