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Literature / Horrible Histories

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In 1993 Terry Deary came up with an idea to make history more interesting to get children to care. There are plenty of history books that tell you about castles, dates, politics, names, things and stuff.

Horrible Histories are full of battles, death, blood, guts, superstitions, gore, murders, comic panels and guts. Pretty successful all in all; not only are there a lot of books but they are quite accurate — not really detailed, but Hollywood History it ain't.

The series proved hugely influential during the nineties and zeros, unleashing a raft of spin-offs and ripoffs, including Horrible Science, Horrible Geography, America's Horrible Histories, note  Murderous Maths, Foul Football, The Knowledge,note  Dead Famous,note  What They Don't Tell You About..., and various other series of diminishing success.

The series has been adapted into an animated television series which ran from 2001-2002, a radio series and a live action version which finished airing its fifth and final series on Tuesday the 16th of July, 2013.

The list of the books is as follows.

The following entries are special editions which are significantly longer than usual:

  • Bloody Scotland (History of Scotland)
  • Cruel Kings and Mean Queens (The Kings and Queens of England, Britain, and the United Kingdom)
  • Dark Knights and Dingy Castles (The history of Knights and Castles)
  • England
  • France
  • Ireland
  • Rotten Rulers (Rulers in general)
  • Rowdy Revolutions (Revolutions)
  • The Twentieth (20th) Century (20th century)
  • The USA (The United States of America)
  • Wales (Wales)
  • The Wicked History of the World (Basic history of the world; printed in full colour in a large, annual-style format)
  • Wicked Words (The history of the English language)

The Polish publisher released several additional books, covering the history of Poland. These are only available in Polish:

  • Ci Sprytni Słowianie (The Clever Slavs)
  • Pokrętni Piastowie (Piast Dynasty)
  • Dynamiczna Dynastia Jagiellonów (Dynamic Jagiellon Dynasty)
  • Sakramencki Sarmatyzm (Bloody Sarmatism)
  • Atrakcyjni Królowie Elekcyjni (Sovereign Election Appeal - covers Polish elections and Polish Elective Monarchy)
  • Zagmatwane Zabory – (Invasive Embroilment - covers the Partitions of Poland)
  • Nieznośna Niepodległość (Vexing Independence - modern Poland)

Deary also wrote the book "Deadly Durham" outside of the main series. It took more of the format of a guidebook to the city of Durham.

The Books show examples of the following tropes:

  • The Abridged History: As it is more edutainment than pure parody, the history is usually pretty accurate (for when the relevant book was written), but still mixed in with pretty merciless jokes.
  • Alliterative Title: The overall series, and almost all of its subtitles.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: Mentioned in The Vicious Vikings. If a warrior was wounded, his comrades would feed him an onion porridge, and then sniff the wound; if the wound smelt of onions, it meant his guts had been pierced and there was nothing they could do except pray to Odin for a swift journey to Valhalla.
  • Artistic License – History: Generally averted, however there are still a few mistakes in the books. Nothing major, generally stuff like widely-accepted historical "facts" that are actually historical legend. They expose a lot of these as well. They're like Snopes for history books sometimes.
    • Woeful Second World War claimed Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov invented the Molotov Cocktail; it was actually created by the Finnish repelling Soviet forces during the Winter War.
    • A number of books, most notably Measly Middle Ages, repeat the myth that most people got old by age 25 and died at age 35 or 40. One book takes this myth up to eleven by showing an illustration of a (supposedly) eleven-year-old kid who looks more like an eighty-year-old man than a sixth-grader of any kind. You'd be surprised at the plenty of people who lived to be well into their 70's and 80's at that time, even without modern medicine and whatnot.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: Wicked Words claimed that "telefung" is the Chinese word for "telephone". It is not.
  • Asshole Victim: On several occasions, Terry Deary makes out certain historical figures as Asshole Victims, but not until after he has already discussed their tragic fates.
  • Black Comedy: Oh yeah. The books are made entirely of Black Humor. See also What Do You Mean, It's for Kids?.
    "I say, I say; what did they do when the Forth Bridge collapsed?"
    "They built a fifth."
    • Or:
      In 1622 Turkish Sultan Osman was strangled by his own bodyguards. They led the rebels.
      Sultan Osman: "My own bodyguards ...Choke!"
      In India the mighty emperor Akbar died in 1605 - he was probably poisoned by his relatives. You couldn't trust anyone.
      Emperor Akbar: "My own family ...Ckkk!"
      In England in 1649 the English chopped King Charles I. It was his parliament who signed the death warrant.
      King Charles: "My own MPs ...Chop!"
    • Martin Brown even pulls off a dark joke about the Armenian Genocide in The Frightful First World War, illustrating it with an Armenian amid a pile of corpses asking "What did we do to deserve this?", and another replying, "We were here."
  • The Caligula: Beside the actual Caligula, there are many more examples in Rotten Rulers.
  • Child Hater: In Measly Middle Ages, during the section on the Black Death, we are treated to a Sinister Minister who claims that Kids Are Cruel and therefore deserve to die of the plague. Terry Deary proceeds to compare him to a Sadist Teacher with a skeletal face who shouts, "Do as I say or die!"
  • Creator Provincialism: Deary is from the North East and likes to put in references to historical anecdotes in that area. This is most noticeable in The Vile Victorians.
    • On a greater level, the books focus on the impact of their subject peoples on British history, if such an impact existed; perhaps the most notable example is Rotten Romans. Some years after he wrote that one, he did Ruthless Romans, which focused more on Rome itself rather than Roman Britain.
    • Additionally, simply from looking at the list of titles, it's clear that a large number of them deal with the history of Britain and the majority that don't instead deal with cultures that were covered in British schools during the 90's and early 00's.
  • Cruel Mercy: In one of the Horrible Histories books, Terry Deary writes an account of Lambert Simnel, a peasant boy who was chosen to be the figurehead of a rebellion against Henry VII because he resembled the Earl of Warwick. Henry crushed the rebellion and made Simnel one of his servants in a display of Pragmatic Villainy. In Deary's account, Simnel is left shellshocked by watching the rebels being slaughtered, and writes: 'Cruel Henry had the real Earl of Warwick put to death, but cruellest of all, he sentenced me to live'.
  • Dart Board Of Hate: One of the books features an illustration of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany/Prussia's leader in World War I, throwing darts at his grandmother Queen Victoria.
  • Death as Comedy: A given.
  • Dreadful Musician: One English king was murdered by a guy disguised as a minstrel. The accompanying image is two guards sitting near a fire saying "What happened to the minstrel wandering around earlier?" "Don't care, long as he's gone-worst singing I ever heard".
  • Eagleland: The USA shows the boorish flavour all the way. But seeing how Deary likes to pull any culture he happens to be focusing on to pieces (including his own), this is not surprising. And it's still rather unique to see a humorist children's book on the history of the USA to not be entirely Americentric.
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: In Gorgeous Georgians, Deary lists a variety of ways in which 18th-century county fairs would abuse animals in front of large crowds. Then, he goes on to describe "a player of bagpipes" as "cruelty to humans"!
  • Fascinating Eyebrow: This expression is very common whenever a historical figure does something odd in, whereupon another figure in the illustrations cocks an eyebrow up in the classic fascinating eyebrow style.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Deary made a nice list of men who tended to drop like flies while in the personal care of Mary Queen of Scots in Bloody Scotland.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: When Wicked Words claimed that in 1623 the English Parliament made it illegal to swear, a cartoon parodies this:
    Judge: I now sentence you to twenty years in prison.
    Defendant: Flippin' 'eck!
    Judge: Make that forty years.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Lampshaded and played straight in one scene. The bit about Richard III is all about how his usual portrayal is pure Tudor propaganda, but they unfairly accuse Shakespeare of being responsible when in fact he was only using existing, and biased, historical sources.
    • This is later addressed in the third series of the live-action show (in a song, interestingly enough). However, Shakespeare did make up the phrase "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse".
    • Even More Terrible Tudors does this to John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who served as Lord Protector during the reign of King Edward VI. While he was certainly a shady character who illegally interfered with the succession to keep Mary I out, there is no evidence that he deliberately poisoned Edward to get him to sign off on it, or that he ever had anyone killed, much less that he had a child murdered to cover up the date of Edward's death.
    • Edward VI himself is given this treatment in Cruel Kings and Queens, being painted as a cruel ruler because he ordered the execution of his uncle...because he was caught trying to sneak into his room with a gun after falling out of favour. In those circumstances it's not hard to see why he would be judged guilty of treason; there was a strong suspicion he was trying to kill the king.
    • Similarly, some of the evidence presented as to William the Conqueror's cruelty in The Stormin' Normans is that he went to war against his uncle and banished him from Normandy. What's not mentioned is that the uncle in question, William of Talou, had deserted from battle against an invasion of Normandy, renounced his oath of fealty to William and was threatening armed rebellion against his rule, all of which was grounds for casus belli.
  • Hitler Ate Sugar: As if playing the Hitler card regarding King Henry VIII (who had been deceased for nearly four centuries before Hitler rose to power) wasn't bad enough, Terry Deary also plays the Hitler card regarding the Neolithic perpetrators behind the Talheim Death Pit (which contained only 34 skeletons, a small percentage of the millions of civilians who were deported to concentration camps under Hitler), and Governor Edward Eyre of Jamaica (who, while brutal and repressive, is compared to Hitler purely because he had rebels shot). Oddly, Terry Deary doesn't think that smoking or animal abuse are okay even though Hitler also hated both.
  • Hope Spot: While The Woeful Second World War is possibly the darkest book in the series, it does use several examples to illustrate its thesis that war can bring out both the worst and the best in people, and that people ultimately have the choice of whether they want to be heroes/heroines or monsters but are mostly in between.
  • It Amused Me: The Ruthless Romans' introduction mentions that Aztecs conducted Human Sacrifices and the Spanish Inquisition tortured people but both believed they had good reasons to do so, whereas the Romans built arenas where gladiators fought to the death for entertainment.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Happens frequently. Lord Kelvin was quite good about this, believing that heavier-than-air flight was impossible and X-rays were probably a hoax (he changed his mind about the second one after he saw the evidence). In addition, Kelvin insisted that radio had no future in 1897 (he preferred to send messages by pony) and that it would take human beings two hundred years to land on the moon. Horrible Histories put it best when summarizing this kind of phenomenon, noting in the section about the predicted short lifespan of talking pictures that "Lord Kelvin was dead by then, so he was not able to tell us that talking films were impossible anyway."
    • The live-action TV series itself got this treatment when it won a National Television Award for Best Documentary Series. "I bet we all saw this coming", indeed.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: A consistent theme of the books is attempting to avert this trope. It gets explicitly criticised in a passage in The Frightful First World War, which notes all the flowers left at the Grantchester memorial for the local casualties of the war by poetry lovers in tribute to Rupert Brooke's death, and bluntly asks "Is that fair? What about the other brave men who died?".
  • Mirroring Factions: Many of the books present competing civilisations as this, claiming, for example, that the Incas and the Spanish were equally ruthless and nasty.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Woeful Second World War was much darker than the other books, with quite a few less humorous moments, and a lot of very grim, confronting stories. The parts on the Holocaust and Dresden, for example are completely devoid of any humor whatsoever, and are written in a very cold, confronting tone (unsurprising given the subject)
    • All the books' epilogues end on a considerably more downbeat note than the preceding text, describing how the civilization in question's achievements were all for naught in the long run, or how they essentially lived by the sword and died by the sword when more powerful civilizations came along. Usually there's some kind of Aesop directed towards the young reader.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: The books have a very sarcastic tone and don't shy away from criticizing the British army, royalty and colonial system throughout its historical track record of atrocities.
  • Noodle Implements: "Yay! Our gallant navy has captured the nasty Spaniards with only one small leaking boat, two men, one cannon, a pistol, a sharp stick and a sponge!"
  • Oh Wait, This Is My Grocery List: A cartoon in the Horrible Histories book of the 20th Century parodies the infamous "cranberry sauce" lyric of "Strawberry Fields Forever", with John Lennon reading "Cranberry sauce, strawberry jam, milk and a packet of biscuits. Wait, these aren't me lyrics...".
  • Perspective Flip: Quite common.
    • The Vikings and Normans are presented as the antagonists in The Smashing Saxons, but are treated more sympathetically and in detail in The Stormin' Normans and The Vicious Vikings.
    • The Christians are presented as courageous victims of Roman cruelty and oppression in The Ruthless Romans, but once they come into power they morph into the cruel colonial oppressors of The Barmy British Empire and The Incredible Incas (both of which outright state that native populations suffered much worse under colonial rule, tying into the bullies-become-the-bullied theme mentioned in the latter's introduction).
  • Precision F-Strike: The USA has two utterances of "son of a bitch" (in a childrens' history book, mind you), though in both cases the "i" either obscured or censored.
  • Pun: The series is rife with puns. Just to give you an idea, from the book Frightful First World War:
    • "Tanks!" "You're welcome."
    • "*Cough splutter*" "What's wrong?" "I'm a little horse."
    • "The French are bleeding us of every penny." "So it's sort of a Bled & Breakfast, huh?"
    • "Sweet..." "Sweet and sour..." "Sweet and sour fried lice."
    • "[Kaiser Wilhelm] especially liked to strip the barks off [trees]. So you could say he was barking mad."
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Would you believe, that in the very beginning of WWI, Zeppelins bombarded soldiers and towns with bricks and darts?
  • Royally Screwed Up: The main subject of Rotten Rulers.
    • Some of the horrible facts given are about dastardly rulers. The Roman Emperor Tiberius, for example, rubbed the skin off a fisherman's face with a fish—the very one that the fisherman had wanted to bring him as a present—and then proceeded to do the same again with a crab.
  • Running Gag:
    • "[gruesome historical fact]. You wouldn't [gruesome historical fact] to [your parent/teacher/friend] over [incredibly petty reason]? (Don't answer that!)"
    • "You can go see [gruesome historical artifact on display at place]... if you like that sort of thing."
  • Sadist Teacher: Deary must have had this as his main motivation when writing these books, mercilessly mocking the British schooling system, the teachers and the school dinners. You could even say It's Personal.
    "Yes, Caesarion was strangled by his own teacher. Would you believe it?"
    Frightened-looking scholar: "Er... yes."
    • From a section discussing claims that Hitler survived the war:
      "The truth is that he escaped to northern England and became a teacher. I know. He taught me."
  • Shaped Like Itself: As pointed out in The Frightful First World War, there is a WWI-era song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne where the lyrics are "We're here because we're here because we're here because...". This was a bit of Gallows Humour over the fact that most of the troops had no idea why they were there due to the incredibly complex arrangement of alliances and pacts that led to WWI.
  • Speech-Bubbles Interruption: In the book The Awful Egyptians, the narrator refers to the fact that at times, after great military victories, ancient Egyptians would gather the genitals from dead enemy soldiers and pile them up in public. In a caricature illustrating such a pile, a son says to his father, Look at this huge pile of That's enough, son!
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Another constant theme in the series, summarised in the introduction to The Incredible Incas which describes history as a succession of bullies who brutalise the weak, only to in turn be subjugated by bigger and nastier bullies.
  • Toilet Humour: Oh so much.
  • Truth in Television: These books aren't called non-fiction books for no reason.
  • War Is Hell: A consistent theme.
    In the Second World War it had become easier to kill someone when all you had to do was push a button and drop a bomb. You'd never see the suffering you caused. But the real horror of the war was that so many people were prepared to kill so many others in cold blood.
  • Warts and All: Its tagline is "History with all the nasty bits left in."