Horribly successful

A kids' history magazine that tells of 'monks chopped into chunks' is a surprise hit. Is this a good thing? Virginia Matthews reports

The torture, murder and warfare that characterises much of human history is proving to be an irresistible cocktail for the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings generation of children who until recently would have rated the past as about exciting as reheated sprouts.

From "Egyptian Mummy Mania" to "Big Daddy Henry and The Terrible Tudors", it is the proud boast of Horrible Histories magazine - the UK's top-selling partwork so far this year - that it revels in all the bits of history that teachers leave out.

While the filth, pestilence, starvation and routine sadism endured by our ancestors is indeed served up in all its gory glory, accompanied by an endless repertoire of corny jokes, the magazine is scrupulously true to factual events. Mindful of its credibility among the teaching profession, the publisher, Eaglemoss, employs a historian to check every single date and historical reference for accuracy.

Maggie Calmels, the company's editorial director, admits that although most teachers have been supportive, she has also received a substantial postbag of complaints about the crude sexing-up of past events. "Some teachers have complained that we are sensationalising or trivialising the great events of history, while skirting around the crucial religious and political undercurrents that caused them. Others have been horrified at all the jokes about executions and bloodshed or have intensely disliked the toilet humour."

Aimed at eight-to-12-year-olds of both sexes, but with a slight skew towards bloodthirsty boys, the fortnightly magazine takes readers on a blood-and-guts journey through major periods of history, from the Stone Age to the Second World War, by way of the Awesome Egyptians, Groovy Greeks and Monstrous Middle Ages.

Among the passages that have proved most enticing to the target audience of primary- and early-secondary-school children are vivid descriptions of "monks getting chopped into chunks" and a behind-the-scenes look at the Colosseum: "Days before the games, the lions were fed live slaves to give them a taste for human blood. The slaves had had their legs broken to stop them running away and their tongues cut out to stop them screaming. But hey, that's showbiz."

Although the series has its critics - "I believe that this sort of magazine cheapens and dumbs down what are highly significant historical events," says one London secondary-school history teacher - the populist treatment of the past earns praise from both the monthly magazine History Today and from the NUT, whose spokeswoman says, "Gore is an intrinsic part of history and if it grabs children's attention and gives them a feel for the past, then why not?".

While managing to convey what teachers may view as the more important historical elements of "The 'Orrible Ottomans" or "The Measly Middle Ages", the appeal of the magazine is in the detail of how people lived: what people ate ("rotten recipes"), what they wore or - critically for this age group - what they used for lavatories.

"Some people have disapproved of the toilet humour and the gore," says Calmels, "but humour is an essential element of the series that we use to help offset the more gruesome aspects of history. There's at least one joke alongside every beheading."

She adds: "Although children have various periods of history drummed into them at school, what many 11-year-olds lack is chronological understanding. Our timelines, which have been painstakingly produced, help young historians to distinguish their Aztecs from their Incas and will hopefully encourage children to pick out a time in history that interests them and then go and do more research for themselves in the library or on the internet."

Based on the top-selling books by Terry Deary, the £1.99 per issue magazine is written in child-friendly language, while the jolly illustrations by Martin Brown should offset any tendency to nightmares.

Horrible Histories has achieved a settled-down circulation of 200,000 per issue compared with the standard 50,000 to 80,000 sales figure for most partworks.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Ad Sales - UK Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: An award-winning global mul...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Vendor Services Manager (IT) - Central London

£50000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Vendor Services Manager (...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London