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credibility among the teaching profession, the publisher, Eaglemoss, employs a historian to check every single date and historical reference for accuracy.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.