Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"The Horrible, Miserable Middle Ages"

                Some books never win an award.  Sometimes, when a book doesn’t win an award, readers across the country are shocked and dismayed that such an important work of literature has not been recognized for the contribution it has made to literary society.  Sometimes, when a book doesn’t win an award, no one is really surprised.  The book I am about to review has not won any awards.  I am not surprised.

   The Horrible, Miserable Middle Ages by Kathy Allen is an informational book about all of the gross things that went on between 476 and 1400 CE (Fine, I’ll use AD, like she does.  But I think it’s about time everyone started using the more appropriate BCE and CE. [Before the Common Era and Common Era])   Published in 2010, this book gives the reader a lot of information about the Middle Ages.  Aside from the timeline given on pages 4 and 5, there is no sense of a chronological passage through time in this story.  Instead, Kathy Allen gives us chapters (sections) about things like rotting teeth and plumbing in the Middle Ages.  The author gives the reader information such as, “The only things that smelled worse than peasants’ clothing in the Middle Ages were their dirty, rotting teeth”(p.8).  The entire 32-page book is filled with facts about how gross people across the globe were for a thousand years.

            I want to start with the good things that I see in this story, before I go into all of the things that are wrong with it.  I think that kids, especially boys, will be absolutely fascinated by these facts.  I can see this book being appropriate for upper-elementary, but more likely children in middle school will read this book.  I can just imagine a child coming up to me and saying, “Miss Weaver, did you know that ‘John the Fearless had a padded toilet seat.  The Duke’s poop dropped into a stone pit.  People can see it today—the pit that is, not the poop.’”  Boys love gross stuff, and this book will turn your stomach.  The other good thing that I see is that it shows children that nonfiction can have voice and be funny.  So much nonfiction is written in such a sterile way that it is good this author was able to have voice in her writing, as you can see in the line, “Records show that some people feel through bathroom floors into the filth below.  The smart ones knew to hold it until they got home”(p.16).  The two good things I see about this book, a sense of voice and fascinating facts, can be found in many other nonfiction books.  These two things do not do a good enough job of convincing me that this book is a great one for children.  There are simply too many other things wrong with this story.

            My biggest issue with this book is a sense of historical responsibility to the people of the past.  Researchers and historians have the job of making sure that we respectfully and accurately portray the people of the past.  When this is done well, children can see the continuity between the past and the present, and they can see how people in the past were a lot like them.  This story does none of that.  Instead, it makes fun of the people who lived in the Middle Ages.  On one page about food, Kath Allen states, “Meat was sometime eaten on trenchers.  These stale pieces of break soaked up grease and juices.  When the lords were done eating, they gave the trenchers to peasants.  For peasants, these soaked, stale pieces of bread were a real treat!”(p.12). I find this representation of peasants a joke. Literally.  It is like Kathy Allen is making fun of these smelly, gross people throughout the entire story.  So who were peasants, according to Kathy Allen?  They were people who waited around for the rich people to finish eating their food before they hungrily devoured the leftovers.

            I know that this is a book about all of the gross things that went on during the Middle Ages, and does not attempt to give a comprehensive picture of life during that time.  I’ve been seeing this book, as well as other books in the “Disgusting History” series, in my Scholastic book orders for a while.  Children are buying and reading these books.  But here’s the thing: what if this book that makes fun of people in the Middle Ages is the only book these children read about it?  They are going to grow up thinking that this was a time of gross people who are nothing like them.  This book has taken the humanity away from the humans of this time, and is treating an entire 1,000 years of civilization as a joke.

            As I mentioned above, Kathy Allen does have a sense of voice in this book.  I actually find that sense of voice, however, to be a detriment to the story.  Wherever I find examples of voice, I find it to be opinions that are simply rude.  The second and third sentences of the book read, “Some things in the Middle Ages were great.  But other things were filthy!”(p.6).  I could live with that, if she were to give examples of the some things were great and presented the reader with a more complete picture of this history.  She doesn’t do this, however: she just gives us 32 pages of how awful and smelly people were in the past.  The line about the only thing smelling worse than their clothing was their rotting teeth definitely leaves a picture in the reader’s mind.  It is not a good one.

            I also find the author’s lack of a real bibliography or author’s note equally disconcerting.  She offers a seriously gross and one-sided view of history, and then fails to give the reader an explanation or where she got her information.  Her bibliography has four resources.  I hate to say it, but I feel I could have done a better job of getting together a book about the Middle Ages. 
            This book may be funny and it may make boys laugh, but I would keep in mind the fact that it offers a very one-sided view of 1,000 years of humanity.  I would much rather help my children see how alike we all are, than poke fun of the ways that the world was different.

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