Monday 1 April 2013


I'm a great fan of Horrible Histories on the tele. There are many, many books of course, and like most things the books came first. I haven't read all that many of the books. I read Gorgeous Georgians last year and loved it. As more research for my upcoming Continental Grand Tour I've just read France, even though I was more than slightly outraged at Terry Deary's recent comments about libraries

I didn't love France as much as Gorgeous Georgians. Perhaps it was familiarity with content to some extent. I found the early parts about France in the Dark and Middle Ages to be quite confusing. Of course Horrible Histories doesn't always try and present a cogent, linear narrative of history- they are too busy chronicling the terrible, grisly deaths of many of our forebears. And that's ok to get kids interested and reading history- which is what the series has achieved, but if you are trying to understand the history not just find an assortment of gross facts then it may not be what you are after.

Still, I think it did put the French Revolution in some context for me. Even though I studied the French Revolution in my own personal Dark Ages of High School, I'm not sure that I remember all that much from those studies. Of course I've learnt some things as an adult which helps. France helped me realise that in the 1000 years leading up to the revolution of 1789 the French people had lead a very marginal existence with poor diets, too many taxes, and often being killed in droves by soldiers. Rich kings and starving peasants had been the norm for centuries. There were flour wars in 1775. Which perhaps helps explain the rather extreme laws regarding bakeries to this day in France- bakeries are regulated so that they can't all be closed in a particular area, they are also given a schedule as to when they can close for holidays.

France did of course also present many interesting facts. Here are some of my favourites. 

In the Middle Ages the French made a sport of catching young swans.

Joan of Arc didn't defeat the English, but she united the French, and the English never recovered from the defeats they suffered at her army's hands. 

Charles VI (1368- 1422) really was quite mad, among other things he imagined that he was made of glass, and had steel rods put into his clothes so he wouldn't shatter if he fell over. At one time he was treated with 250 oranges, and apparently this cured him for a while. I've come across fascinating snippets about Charles before. I must find out more about him. 

Francis I (1494-1547) was quite the patron of the arts. He acquired the Mona Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci. France claims that he hung it in his bathroom. I'd forgotten about the Leonardo- France connection despite accidentally finding an exhibition about him when we toured the Loire in 1998, and having walked the double helix staircase at Chambord that is attributed to him. 

Marie de Medici wore the most expensive dress in history. Worth 10 million pounds today, it had 3,000 diamonds and 39,000 pearls. She wore it once.

Picture source
I imagine that it was this one, her coronation dress, worn on 13 May 1610 at St Denis (I'll be going there!). What a week that must have been. Crowned Queen of France one day. Her husband assassinated the next day, and she then became regent until her eldest son Louis XIII came of age. 

France banned tobacco sales in 1635! Seems it's true

Louis XIV adopted wigs because he was bald, and heels because he was short. 

The French helped the American people to rebel against the English. 

Louis XVI helped advise Dr Joseph Guillotin with his terrible invention. Later Louis XVI's neck was too fat to be killed swiftly at the guillotine. This seems surprising as he had been imprisoned for some time before his death, and even if he had a fat neck I would have thought that a period of imprisonment would have corrected that. 

Napoleon sold off the land in the Louisiana Purchase to America in 1803 to raise money for a war against the British. Napoleon may have been killed by arsenic poisoning. 

Madame Tussaud was a real person (I had never thought about that) who made wax masks from the severed heads filling guillotine baskets. Her page on wiki is quite fascinating.

Somewhat controversially I think France claims that the Eiffel Tower was built for the 100th anniversary of the Revolution, and that her 289 metre height was in reference to the date of the revolution. Would Gustave Eiffel have designed his famous tower in metres in the 1880s? I can see that the 1889 World's Fair/ Exposition Universelle was held in France as a centenary event, but I'm just not sure about the height having any deeper meaning. Further research is required I think. 

Books on France, a great 2013 challenge from Emma at Words and Peace

Dreaming of France, a great Monday meme from Paulita at An Accidental Blog


Paulita said...

I think my kids used to read these books and you're right, the boys love the gory facts. It looks like you learned a lot of history. I always wish I knew more when I get there, especially when we're working back and forth between English and French. I feel like I miss so many details then. Thanks for playing along. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Joy said...

Fun facts! I'm looking for a good general history of France, but I think those won't be the one!

Joy's Book Blog

Esme said...

NOt sure if I would enjoy this one. I am loving Le Road Trip.

Sim Carter said...

That Madame Tussaud's bit is really fascinating; I can't wait to share it with my son. I'd love to see a film about her; the thought of seeing Tussaud traipsing among the corpses for heads is ghoulish but great cinema.

Louise said...

Paulita- it's almost impossible to know as much as we should. Or would like.

Joy- no I don't think it would be.

That's great to hear Esme, glad you're enjoying it.

Sim- I hadn't thought of the movie version! Not sure I'd be up for it.

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

In mid-January, I posted a photo of what looks like the King's matching regalia at St Denis.

I have made some poor retail purchases, but she takes the prize! she only wore it once?


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

New to me. How has Horrible Histories eluded me?

Louise said...

I don't know how you've missed it either Deb. I've done a few posts now, and created a tab you can check back on if you're interested. You should check out the tv series, all available on dvd here- kids love it- I do too.