I have promised you I’d read and review this book when it came out, and here it is.
The Peasants’ Revolting Lives by Terry Deary
‘Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.’ – Benjamin Disraeli
Today we are aware of the habits, thoughts and feelings of the rich, because historians write about them endlessly. The poor are largely ignored and, as a result, their contributions to our modern world are forgotten.
Here, skilled raconteur TERRY DEARY takes us back through the centuries with a poignant but humorous look at how life treated the ordinary people who scratched out a living at the very bottom of society. Born into poverty, their world was one of foul food, terrible toilets, danger, disease and death – the last usually premature.
Wryly told tales of deprivation, exploitation, sickness, mortality, warfare and religious oppression all fill these pages. Discover the story of the teacher turned child-catcher who rounded up local waifs and strays before putting them to work. Read all about the agricultural workers who escaped the clutches of the Black Death only to be thwarted by lordly landowners. Follow as hundreds of children descend into the inky depths of hazardous coal mines.
On the flip side of this darkness, discover how cash-strapped citizens used animal droppings for house building, how sparrow’s brains were incorporated into aphrodisiacal brews, and how extra money was made by mixing tea with dried elder leaves. Courtship, marriage, sport, entertainment, education and, occasionally, achievement briefly illuminated the drudgery; these were the milestones that brought meaning to ordinary lives.
The oppressed and disempowered have lived on the very outskirts of recorded history, suffering, sacrificing and struggling to survive. The greatest insult is that they are forgotten; buried often with no gravestone to mark their passing and no history book to celebrate their efforts. Until now. The Peasants’ Revolting Lives explores and celebrates the lives of those who endured against the odds. From medieval miseries to the idiosyncrasies of being a twenty-first-century peasant, tragedy and comedy sit side by side in these tales of survival and endurance in the face of hardship.
About the author:
Terry Deary is an actor, TV presenter and author. He has written 325 books, both non-fiction and fiction, for children and adults. His famous Horrible Histories books have sold over 35 million copies in 45 languages since their launch in 1993 and have appeared as an award-winning television series, theatre tours and a movie. He has also written fifty professional plays, the TV series Terry Deary’s Twisted Tales and has designed museum exhibitions based on themes from his books. He was born in Sunderland in 1946 and as a young lad helped out in his father’s butcher’s shop, which he credits as having imbued him with a sound work ethic. The Peasants’ Revolting… Lives is his second book for adults for Pen & Sword, after The Peasants’ Revolting… Crimes (2019).
Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to read and review.
A while back I read and reviewed Deary’s book The Peasants’ Revolting Crimes (you can read my review here) and mentioned I was looking forward to this one as well. And it does not disappoint. Although Deary is better known for his books for children (the Horrible Histories series), his very personal style is also well suited to adults, and this book is proof of it. His sharp wit and strong opinions take no prisoners, and there is nobody sacred or spared when Deary starts dissecting the history and society of Britain since the Middle Ages (and many of his reflections reach the present as well).
This book is a companion of the previous one, although they can be read separately. As was the case with the previous book, Deary explains in the introduction that people tend to idealise past historical eras, based on the version of events traditional histories and historians have created, always centred on the lives of kings, nobles and the rich and powerful upper crust. As he observes, the lives of the top 1% (or whatever the equivalent percentage was in the different periods) have always been pleasant and exciting compared to that of the peasants, but in some historical periods, life for those at the bottom of society’s pyramid was ‘revolting’ to say the least. Tellingly, the subtitle of the book is ‘Stories of the worst of times lived by the underclasses of Britain’, and to make matters worse, the efforts and the hard work of those individuals are not acknowledged by official historical narratives. And, no matter how much humour Deary introduces in the book (and it’s quite dark at times), he is in earnest when he dedicates the book to them.
Deary follows a similar structure in this book, with an introduction, ten chapters that cover different general subject (the main topics discussed in each chapter follow a chronological order, but relevant, and sometimes less relevant, references to other eras are also included): work, entertainment, courtship, sickness, housing, religion, food, sport, warfare, and education, there is a very apt epilogue (comparing Lord Nelson to another naval hero, Jack Crawford, from Deary’s native Sunderland, a man of humble origins whom almost nobody knows about), and an index, for those looking for specific information.
Deary has a talent for finding the perfect quote, and although I was familiar with a few of the ones he uses, he manages to make them shine and finds some true gems totally new to me. He manages to create a clear picture of life in different historical periods without getting lost in lengthy descriptions and can turn little-known historical events into memorable nuggets of information in only a few words.
If the last book dealt with “crimes”, this time he focuses on life as it was for a large part of the population, picks up certain events like the peasants’ revolts (there have been many over the years, and although the protagonists have been different, the reasons behind them, and the consequences for the less powerful hardly change), but also talks about general subjects, like health, education, even housing (he has plenty of fun talking about the materials used in construction), football (it has often been banned; and it’s not surprising, to be honest), Ireland, children’s work, the police force… As I have said, this is a book for adults, and some of the content can be quite disturbing, so I don’t recommend it for those looking for a light and gentle read.
Despite the witticisms and the great quotes (and I have marked far too many to mention), this is a book intended as a sincere homage to those who are often left out of most conventional History texts. It is informative, entertaining, fun, and also poignant at times. Although the author’s style and his sense of humour might not suit everybody (I’d suggest readers try a sample to see how they like it before purchasing it), I recommend it to anybody interested in reading a different kind of British History (in particular, although much of the information would be relevant to European History in general), and are not looking for a fact and data-heavy academic tome, but rather for a memorable peek at those parts of the population often forgotten in official chronicles.
As Deary says:
‘The poor, the ignored and the forgotten, struggle to squeeze onto the shelves. Yet some of those peasants did something the ‘great’ and the good would have failed to do if their roles had been reversed. They survived.
You and I might not last a week in the world of a peasant. A week without our takeaways, our underfloor heating, our antibiotics…and, of course, our smartphones.
Just for a change, and just for a while, consider the life of the peasant rather than the life of a king or a conqueror.
You may be inspired by the courage and fortitude of our fellow humans.’
Thanks to Rosie and to the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and feel free to like, share, comment, click, and always remember to keep reading, reviewing, smiling, and to remain safe.