Having fun with history – a look at Stephen Clarke’s “1000 Years Of Annoying The French”

As some of you may know, one of my many interests is history. In fact, I did quite a bit of history at university and am a trained high school history teacher (and English teacher). There are a lot of great history books out there, and while I do enjoy reading conventional history books, I also enjoy fun history books, which just present the content in a more entertaining manner, or perhaps poke fun at the history they are exploring.

One book which does this really well is 1000 Years Of Annoying The French by Stephen Clarke. This is a cheeky look at the last millennium, and how the relationship between the English and the French has changed through all those years, through all the wars between Britain and France, or, as the book states, when they “were at least glowering at each other across what we Brits provocatively call the English Channel.” Centuries of historical “facts” are questioned, with varying evidence against the commonly held beliefs – some of these include the Battle of Hastings, whether the Brits were really responsible for the death of Joan of Arc, whether the guillotine was a French invention, and one of the most controversial and surprising – was Champagne really a French invention?

Many of these historical insults are hilarious but remain light-hearted, and certainly shouldn’t be offensive to anybody with a sense of humour and open mind. Some of these arguments are perhaps based on technicalities more than anything, but it is still a highly entertaining read, and with 28 “facts” examined over 600 pages, there is plenty here to keep you occupied for a long time.

I have perhaps pointed this out before, but I like books like this which present history in a different light for two reasons. Firstly, they make it more interesting, and help it to appeal to a wider audience who perhaps are not normally interested in history (and I am always enthusiastic for making history a more widely enjoyed subject), and secondly, because it challenges conventional history and causes the reader to actually think about what they read, and to question historical information more regularly – we all too often just believe what we read because we think it comes from a trustworthy source, and history, much like science, is regularly changing with new revelations, perspectives and understandings.

If you want a history book that is going to make you laugh out loud and also make you think, this is definitely the book for you!

Do you know of any great history books like this that are entertaining? Are there any you have read which changed your mind about a certain part of history?

4 thoughts on “Having fun with history – a look at Stephen Clarke’s “1000 Years Of Annoying The French”

  1. I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction as a way to get interesting takes on history – particularly Bernard Cornwell. He has a series on the Arthurian legend (like most authors, I suppose :p), one called the Saxon Tales about the invasion of England, and a stand-alone book called “Stonehenge” that I’ve read. He also has a bunch of war-related series (the Sharpe series, for instance), but I haven’t read those.

    • Ah, cool. I have heard of Bernard Cornwell but I haven’t read anything by him, but he sounds good so I might have to look into his work.
      I agree, historical fiction is always interesting for that reason, to give a different perspective on history. One of my long running writing projects is an epic historical fiction novel, set around the hundred years war and King Edward III of England, and part of that involves trying to provide a new perspective on him as a person as well as a king. I find writing it is extremely daunting and difficult, because of the sheer amount of research that needs to be done – but this also makes it very interesting and fun.
      Thanks for the recommendations, I will check them out! 🙂

  2. 1000 Years of Annoying The French – I love the title! That alone would make me interested in picking it up if I saw it on a shelf. As a ‘British subject’ (Canadian with British ancestors) who married a Frenchman (Canadian whose grandparents all came from France), I can definitely see the humour in this. I will have to check out this book! 🙂

    I have been researching the life of Louis Riel for my next book and came across one history book on this historic Canadian figure that has a much more casual tone than all the rest. E. B. Osler wrote ‘the man who had to hang – Louis Riel’. Osler writes it in an almost chatty way, stating the facts but putting it in Riel’s perspective and stating the reasons why he did what he did. In case you are unfamiliar with the man, Riel was responsible for the ‘Riel Rebellion’ in 1870. He was considered a traitor to the newly formed Canadian Government and was hanged for it. The French Canadians and Metis people of the prairies have always thought him a hero, but it has only been recently that he has been accepted as someone who changed our country’s laws for the better. We have actually named our February holiday after him (in Manitoba, anyways). Most of the other history books I’ve read about him have been dry, stating only the facts, but Osler makes the story much more interesting to me, almost like historical fiction except that all the subjects in his books are real and none of the facts have been fictionalized. While it isn’t presented in a humourous way, like the one you reviewed, it does present a more interesting way of looking at the facts.

    • Ahh that book sounds really interesting. I will have to find that and read it sometime. I think that way of presenting the information is such a better way to get people interested in the subject matter – so many people become bored of history because so many history books are dry. So it is good to hear of other books like this! 🙂

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