The influence of Terry Deary's Horrible Histories has as at least as many downsides as upsides. Yes, it interests young readers in the past, but the kind of interest they take is of a patronising, self-centered and unsympathetic kind that trivialises their understanding and as a matter of fact lingers on in the mind of the subsequent adult.

Of course, Deary is not responsible for the tendency to look down on the past, to rubber-neck at its gruesome details, all of which is a spontaneous fact of the human mind, but his skilfull monetization of that inclination has certainly reinforced its occurrence, and it now breaks surface everywhere, even in the comments of professional scholars, who have hitherto and for the most part seen their role as attempting to overcome the instinctive sneer, the voyeuristic leer of the complacent Modern.

For example, an article in today's Times, by no means a bad or silly piece, describes a skeleton, known as Context 958, discovered in a 13th Century hospital graveyard in Cambridge as presenting a "mystery". The academic archaeologist analysing the bones, Professor John Robb, explains: “What was really jarring was that although he was clearly a low-status person, his dietary isotopes showed him to have had quite an enriched diet. He was either eating above his station or he was buried below his station.” Professor Robb goes on to speculate that he did well out of the "wealthy scholars of the university" for whom he worked.

The article translates all this very accurately into the adult dialect of Dearyese:

His body bears marks of manual toil, but the chemistry of his bones tells a very different story; there are the traces of a diet rich in meat and fish, which would not have been easy for the average commoner to come by. [...] On the face of it, however, Context 958’s existence was largely one of hardship. His tooth enamel stopped growing twice when he was young, hinting at bouts of sickness or famine, and he seems to have taken a fair battering, with the back of his skull revealing a blunt-force trauma that healed over before he died. He also suffered from several unpleasant dental diseases and may have had the beginnings of gout. “He had clearly been around the block,” Professor Robb said.

The implied drama here is obvious. Context 958, and even the name has a Film Noire morgue ring to it, was a medieval rogue, a knowing "character" with a chequered and mysterious, even weird and eccentric history, bad teeth and head injuries, who somehow managed to snaffle a nice scrap or two thanks to his lucky relationship with the undeserving priveliged.

But there is only a puzzle requiring this sort of imaginative solution if the assumptions of the Fairy Tales and the Horrible Histories are right. But are they? Perhaps the diet of the poor was not unremittingly and stomach-churningly ghastly. Perhaps medieval society was not quite the rigid cartoon of "station" and rank that it is often assumed to be. Perhaps even those on lower incomes could eat well at some periods in their lives, perhaps there was a certain amount of social mobility and perhaps an individual's luck went up and down. Unless you had been raised on Horrible Histories and spent a lifetime teaching undergraduates with minds formed by such attitudes (teachers should get danger money), would it be that surprising to learn that the past was not completely unlike the present?