Interview - Greg Jenner answers your questions! Horrible Histories, Knights, History of Poo and more
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Best-Selling Author, Podcaster, Presenter, Horrible Histories History Consultant and man with exceptionally friendly-looking hair, Greg Jenner needs no introduction. Though if I don't give him an introduction, then what would I fill this awkward paragraph with at the start of the interview? It's got to have some words on it, otherwise anarchy may well ensue.
With that in mind, let's do some introducing. And thankfully, Greg's website has all the info and will save my fingers some tapping: "Greg Jenner is the host of the chart-topping comedy BBC podcast You’re Dead To Me (30 million downloads), the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Past Forward: A Century of Sound, the BBC’s history podcast for children Homeschool History, and the Audible series A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down.
He is the Historical Consultant to all nine series of CBBC’s Emmy & multiple BAFTA award-winning TV comedy series Horrible Histories, being solely responsible for the factual accuracy of over 2000 sketches and 140+ comedy songs. He also was a key member of the team on the BAFTA-nominated film Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans.
Greg is also the author of the new book Ask A Historian (2021), the critically well-reviewed Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity, From Bronze Age To Silver Screen (2020), and the bestselling A Million Years In A Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age To Phone Age (2015), which is an entertaining romp through the evolution of our daily routines."
That sure is a lot of stuff and makes my lifetime achievement of having successfully fed myself this morning seem positively redundant. Anyway, lets not go down that emotional angst ridden black hole. We asked you guys, our fabulous readers, for some questions to ask Greg and boy-oh-boy you did not disappoint! Read on and maybe you'll discover that Greg has answered your question, yes you, the person currently reading these words. Yes you, the one with a face. Yes, that's right, the one who is now pointing at themselves in a confused fashion wondering if it's you I'm referring to. Yes, the one who is nodding and smiling in understanding. That's it, the one who is clicking on an add at the side of this interview so Uncle Google can give us one (or maybe even two!) pence of sweet sweet of ad revenue. Yes, you.
From Emily, age 9, “What’s the best thing about being a historian”?
What a question to start with! The thing I love about it, is that every day, it’s surprising. I learn something new every day, I can often have my understanding of the entire world changed by reading something fascinating and interesting. It’s a really exciting way to live a life, to update your understanding, as you reframe and rethink what the world is like. Why our lives are the way they are. It’s a really rewarding and friendly way of thinking about other people. It helps me understand other people’s lives. I find it really exciting. You wake up and by the end of the day, you have a totally different way of understanding the world than you did before.
Bella wanted to ask, “What comes first in Horrible Histories, the jokes or the history”?
Always the history. This is what made Horrible Histories really different from what came beforehand. Even shows like Blackadder or Mony Python or whatever, these incredible shows that we were all influenced by, they all started with the joke. Whereas with Horrible Histories and everything I’ve done since, you always start with the history first and then you try and make it funny. Fundamentally you’re trying to communicate the information and then you’re trying to find a nice way of delivering it. But if you’re thinking of the joke first you’ll always have to change the history to make it fit. I’m trying to explain the complex thing, the hard thing. History is hard, it’s messy, sometimes we don’t have easy answers, and sometimes we don’t know things. We may only have theories or there are two versions of a story.
So, we always start with what we know, then search for a funny way to express it. Because if you go the other way round the joke will always take precedence, and that’s not what a historian would want to do.
Horrible Histories, I’ve done that show for thirteen years now. I have a team of researchers now but for the first five years it was me doing the history of the world every week. We would sit down in a big room, with writers and producers and then just me, and I would talk at them for six hours, maybe eight hours, about a different subject each week. Tudors one week, Vikings the next. I would just tell them information and they would have to make it funny. That’s why Horrible Histories works, because at the core of it, it’s a show about history and then jokes are added on top.
Xander wants to know “Where do the ideas for Horrible History sketches come from? How do you decide on which history topics to feature when there’s so much to choose from”?
You fire stuff at them! You get a whole lot of people in a room, feed them lots of biscuits and Haribo. Actually, I eat all the Haribo! Every series of Horrible Histories we need two hundred sketches, so you need two hundred different ideas and each sketch needs eight to ten jokes in it. You don’t start with the joke, you start with the idea. So, for example, say you’re trying to explain the dissolution of the monasteries. This is all about Henry VIII and why he wanted to dissolve the monasteries. Which is a very weird word. I’m sure the kids reading this are like ‘Dissolve them? What, in Alka-Seltzer?’ Henry wanted to close the monasteries down, take their land, all their money and assets. He wanted to make himself the King but also be in charge of his own English Church and he wanted all the wealth the church had.
So, he dissolved the monasteries and the joke we decided we could tell with that is based around one of those daytime TV shows that your mum might watch. One’s where people look in the attic to see if they have any valuables that they could sell at a car boot. Maybe there’s an antique painting in the loft that they didn’t know is valuable. They have a little rummage in the attic and they go ‘Oh! I found this old pottery, maybe it’s worth seventy five pounds’? The joke was, what if we do that and its Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, his chief advisor, and they’re rummaging around looking for books and treasure and valuable things.
So the dissolution of the monasteries turns into ‘Cash in the Abbey’ a day time TV show. All you’ve done there is look for a single idea. It’s a very complicated part of history, very hard to explain, but how do we make it a single idea? That’s what you need to find. The rest of it writes itself. You know where the jokes are, you know what the information needs to be, you can have Henry kicking out the monks and declaring war on France. All the history can be drip fed through it but the single premise needs to be one line. One sentence that explains what the joke is going to be. We do that four hundred times per series, probably more, because we write sketches that don’t work sometimes or they're not as funny as other ones, or you film them but the props didn’t work or you can’t get a castle in time.
We do hundreds and hundreds of sketches and we use the two hundred best ones. It’s the same with songs; Queen Cleopatra is this amazing woman from history who dressed very beautifully but all the men in her life died mysteriously or were poisoned or murdered. She even killed her own brothers! That’s very similar to the Lady Gaga videos from seven or eight years ago. It was like Cleopatra meets Lady Gaga.
Sometimes it’s very easy to do, this is a bit like this. Sometimes it’s a lot harder and you need to find a different way in.
William would like to know “What is the most disgusting thing you know that happened in history?”
There are loads! Loads! Throughout history various societies have used poo as a type of medicine, they’ve eaten it and smeared it on their bodies. Corpse medicine; people use to eat other people as a type of medicine. King Charles II used to spread his body with mummy powder, which was ancient Egyptian mummies dusted down. People would make a marmalade out of bone marrow in the 1600s. There’s so much gross stuff, I can’t even know where to start!
We often imagine people in the past being very dirty or smelly, and a lot of the time they did their best not to, but at the same time poo was valuable. In Shakespeare’s day, Shakespeare’s Dad, he actually collected poo and kept it outside his front door, he would sell it as fertilizer. He would go out and scoop up poo and pop it in a little bucket. There was a point in history where if you found some poo you’d say ‘Woohoo! Excellent!’
There a lot of people who sadly fell in to their own toilets and drowned in poo. There was this guy called Richard the Raker, who was a gong farmer, a toilet cleaner. He fell into his own toilet and drowned, on his day off too! There’s lots of poo and wee in history.
I wrote a lot about it in my first book ‘A Million Years in a Day’. The history of toilets is fascinating because everyone poos, everyone wees. One hundred and eight billion people have lived on this planet since the dawn of our species and all of them have done their dirty business. It’s part of us, of who we are.
Noah and Ezra want to know “Has a commoner ever become a knight?”
Yes! In medieval times knighthood was a status that required a lot of wealth. You would need to equip yourself with armour and a horse. And the horse was where the real money was, that would be very expensive. So, it’s not necessarily something that would happen very often but we do know of commoners being knighted, sometimes before a battle or during a siege. Occasionally there are stories of women being knighted. Quite rare but might have happened a few times where it’s a symbolic gesture of saying we’re going to fight a huge battle, the fate of the city, so I’m going to knight you so that you fight harder.
Yes, there was the possibility that a commoner may have been knighted. Probably not a peasant, someone really far down, but maybe someone from the middle of society. It can depend on the times, but you’d had to have had some land and some money, so it’s not going to happen often. But, you know, a thousand years of medieval history, I’m sure it’s going to have happened a bit.
This is from Steve, who’s a bit older than the rest, he’s thirty something, “What is the biggest lesson from the past that mankind should be learning today”?
Crikey! Well, the obvious one, because of what’s happening in the world right now, is climate change. Climate change is an enormous thing that we have to be very serious about fighting. We simply cannot carry on the way we are otherwise we’re all going to end up living in extremely difficult times. The history of climate change is fascinating, we can see throughout history many societies that have been affected by climate change. Sometimes those were not drastic, things like the Little Ice Age – which was a three hundred year period, 1400 to 1700 maybe – it gets quite cold and this changes what can grow and rivers freeze over in the winter. There were frost fairs on the river Thames because the river was totally frozen.
We also see big changes with the arrival of industry and the chopping down of forests. Britain used to be covered in forests and way back in the Bronze Age and in the Iron Age it was deforested hugely. So much so that what we think of as natural landscapes, were actually deforested by people. We did that. There’s very little natural landscape in the UK that humans haven’t changed. Either by introducing animals, or farming on it or building on it. A lot of historians are doing this work now. That’s what we need to be paying attention to. So as a society, as a global population, we can change and save the planet. So, sorry, big scary answer but I think it has to be said.
Thank you so much Greg for answering our readers’ questions! If you’d like to read, listen and watch more of Greg’s work then we have handy links below:
Horrible Histories - TV Show
Homeschool History - Podcast
Ask A Historian - Book
A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down - Audible Series
You’re Dead To Me - Podcast
Past Forward: A Century of Sound, - BBC Radio 4