I often wonder about this phrase. We’ve all heard it: so-and-so really brings it to life. It seems to be a phrase which we use for history, or English but not for PE. But what does this mean? Well, to me it means being able to bring in other, seemingly unrelated but usually juicy or horrible, if you must, stories to give context and to, well, bring history to life. It doesn’t mean we have to role play or squeeze in hula hoops and skipping ropes: we’re fattening the pig, not decorating it.

The following story is one which I used recently with my Y12s. We were discussing Henry VII’s understandable difficulty in trusting much of the nobility on his accession to the English throne in 1485. Besieged, somewhat, by wealthy claimants and child-pretenders alike, Henry couldn’t even look to his treacherous Lord Chamberlain for support. As a result of this discussion I brought up a story from Hungary in the early C16.

György Dósza and the Tripartitum

In 1514 a Hungarian named István Werböczy completed a document known as the Tripartitum. In a spectacularly ill-advised piece of legal buffoonery the Tripartitum stated that Hungary was essentially its nobility alone, leaving out any peasant claim to Hungarian nationhood, whatever that meant in an area known mostly for its constantly shifting borders with the Muslim Turks.

The idea was to claim that the Hungarian monarchs were distinct from their neighbours, but the Tripartitum in effect legally alienated every member of the Hungarian poor. The results, albeit not direct, were disastrous.

That same year the Archbishop of Esztergom launched a crusade against the Turks. Astonishingly his rallying call led to an army of over forty thousand peasants and minor nobles (also disavowed by the Tripartitum)  being given weapons and free reign. They were led by one György Dósza, a Székely man-at-arms,  who very quickly showed that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in crusading.

Angered that the big-time nobles stayed away from the fight, along with the fact that the local lords refused to feed or clothe this supposedly holy army, Dósza’s forces decided to destroy everything in their path, which mostly meant everything Hungarian. Eventually a professional army came to the rescue and Dósza was arrested. 

His punishment beggars belief, even for George RR Martin fans. Dósza was stripped naked and strapped to a white-hot iron throne in front of braying crowds. His coronation was completed with a white-hot crown and sceptre. Nine other rebel leaders were brought to Dósza, including his younger brother Gergely who was promptly cut into three in front of the smouldering would-be King of the Peasants.

Worse was to follow. Guards took firey pokers and pliers and, using their heat, pulled strips of roasted flesh from Dósza to feed to his lieutenants. Those who refused went the same way as Gergely.

And what of the peasants? There’s a suggestion that some seventy thousand were tortured and then, in a haunting prequel to the Jewish community who survived Kristallnacht in 1938, fined for the damage caused. Werböczy then wrote another Tripartitum which reaffirmed the peasants’ worthlessness, condemning them to ‘real and perpetual servitude’, a serfdom which wasn’t abolished until 1848.


Well, aside from making Y12 squirm and the potential for discussing what C15/16 instability and chaos might mean in a different geographical and cultural arena, this – I think – brought history to life. It’s telling a story, telling it well and timing it appropriately. It’s also about knowing your stuff. 

Bringing it to life doesn’t have to involve costumes and scripts and plastic swords. Your subject is great as it is, right? Show them why.