POWERS AND TRNES
A new story from the Middle Ages
By Dan Jones
Those who write about medieval history often develop a keen awareness that the story is best told when made accessible to the modern reader. A skilled medieval historian must find a way to compress the nebulous historical record into a concise and compelling story that is both relevant and accessible. It is a daunting effort. Fortunately, Dan Jones is up to the task.
In his latest book, “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages,” Jones recounts the key events and personalities that defined the millennium from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the dawn. of the modern era. Jones was no stranger to this period. His previous books were popular stories that explored, among other topics, Plantagenet England, the War of the Roses, and the Crusades. But now its scope has broadened to include the entirety of the Middle Ages.
In âPowers and Thrones,â Jones presents a procession of kings, clerics, conquerors and artists, producing a living story that often reads like a novel. But he enriches his narrative by carefully balancing the flow of personalities with historical anecdotes and milestone events.
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In order to anchor the diffuse history of the Middle Ages, Jones focuses on the medieval building blocks that reached our modern era as a museum curator shaping and forming an exhibit for a wide audience. He narrows his seemingly endless collection of stories, anecdotes, potential digressions, and alluring tangents to the essential, highlighting the common threads of the story.
And so Rome is not only an ancient and imposing military power; it is the source of Roman law, of modern Romance languages ââand of the Christian faith which will eventually dominate European society. The Germanic invasions of the ruined empire were not only the work of a barbarian horde; they are the process by which much of the political framework of Western Europe is established. The Muslim conquest of the Arab world is not only a counterweight to the spread of Christianity in Europe; it is the source of many religious divides that plague both East and West to this day. And the arrival of the Vikings more than portends the looting of monasteries and royal coffers; it constitutes the first European link to North America and shapes the future Franco-English relationship through the creation of Normandy. Jones has a lot of ground to cover, but he managed to hit all the major topics. As each piece of the puzzle is put together, the modern world gradually appears.
Even its footnotes are designed to link the story to the contemporary world. Parallels are drawn between the role of regional identity in Charlemagne’s empire and the political divorce of Brexit. The extraterritorial reach and power of the early monasteries is compared to the transnational reach of Amazon and Facebook. The story of the brilliant scholar Peter AbÃ©lard is presented as one of the earliest examples of academic âculture cancellationâ. These are notes intended to engage the reader and advance the main themes of the book.
Although largely chronological, “Powers and Thrones” is organized around a number of major themes that shaped and defined the era. Jones treats each as a separate subject, examining its context and placing it in a larger context. As a result, the narrative sometimes skips. For example, a discussion of chivalry spans nearly eight centuries, from the institution’s foundations to Henry VIII’s love of jousting. For those who prefer their story to follow a strict timeline, this thematic approach can be frustrating at times. But it allows Jones to explore the questions that defined the Middle Ages and to demonstrate how each development was a stage in the evolution of Europe. It is an approach that allows the reader to connect all the dots.
âPowers and Thronesâ also reminds us why modern scholars fear any reference to the term âDark Agesâ. The idea that the beginning of the Middle Ages was an era of barbarism and ignorance is refuted by Jones’ vast array of evidence to the contrary. It illustrates the sophisticated culture of the Germanic tribes that produced the Carolingian Empire, the enduring legacy of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, and the scholarly contributions of Muslim writers throughout the Mediterranean basin.
Certainly, “Powers and Thrones” is not without limits. The book traces a lot of familiar ground covered by other scholars, and the reader should not expect a deep dive into the military, linguistic, literary, or legal history of the period. But, in the end, “Powers and Thrones” does what a general medieval story should do. It provides the reader with a framework for understanding a complicated subject, and it tells the story of an essential era in world history with skill and style.