Dan Jones’s epic new history tells nothing less than the story of how the world we know today came to be built. It is a thousand-year adventure that moves from the ruins of the once-mighty city of Rome, sacked by barbarians in AD 410, to the first contacts between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century. It shows how, from a state of crisis and collapse, the West was rebuilt and came to dominate the entire globe. The book identifies three key themes that underpinned the success of the West: commerce, conquest and Christianity.
Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones’s trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting – or stealing – the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople – and it features some of history’s most famous and notorious men and women.
This is a book written about – and for – an age of profound change, and it asks the biggest questions about the West both then and now. Where did we come from? What made us? Where do we go from here?
Well, isn’t this an epic undertaking. The history of the Middle Ages, across Europe and into the four corners of the world (except Australia because it still hadn’t been discovered) – in 16 chapters, 633 pages and about 25 hours of reading. And it is awesome!
I couldn’t read this book at a leisurely pace because I was actually scheduled to interview Dan Jones on 29 September, for Lindum Books in Lincoln and I desperately wanted to make sure I had read the whole thing beforehand. So, I had 10 days to read it and I am quite proud of myself that I managed it. I put all other books aside and concentrated on this, hoping it would keep my attention. I was a little worried. It is a long book and covers such a wide historical arena. Could it keep my interest? Well, the simple answer is YES!
Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a thoroughly enthralling read encompassing over a thousand years of history, from the Sack of Rome in 410AD to the sack of Rome in 1527. Writing the story of the entire medieval era was a massive undertaking that Dan said he wanted to do, both as his 10th book and to mark his 40th birthday. And it is, indeed, a magnum opus to be proud of. Powers and Thrones is a perfectly balanced book, giving just enough attention to each area of interest and geographical location, going from Rome, to Byzantium and on to the rise of Islam, Dan Jones manages to cover the significant events and influences that drove change and development through the entire Middle Ages.
Powers and Thrones demonstrates how climate change, disease, technology and ideology were often the forces behind change. For example, the Guttenberg Press was revolutionary in every way, allowing the mass production of books, pamphlets and the dissemination of knowledge to a far-wider audience. It was the medieval equivalent to our social media, both in its reach and influence, and Dan Jones highlights how significant it was in Europe’s emergence from the medieval era, with its impact on learning, communication and – perhaps above all – religion.
For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night-birds let out hideous shrieks and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passers-by with a unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theatre: an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty. Human beings have been superstitious in all ages and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, ‘which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity’, was turning fast.
In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state – monarchy, republic and empire – had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century AD, every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roma elite culture – palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water – were fading from everyday life. The Eternal City had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful mega-state had been parcelled among peoples whom the proud-hearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the ‘barbarians’: a derogatory word which encompassed a huge range of people from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, through to longstanding near-neighbours, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness, but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.
What makes this book special is the way Dan Jones manages to make Powers and Thrones relevant to today. Writing it in the midst of a pandemic certainly must have helped to give Dan a sense of history all around him and he alludes to this in the book. When interviewing him, Dan told me that living through Covid gave him a better understanding of the plague years of 14th century Europe, of the fear and panic that must have consumed people. And by referring to modern-day equivalents, such as world leaders, the pandemic and the rise of social media, Dan is able to draw the reader in and make medieval history relevant in the modern age.
Dan Jones does not shy away from the harsh questions, either, examining the development and morals of slavery, the reasoning behind the crusades and the rise of Protestantism. What may surprise readers is the facts this book is essentially Euro-centric – it made me realise how Anglo-centric my study of history has been over the years. By focusing on change and development in mainland Europe, whilst encompassing England and the British Isles in various guises where appropriate, it gives the reader a whole new outlook on the medieval era, whilst also demonstrates how events in Europe – even back then – could influence events in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Powers and Thrones highlights the driving forces of change, whether it was people, ideas or technology, and demonstrates how such change effected Europe in general and individuals in particular, whether it was the empire of Charlemagne, the rise of monasticism, or even the development of the humble stirrup that led to the emergence of the knightly class.
In Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones combines a narrative of international events with case studies that focus on individual people, organisations and movements. By highlighting such diverse subjects as Empress Theodora, the rise of Islam, El Cid and the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, the author manages to personalise what might otherwise have been a wide, sweeping narrative. The Warennes also get a mention in the involvement of William de Warenne, the 1st Earl, and his wife, Gundrada, in founding the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. From my personal point of view, it is fabulous that Dan Jones chose to include Empress Theodora so prominently – a woman who rose from extremely humble roots to become Empress of Byzantium and a woman who was influential in holding that empire together, especially in adroitly soothing religious dissension. It is impossible to get everything from 1,000 years of history in one book, but by showing the big picture, whilst highlighting particular events, ideas, buildings or people, Dan Jones manages to provide a fascinating narrative that is fast-paced and engaging without being overwhelming.
Powers and Thrones is, quite simply, an amazing book. It is chock full of little snippets of information that you may never have known, it relates medieval events to our modern day equivalents, such as the Black Death to Covid. Such references to the modern era could easily have backfired, but they serve to make the book more accessible and entertaining and not a little amusing. The moments of light-heartedness often provide an extra depth to the reading experience and make the book accessible to every reader.
Powers and Thrones was certainly an ambitious project, but in the hour-long interview I had with Dan Jones, he spoke about every aspect of it with passion and enthusiasm an that same passion and enthusiasm comes across throughout the book. The book is a pleasure to read and would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly