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Powers and Thrones: A new history of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones

27 May 2022

G. R. Evans reviews a single-volume account of the Middle Ages

THIS book tells its tale in swashbuckling style, with colour pictures, positively swinging along. Its author has made his name in journalism and the media, and it has the strengths and weaknesses of its author’s profession; but he is also a serious historian. The result is very readable, but at the expense of some scene-setting of the “it must have been like this” sort.

This is a big book, more than 700 pages divided into four chronological sections, in which warfare and power-struggles provide the momentum and take up most of the space. Christianity mainly has a walk-on part. Perhaps a reviewer for the Church Times may be forgiven for regretting that Christianity did not figure more prominently, as it certainly did in medieval life.

The first part, “Imperium”, covers the end of the Western Roman Empire at the hands of “barbarians”; the survival of the Empire in the East in medieval Byzantium; the impact of Muslim Arab civilisation. The second, “Dominion”, begins with the Franks and moves on to monks, knights, and crusaders. Monks and knights are introduced as “archetypes” whose “costumes are a mainstay of all good fancy-dress outfitters”. Monasteries are accurately judged as a convenience for the medieval nobility, but we hear little of their inner life and deeper purpose. The Crusades are correctly seen from the point of view of the warfare and power-struggles involved, but there is not much sense of the spiritual conviction that carried the armies to the unsatisfactory conclusions.

The third section, “Rebirth”, covering the period from the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 to the mid-14th century, begins with the story of the ventures of the Mongols into the West, then moves successively to “merchants, scholars and builders”. The “merchants” include Marco Polo and the Venetians; but the main thrust of the section is a useful exploration of the emergence of a new “business” role for towns. The “scholars” make their entrance in this section, with the first universities and the first academic disagreements. The two pages on Wyclif’s influence barely break the surface of the complexity of the context of Christian thought and academic politics in which he came to grief. The “builders” are busy with castles and cathedrals.

The final section (1348-1527), “Revolution”, covers “survivors”, “renewers”, “navigators”, and “protestants”. “Survivors” is about plague — the Black Death — and climate change and their political consequences. The “renewers” are the humanists who began to encourage a return to the study of classical texts, now including the Greek. The “navigators” are the discoverers of the New World and new routes to the East. The “protestants” include Luther, but Calvin gets only a mention as a figure for the future. The choice of end-date has made it difficult to give better balance to the events that are taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages. The author does not attempt a conclusion.

An opportunity to explore links with medieval matters that are currently controversial topics has perhaps been missed: slavery, colonialism, interfaith relations. This is certainly a good read, but a thousand years is a long time to contain between covers with any hope of leaving the reader with more than the satisfaction of having read a rattling good yarn.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

Powers and Thrones: A new history of the Middle Ages
Dan Jones
Head Zeus £25 (hbk), £12 (pbk)
(978-1-78954-353-7 hbk)
(978-1-78954-354-4 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50, £10.80

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