Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones

This magnificent doorstop is bookended by two sacks of Rome: AD410 and 1527. A thousand years race by in a terrifically colorful and compelling narrative history, with all the confidence, bravura and swift judgments essential to an overview of such a vast time span. Dan Jones also possesses a keen eye for how the ideas and passions of the medieval era are with us still — “for better or for worse,” as he observes on more than one occasion.

Equally praiseworthy is its freedom from any queasy, muddy undercurrents of obsequious apology and guilt that dog so much contemporary Western historiography. It’s always reasonable and fair.

There was something truly heroic about the voyages of Columbus, even if the man himself may not have been exactly likable. Muhammad was a great religious leader and visionary, no question, but also “approved the beheading of hundreds of members of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe, and the enslavement of all their women and children”. The Crusades were often violent and ignorant assaults on other cultures, including the ancient Christian culture of Constantinople, but they must be seen in the context of the centuries of Islamic attacks and invasions of Christendom that preceded them. And so on.

There is plenty of fresh research here too, especially to do with historical changes in climate. “Romans liked to tell each other they were favored by the gods,” he observes dryly. “In fact, for much of their history they were blessed with good weather.” Rome’s years of greatest prosperity were free from any big volcanic eruptions, remained pleasantly warm and enjoyed plenty of rainfall.

Yet weather also triggered Rome’s fall. Between 350 and 370 eastern Asia suffered a “megadrought”, driving a certain ferocious tribe of nomadic horse warriors called the Huns westward, where the grass was greener.

Before them fled the Goths, clamoring at the Roman Danube border for admission. Emperor Valens admitted them, and some served Rome loyally. Other Goths however caused havoc, allied with the Huns themselves, and slaughtered perhaps 20,000 Roman legionaries at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Valens was also killed.

Yet the backbone of the Roman legions by this time had long comprised large numbers of Germanic Goths as well. Disastrously divided against itself, Rome fell 100 years later, and the Middle Ages began.

“Romans liked to tell each other they were favored by the gods. In fact, for much of their history they were blessed with good weather.”

We have the first pandemic of plague in Asia Minor in the 6th century, as well as the gossip on the empress Theodora, once “a burlesque dancer who trained geese to peck barley grains from her knickers”. We have the rise of the Arab Empire, or Islam, the first Muslims praying to Mecca rather than Jerusalem, and earning “a living by robbing caravan trains”.

Then there are those key builders of medieval Europe, the Franks and the monks: Charlemagne, 6ft 3in and dressed for winter in an otter-skin jacket, and St Benedict with his indispensable Rule. Evenhanded as ever, Jones paints an unfashionably sympathetic portrait of chivalry at its best, in the figure of the great William Marshal, while reminding us of other knightly achievements such as the massacres of Rhineland Jews that preceded the Crusades.

Powers and Thrones explains the movements of the period with crystal clarity, but it’s as a sequence of potted biographies that it really excels. From Attila the Hun to El Cid (who fought against Muslims and Christians, unlike Charlton Heston), to Dick Whittington, mayor of Calais as well as London and a clever war profiteer whose alms-giving nevertheless still benefits the residents of Whittington’s College outside East Grinstead.

There’s Dante and Chaucer, Aquinas and Wycliffe, Wat Tyler and Henry the Navigator, Martin Luther and Pippin the Short, each vividly sketched in a few deft pages.

We have the gossip on the empress Theodora, once “a burlesque dancer who trained geese to peck barley grains from her knickers.”

The beginning of the end for the Middle Ages was the Black Death, which came upon an already weakened populace. From 1314, Western Europe suffered years of dreadful summers, ceaseless rain and ruined harvests. Livestock get sick in cold weather too, and there followed a mass die-off of cattle, probably due to rinderpest.

The Medieval Warm Period had ended with a torrential downpour, and the Little Ice Age had begun. When the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, arrived in Europe in 1347, contemporary writers variously blamed the Jews, sodomites, evil vapors, or “the tendency of hot and moist people to overindulge in sex and baths”. But really the population was undernourished.

Some areas saw a death rate of 60 percent, meaning surviving workers could demand higher wages, rioting when they were refused: the Peasants’ Revolt in England, the Ciompi Revolt in Italy on behalf of the “popolo minuto”, the little people, and others.

Feudalism was tottering, though the nobility continued “despising the poor except insofar as they occasionally reminded one of Jesus”. Richard II’s speech after the Peasants’ Revolt is unforgettable in its dripping disdain: “Rustics you are, and rustics you are still, you will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher … For as long as we live, we will strive with mind, strength and goods to suppress you …” The elite hated populism then just as much as now, but at least then they were open about it.

Finally it was the opening up of the New World, with the incredible voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan, and the unleashed energy of the Protestant Reformation, that marked the end of medieval Europe and the beginning of the Renaissance and empire.

Jones’s history is a hugely impressive achievement, bustling and sizzling with life on every page — he even makes the invention of double-entry bookkeeping (Italy, 14th century) interesting. This is now simply the best popular history of the Middle Ages there is.

Christopher Hart reviews books for The Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, and Literary Review