While the Middle Ages may seem like ancient history, the proliferation of medieval-themed festivals testifies to our enduring interest in knights, jousting and chivalry. Such gatherings present only the thinnest veneer of the times, of course, masking the rich details that characterized the Middle Ages. With fast-paced storytelling, historian Dan Jones’ captivating Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages carries readers over the expansive history of the years 410 to 1527. We meet kings and philosophers, clerics and bankers, theologians and scientists, and explorers and navigators as Jones illustrates an era full of the sorts of challenges we still grapple with today: pandemics, the privilege of a moneyed merchant class, war, climate change and more.
Jones’ magisterial history opens with the fall of Rome in the early fifth century. Mass migrations and a changing climate contributed to an already weakened imperial government, and invaders eventually tore down the walls of the empire. By the sixth and seventh centuries, the first Islamic empires came to power, ushering in new developments in politics and science. Jones examines the roles of monks and knights during this time and explores the age of the Franks, who established a pseudo-Roman Christian empire that gave birth to the Crusades. Jones also helpfully points out that the Crusades did not always feature conflict between Christians and Muslims in battle for control of Jerusalem, but in fact several Crusades grew out of intra-Christian disagreements about orthodoxy and heresy.
In all, Jones introduces readers to the “merchants who invented extraordinary new financial techniques to make themselves and the world richer; scholars who revived the wisdom of the ancients and founded some of today’s greatest universities; and the architects and engineers who built the cities, cathedrals, and castles that still stand five hundred years on, as portals back to the medieval world.” A sprawling book to cover a sprawling history, Powers and Thrones is essential reading for everyone interested in the ways a 1,100-year period changed the course of our cultural history in profound ways.