Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages

Image of Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages
Release Date: 
October 26, 2021
Reviewed by: 

“Jones seeks to explain ‘how similar we are to medieval people—as well as acknowledging our real and profound differences.’ The author wants this history ‘to be fun,’ not complicated, dry, or dull.”

The fictional television detective Lieutenant Columbo observed that the Renaissance was neither as bright or the Dark Ages as dark as previously believed. Medieval historian Dan Jones, in Powers and Thrones, sweeps “across continents and centuries, often at a breakneck pace” in a study that starts in the Fall of Rome to end with “how the world was reborn” (almost half of the book) to prove that point.

This era of 1,000 years where true globalization and the modern world began is long misunderstood. The term “Middle Ages” originally referred to the time between the early Christian persecutions and the Protestant Reformation, not “when the classical world had vanished, but the modern world was yet to get going.”

Powers and Thrones maps out an epic tale that has many parts including Ancient Rome, the Mongol invasion, development of modern global finance, and the Reformation. It also brings in such matters as “climate change, mass migration, pandemic disease, technical change, and global networks.”

The subject is so vast that the author describes Powers and Thrones as “a big book” but “also a hopelessly short one.” The author only touches on how much the Arab, Germanic, and Viking ideas and innovations merged with the Greek, Roman, and uniquely Medieval to make our modern world.

Even Christianity developed separately from the world around it during those centuries. European missionaries from the western Church, for example, reached China (and to other distant lands unknown to the Romans) long before the merchant Marco Polo.

By the 13th century, the world not only had long distance travel but “increasingly sophisticated ways of trading and financing business.” Conversely, “the merchant stood a far better chance of making profit if he could stay at one place and let others move goods on his behalf.” The consequences to the modern world were many and enormous.

Jones seeks to explain “how similar we are to medieval people—as well as acknowledging our real and profound differences.” The author wants this history “to be fun,” not complicated, dry, or dull. Powers and Thrones does not describe the sheer alien nature of the Medieval world to modern understanding.

Jones admits that he “sees the history of other parts of the world through a western lens” but also “how deeply intertwined the medieval west was with the global east and south.” Pagan Vikings, for example, interacted with the Muslim Arabs while simultaneously threatening Charlemagne’s Roman Christian empire in the West and Greek Christian Constantinople in the East.

The author does hope that someone will write a complimentary history of how the world as a whole experienced by Europe in this period. Those Medieval centuries are remembered as European but, in true globalization, reached much further.

The Middle Ages first succeeded because it benefitted from the legacy left by both the rise and the fall of the Roman Empire, a metaphasis that shed much of the failure of Rome to create, in time, the modern nation state. It had been “the only power to rule every shore of the Mediterranean” and far inland from the border with Scotland to India.

“Rome could offer exceptional stability, peace, and opportunities for peace to those who lived under its aegis.” It owed everything to “the long term superiority of Rome’s military” although its rise owed much to exceptionally favorable weather that expanded its agriculture. Roman expansion brought its increasingly sophisticated legal system and Christianity.

Despite the enormous inequities and numerous horrors that Rome imposed on millions of its victims, the Empire had an “open attitude to assimilation within the empire.” “To be a citizen of Rome conferred, in the deepest sense, freedom” and it potentially could be obtained by any man and conferred by women to their children.

Rome’s fall and “the rise of the barbarians was a complex process,” beginning with accepting the Goth refugees escaping from the environmental refugees of the Huns. The Goths turned on the Romans and accelerated the already failing rule of the emperors.

“The western empire began to fall apart from the periphery” as the Roman army and government failed. Vandals completed the destruction of the interior as Rome suffered different sackings. These barbarians, however, had nothing to replace the Roman order that had held the West together for centuries. Both the western and the eastern (Byzantine) empires lost tens of millions to the Justinian plague.

Justinian and later Charlemagne would try to rebuild from the legacy of Greece and Rome. They failed, however, because the world and even they had moved on to something new.

From that chaos, the time came when “Kings and kingdoms were rapidly supplanting emperors and empires.” Even as Mongol Genghis Khan ruled the “only world superpower in the thirteenth century,” the age of the ancient empire like his had largely passed forever.

The Emperor Justinian would leave a legacy of codified Roman law and spectacular successes despite near fatal challenges to his eastern empire. It, nonetheless, successfully beat off those threats and the rise of the Arabs for nearly 1,000 years.

Each of the different peoples contributed together and separately to the familiar today. They created networks far beyond anything of the ancient world, including the industry of salvation by the western Church; the Viking system of raid, trade, settlement, and conversion; banking, castles, navigation, and scholarship; and technical changes made to create the armored knight and the needed support system; and the Crusades.

Powers and Thrones has annotation and a bibliography.