In this Dan Jones Interview, the author discusses the Middle Ages stretching a thousand years from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Reformation, and during this era the foundations for what is now the West were made. In an epic new account of the period, the acclaimed historian has sought answers to questions that remain relevant today. He sat down with medieval novelist, Richard Foreman, to discuss the hugely influential age.
There is the argument that, as well as being concerned with powers and thrones, the Middle Ages sought to re-create the Roman Empire – which, rightly or wrongly, was deemed a golden era. How much would you subscribe to that viewpoint?
Well, I think as historians, certainly, our framing of the Middle Ages is inevitably concerned with Rome. We usually think of the medieval millennium as beginning with the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. And the end of the era falls in the 15th or 16th centuries, when Renaissance artists and writers were deliberately trying to revive the spirit and laud the achievements of the ancients, and when the power of the Roman Church was rocked by religious reformers like Martin Luther. So given those two bookends, it is in a sense only natural that medieval historians have traditionally felt drawn to tracing the imprint of Rome.
Now, there is some merit in approaching the Middle Ages with the question of what one brilliant modern scholar has called the ‘inheritance of Rome’ in our minds. Certainly, if we take the earliest medieval centuries, rulers and politicians of many generations found themselves dealing with the consequences of the western Roman collapse. Think of the so-called barbarians, carving kingdoms out of what had been the western Roman provinces and Italy itself. Or Eastern emperors like Justinian, redefining the Roman Empire around Nova Roma – Byzantium or Constantinople. And then the first Islamic caliphs, putting together an Empire bonded by faith, language and a common political-cultural outlook across a territory almost as vast as that which had once been ruled by Roman emperors. I’m not saying that every barbarian king or Byzantine emperor or Umayyad caliph got up in the morning and, after eating his Coco Pops wondered to himself ‘how am I to recreate the empire of Augustus and Trajan’. But this was what informed the biggest questions of their age.
Later in the Middle Ages, however, I think these questions became less important. It was accepted until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 that there was a ‘Roman’ emperor in the east; there was one in the west from the time of Charlemagne onwards. Certain aspects of Romanness endured or were revived – Latin, Christianity, some aspects of law. But I don’t think anyone was especially moved by the notion of genuinely re-creating a polity that was, by the later Middle Ages, a thousand years distant.
Power increasingly shifted eastwards after the fall of Rome. The rise of Islam and the Mongol Empire was rapid. These societies did not just rule by the sword, however. There were periods of peace and prosperity. Culture, trade and science often flourished under their dominion. Can you tell us a little, for instance, about the success of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire?
I think if we look at all the notable empire-builders of the Middle Ages – not just Genghis Khan and the early Islamic caliphs, but Charlemagne and the Carolingians, the Ayyubid sultans of the crusading era, and so on – we’re always looking at rulers or ruling groups who understood that power is about far more than simple military dominion. The implicit offer a great power makes to a conquered people cannot simply be ‘obey or die’. There must be the promise of security and prosperity for the submissive, along with the threat of dire consequences for the rebellious.
In the case of the Mongols – Genghis Khan and his sons and descendants who put together a global superpower in the 12th and 13th centuries – both the stick and the carrot were outlandishly large. To resist the Mongols meant to court instant death, the annihilation of your city, the capture and enslavement of your women and children. However, if you submitted to the Mongols, you and your people could generally expect to be ruled by an imperial power that offered religious tolerance, military protection and access to the biggest trading zone in the world, which stretched from Korea to the borders of Poland and Hungary. It was famously said that at the height of Mongol power, the strict enforcement of a pax mongolica meant that a virgin could walk from one end of the empire to the other with a crock of gold on her head, and never be harmed. The image of a world in which the roads teemed with safe, happy, gold-bearing maidens is one that is rather attractive. But of course, it was enforced by terrible brutality. That’s empire for you.
East meets West in the form in the First Crusade in the 11th century. It was a clash of civilisations and arms. The dramatic story of the re-capturing of Jerusalem is a bloody affair, one which still resonates and grips today. The church let slip the dogs of war. How significant was the First Crusade, both in relation to its short-term and long-term legacy?
Well, I was talking about this the other day to the great Crusades scholar Professor Jonathan Phillips. We were thinking about truly ‘world-shifting’ moments during the Middle Ages, and Jonathan put the case very convincingly that the fall of Jerusalem to the First Crusaders in 1099 was a leading candidate. In the first place, it made the news everywhere, in a way that, let’s say, the conquest of England by William of Normandy in 1066 simply didn’t. In terms of the momentary power dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean, the First Crusade took a good deal of regional pressure away from the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople. It served as a wake-up call to the fractured Islamic powers of the region, the Seljuks and the Fatimids. And it created a clutch of small and tenuously held, but important and relatively long-lasting political entities in Palestine and Syria, in the form of the Latin crusader states.
Long-term, its legacy was problematic. In practical terms it laid an expensive obligation on the Christian realms of the west to prop up the crusader states and launch massive military interventions when those states were under threat. It also justified within the Latin Church the absurd notion of violence-as-penance, and made crusading a papal weapon that was, by the 13th century, being aimed all over the shop: not just at the near east, but at pagans in the Baltic, Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, Cathars in southern France, Mongols in eastern Europe and then, eventually, people like the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors. Today we still feel the legacy of the crusades in the notion – badly bastardised as it is – of a ‘civilizational’ duel between Christianity and Islam. This was not baked into the original crusading vision, but there’s no telling anyone that any more. The crusades are catnip to 21st century Islamist fundamentalists and alt-right wackjobs alike. So, almost a thousand years on, we’re still living with what Pope Urban II set going in the 1090s. Thanks for that, Urban.
Many people decided that they had God on their side during the Middle Ages. Sin, hell and heresy existed. Religion permeated society in a way that is scarcely imaginable nowadays. Is there a danger that, due to an increasing secular sensibility, the people of the Middle Ages may appear too remote or alien to us? Yet, arguably, is there not more that unites than divides us because of our shared Christian heritage?
Well, I’ve always been attracted to the Middle Ages because it seems to me an age where the familiarity and strangeness bump into one another at every turn. Yes, I think in the (largely) secular 21st century West it takes quite a leap of imagination to transport ourselves back to a world where religion was so deeply entrenched in the daily rhythm and cultural fabric of life. Then again, it’s not wholly unimaginable. There’s a reason people reach for the term ‘medieval’ when they talk about Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, beyond a lazy reference to the Taliban’s patriarchal tendencies and ready resort to violence.
And as you rightly say, there is much that connects us to the Middle Ages – or at least, much in what we consider as the traditional pillars of Western society that has its roots in the Middle Ages. Part of that is Christianity and the omnipresence of the Church – even if that is now an architectural fact rather than a cultural one. But we might also think of institutions like parliaments, universities and inns of court. Monumental buildings like stone castles and Gothic cathedrals. European languages, national myths and legendary characters like King Arthur or El Cid. I’m just pulling these off the top of my head. There are plenty more.
As well as covering the tectonic shifts in ideas and empires throughout the Middle Ages, one of the book’s great attractions is its cast list of individuals – great figures who represented or reformed the times they lived in. The cast list includes Justinian, Muhammad, William Marshal, Leonardo de Vinci, Saladin, Petrarch, Dick Whittington, Martin Luther, and van Eyck, to name but a few. If you were to pick just three figures to have dinner with from the book, who would they be and why?
Oh, I’d have the girls around. Empress Theodora, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc. We’d have a load of white wine and a laugh. And there’d be marginally less chance of a punch-up.
Powers & Thrones prompts us to consider that the Middle Ages has much to teach us. And, whether we like it or not, we are still related to our medieval antecedents in some ways. When you were writing the book, was there any lesson or argument that particularly resonated for you in relation to the past not being such a foreign country after all? For instance, was it strange writing about the Black Death during the pandemic?
One of my aims with Powers & Thrones was to gently invite readers to reflect that even as we sit here in the 21st century, supremely assured of our evolved technological and moral condition, there is as much joining us to the Middle Ages as there is separating us. So as I wrote the book, I tried to lean into themes such as climate change, mass migration and pandemic disease, which I thought might help to make that point. This was an approach I had decided to adopt even before the Covid-19 pandemic began.
And yes, it was interesting to be writing about the Black Death (which I had done once or twice before in other books) from the vantage-point of another pandemic, albeit one that was mercifully much less lethal. I found I came to believe, or at least to sympathise with, the hysterical accounts of people who really believed that this disease – the Black Death – was bringing about the end of the world. Either the end of the world – full stop – or the end of the world as they knew it. That suddenly felt rather more relatable.
Finally, can you tell us a little about your next project?
Happily. Having written ten non-fiction books, I am taking a brief holiday to work on a trilogy of novels set in the Hundred Years War. The first is called Essex Dogs, and it tracks the progress of Edward III’s Crecy campaign through Normandy from the perspective of the ‘ordinary grunts’ rather than the heroic-chivalric knights lauded by chroniclers like Froissart. It aims to send a rocket up the backside of the myth of knightly combat as glamorous and chivalry as a civilising or restraining factor on the conduct of war. I’m billing it as Medieval Apocalypse Now. It is deeply bound in to real history, but it is the antithesis of the ‘hey nonny no, my liege’ school of romantic medieval fiction. I read a lot of hard-bitten and hard-boiled American fiction, and it owes something to that. It could be a Second World War novel, or a Vietnam novel. It just happens to be set in 1346. I’m excited about it. It comes out in October 2022.
Dan Jones is the author of a number of acclaimed and bestselling books of the medieval period, including Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England and most recently Powers & Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages.
Dan Jones Interview.