Powers and Thrones, by Dan Jones

The author of Siege: The First Crusade reviews the latest from the master of medieval history.
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Dan Jones argues, if not proves, in his revelatory new book, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middles Ages, that the period made us. Good history doesn’t necessarily need to be relevant, but more than most non-fiction titles this year Powers and Thrones will resonate for a number of reasons. The book touches upon the rise and fall of empires, pandemics, religious conflict, the failure of a two-state solution in Jerusalem and even plutocrats giving their fortunes away. Powers and thrones still very much exist.

The Middle Ages made us, but equally so the period makes for a cracking story. Jones is careful to entertain, as well as enlighten. This is one of the paciest 600 plus page books I have ever read. Powers and Thrones is cannily structured and embroidered with style. The book takes us from Marcus Aurelius to Henry VIII, without a single wasted paragraph. The narrative addresses epochal moments and movements (such as the demise of Rome, the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Black Death, Protestantism) – which are interspersed with lively portraits of remarkable and representative figures during the period, including William Marshal, Dick Whittington, Charlemagne, and Christopher Columbus to name but a few. Not every character in the vast cast list may be deemed admirable or virtuous, but none are dull.

The chapters dealing with the Crusades, Templars and Plantagenets are understandably insightful, given the author’s previous bestselling titles on the subjects. But there is plenty of rich and judicious material to be found when Jones writes about the success (and decline) of the Mongol Empire, and how the Black Death was succeeded by a spirit of renewal. Scholarship is wedded to storytelling – and flashes of humour exist on the same page as academic rigour, as Jones contrasts the Medieval world with our own (and finds that there is more that unites than divides us).

Credit should also go to the publisher, Head of Zeus, for the production values of the book. There are copious colour plates, which will help turn Powers and Thrones into a great gift, as well as a great read. A few years ago, I thought to myself that the author may not write a better book than The Plantagenets. Not for the first time in my life, I was wrong.