In preparation for our 20th wedding anniversary trip to Europe, I knew I had to bone up on some of my Europe Medieval history. The popular British historian, Dan Jones, known for his tattoos on his forearms, had last year published “a New History of the Middle Ages,” as he subtitled it, Powers and Thrones. It did not disappoint.
The Middle Ages are often erroneously called the “Dark Ages,” but that description is not fair. A lot happened during the time span that Dan Jones covers between the sack of Rome in 410, and the later sack of Rome in 1527.
That 1,000+ year period is filled with Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Monks, Knights, Crusaders, Mongols, Merchants, Scholars, Builders, Survivors, Renewers, Navigators, and Protestants, as Jones lays out in his chapters. The primary reason the label “Dark Ages” is still hard to shake off is because we have less written sources to work with during the first half of that era, as compared to the previous era of when the Roman Empire was at its greatest.
Yet Dan Jones manages to tell an engrossing story, giving the reader the flow of this immensely important era of European history. I gained a better appreciation of how just brutal the Monguls were, while ironically and simultaneously prefiguring the current age of cultural pluralism. Who knew that many medieval Christians at first mistakenly imagined Genghis Khan to be a new “King David,” who might push back against the scourge of the growth of Islam? But most interestingly, climate change, technological revolution, and pandemics play a significant part in the whole story, topics that sound eerily contemporary post-2020.
During our trip to Europe, I saw plenty of castles and cathedrals, resulting from the great building programs Jones describes from the medieval period. Admittedly, I did see attestation to the darkest sides of this period, as evidences of anti-semitism abounded in nearly every major city my wife and I visited. But the 16th century marks a clear break in Europe’s history, as any visitor to continental Europe can confirm. Beyond the fall of the Roman Empire, it could be fairly stated that the coming of Martin Luther, the age of the printing press, and the exploration of the Americas signaled the end of the Middle Ages.
Alas, as with any sweeping survey of history, I have some complaints with Dan Jones retelling, from my Protestant evangelical perspective. The work of any historian is by the very nature of the field selective, and so how the story is framed tells you a lot about the worldview bent of the historian.
Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential Christian preachers during the early 12th century, and one of the most saintly figures of the age, comes across as wholly hostile to academic freedom in his condemnation of the progressive theology of Peter Abelard. I got the impression that the Christian movement somehow suddenly discovered for the first time the value of women under the reign of the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian, through the influence of the empress Theodora. Towards the end of the book, Christopher Columbus initially comes across as an insightful missionary to the American peoples, only to be revealed eventually as a liar and colonialist oppressor, willing to use every underhanded means necessary to gain converts…. and profits. The ultimately secular orientation of Dan Jones implies that just about for every minute advance of Christianity in the medieval world along with it came a devastating catastrophe for at least someone.
To be fair, the doctrinal controversies with the Christian church, in an era when religious commitments were tightly welded to political realities, often had horrific consequences. The fact that Alaric, the Hun who first sacked Rome in 410, the seat of the orthodox papacy, was a professing anti-Nicene-anti-Trinitarian Arian Christian does make one think twice about the theological role Trinitarian thought plays in Christianity today, something that most Christians never even consider. Pair that with the fact that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V employed Lutheran-sympathizing German mercenaries in his 1527 sack of Rome, then you get the sense that the theological conflicts within Christianity even today carry with them great power to indelibly change the lives of many people.
Nevertheless, the advantage of reading such a broad history as found in Powers and Thrones is that it inspires one to dig into some of the stories Dan Jones brings up in greater detail to gain a better understanding of historical context. Consider the story of empress Theodora, noted briefly above, and her efforts to encourage her husband, the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian, to uphold the value of women. Though Theodora had the history of being a prostitute, having come from a very lower class background, she became a big advocate of marriage, viewing it as the “holiest of all institutions,” a tip towards her Christian convictions as empress. Roman law was changed to allow marriages between men and women of different social classes. Dowry was described as being “strictly necessary,” in contrast to a more traditional view that made dowry essential to marriage. Justinian’s law stated that “mutual affection is what creates a marriage.” Justinian and Theodora made it more difficult for men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons. The killing of adulterous wives was strictly forbidden.
These type of legal reforms may seem obvious to us today, but in the 6th century, these ways of elevating the status of women were unheard of in any comparable civilized society. This was a clear indication that far from being anti-woman, the Christian movement that had only gained cultural ascendancy a mere two hundred years earlier had managed to reshape popular Roman views of women, that would have scandalized the earlier cultures of Roman paganism. It would have been more helpful if Dan Jones had given the reader more context here, but I am glad that in reading Powers and Thrones it encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the historical context myself.
But such critique of a general historical survey is to be expected and should not in any way diminish the artful way that Dan Jones tells his “new history.” Powers and Thrones entertains just as well as it educates. This is a fantastic historical survey of an immensely important time period, and a good model for how such sweeping histories should be done. Highly recommended. Dan Jones also narrates the Audible audiobook version, which makes it even better. A good way to spend about 25 hours worth of time, such as I did, including on a long plane flight to Europe!