Recommendation: Jones is a master of popular history done right – this is the perfect refresh or introduction
Where to read: Rainy weekend, leather arm chair if available
Read with: Guinness
In brief: Jones is a very good popular historian, even if he does make the occasional bombastic documentary featuring a weird amount of nudity. Obviously, Powers and Thrones is nothing ground breaking, but it is highly entertaining and provides an excellent overview of the medieval period while also picking up on themes of contemporary relevance.
A one-volume history of an entire continent for over 1000 years is always going to pose some logistical and structural challenges. Jones tackles this with a broadly chronological structure, with particular chapters focused on key events, professions (for want of a better word) and peoples. For example, the chapters on the downfall and legacy of the Roman empire focus in turn on the Romans themselves, the “Barbarians”, the surviving eastern Roman empire and the Arab world. The section on the “high” middle ages looks at the rise of monasteries and monks, knights and includes a very extensive chapter on the Crusaders (a prior area of focus for Jones). For the most part this works well, allowing Jones plenty of scope for Horrible Histories-style vignettes to keep the reader’s interest and deep dives into particular areas of interest. It is, however, worth taking careful note of dates or other touchpoints to keep the timeline straight in your mind because it can jump around several hundred years across sections and chapters (personally, I used references to the various kings of England).
Three main themes emerge from Powers and Thrones. The first is that far from being an entirely insular dark age, the “East” and the “West” were thoroughly intertwined, with a complex web of relationships between Islamic nations, Christian nations and African and Asian powers (most notably the Mongols). Some were positive, some were negative but the idea that the only interaction Europeans had with non-Europeans was a “clash of civilisations” between white, Christian Crusaders and Muslims in the Holy Land is utter nonsense.
The second point is that the “Middle Ages” were both far longer and far less homogenous than we tend to think. The popular image of the Middle Ages is of a Game of Thrones-style world of mail and plate armour, chivalry, jousting and castles however that accounts for only 200-300 odd years in a period which stretches from around 410 CE to around 1527 CE. There was certainly a hefty dose of the kinds of things we would today regard as “medieval” (being hung, drawn and quartered sounds fairly horrible, for example) however the period also saw a wealth of early Christian and Roman scholarship, the development of a Gothic architectural style which produced the tallest buildings in the world, stunning artistic achievements, the invention of the university and thinkers like Da Vinci and Copernicus we might more readily associate with the Renaissance.
Jones’ third concern is highlighting the contemporary relevance of the Middle Ages. Part of this is problematising the lily-white, purely Christian “Middle Ages” as they appear in alt-Right and conservative propaganda (a common concern for medievalists) and “clash of civilisation” style arguments rooted in oversimplifications of the Crusades and other interactions between “the West and the rest”. He is also, however, making a broader argument about commonalities – between those who, for instance, experienced the upheavals of the plague or the revolution in communication technology that was the printing press and modern readers living through Covid-19 and the rise of social media. In doing so, he is making a very Timothy Snyder-esque argument for the importance of good history, and good public understanding of history, to society as a whole.
Any work of history, even if it is 600-something pages long, is going to have its fair share of omissions and blind spots however Jones is commendably aware of this and is, for the most part, very clear about what he is and is not doing. Some commentators have critiqued the focus on political and military history to the detriment of a more social history approach however I must admit I thoroughly approved. I am biased since that is precisely the kind of history I tend to gravitate to anyway however it is also the most approachable way of conveying a general sweep of events. Call me old fashioned, but a general chronology is normally the underpinning for other kinds of history.
All in all, this is well worth reading if you have any interest, latent or otherwise, in the Middle Ages. And even if you don’t, maybe check out Jones on Youtube.