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A New History of the Middle Ages

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

A New History of the Middle Ages, Part I
by Mary Emeny

Probably my favorite book of the last 8 months I learned about on this program, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. But in a totally different direction Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a close second. Jones calls it A New History of the Middle Ages. And that it is.

It is almost a page turner because it is not just about battles and brutalities, but also about mega- personalities, and popular uprisings, priests, poets and pandemics, engineers and artists, merchants and mischief makers. The effects each had on the long course of history we are still feeling today. There is not much of a sense that the arc of history bends towards justice, but it does turn increasingly toward cross-fertilization of cultures through trade as much as through war. It is about how war sparks advances in construction and technology, and how this leads to increasing interconnectedness, and in the very long run to greater prosperity for more people.

The book is divided into four main sections: Imperium (410-750ad) deals with the decline and fall of the Roman empire, for almost a millennium Rome held sway over an empire that spread from the Asia minor to Britain, unified by good roads, common administration and a powerful, professional army. But when the Huns, and later other tribal groups, finally were able to break in, everything got turned upside down. The center of Catholicism moved east to Byzantium. Volcanoes in other parts of the world (unknown to the Romans) spewed enough ash to create climate change, and a major plague (probably bubonic), wiped out whole communities. It was into the trauma created by this chaos that Arabs swept through the middle east and what is now eastern Europe in the early days of Islam, capturing Christianity’s most sacred sites in the process.

The second section entitled Dominion (750-1215 ad) brings in monks, the rise of chivalry, knighthood and crusades. Knighthood was not Camelot by a long shot, it seems, but rather an enticement for young men to agree to take on a vocation that would destroy their bodies in warfare in the gamble that by doing so they would be granted land (not unlike pro-football players today). It was the time of city states, competing minor fiefdoms, and struggles for power within the church. The main object of crusades, but by no means the only one, was to regain the holy land from the Muslims, but with that came the introduction at least to some from the west, of the mathematical, geometric and construction knowledge of the Arab world.

Rebirth (1215-1347) starts more like a mass slaughter than rebirth, as the Mongols under Genghis Khan swept out of the east and conquered an area larger than the Roman empire. His tactics were brutal for any who stood in his way, but for those who accepted Pax Mongolia, there was great tolerance for various religions and cultures.

There were also roads over which merchants, scholars and even priests could travel safely (the great Silk Road being the one we know best). This in itself led to much greater interconnectedness of peoples and cultures.

The biographical descriptions of both Genghis Khan and Marco Polo are fascinating. Khan grew up a poor kid on the steppes of Mongolia and rose to power through pure strength of personality and willingness to use brutality to get his way. Polo came from a family of merchants and had a real gift for languages. He was highly respected and appreciated by Genghis Khan and sent as his ambassador as far as southern India. The Khan dynasty lasted about 100 years before it started to splinter. In the meantime, England had become rich because the sheep raised in the Cotswold area had the best wool in all of Europe. One of the main traders of this wool is not the Dick Whittington stories tell about wandering the streets of London with a cat, but Sir Richard Whittington, who was one of the first major financiers of Europe. Then there were the scholars and the beginning of what would become universities, and the builders – of castles and cathedrals.

Part 4, Revolution (1347-1527), begins with the black plague, a long drawn-out pandemic that killed half the population of Europe, resulting in a shortage of labor, which led to popular uprisings of laborers and serfs for better pay and living conditions. “Universities, which flourished in the century after the Black Death, were a particularly regular source of urban conflict.” (So, today’s student protests are nothing new.) This was also a time of rivalry between city states, both for trade and for social and ecclesiastical power. One of the ways this was exercised was in patronage for the artists that form the core of most Art History classes.

This was the Renaissance – or rebirth of European culture, in art, architecture, political and natural sciences, and medicine. It was also the beginning of Humanism – the contemplation of life’s vicissitudes outside of the passion of Christ. And of course, there was political competition, which advances in navigation allowed to take wandering far beyond the known world – first into southern Africa, then around the cape of Good Hope and finally to the Caribbean.

These expeditions – especially to the Americas, led to the history we all know of exploitation and global trade based on slavery. And finally, there was Martin Luther, who challenged the Church on indulgences and other practices it used to line its coffers, which birthed the Protestant church in Europe and among other conflicts and opened the way from Henry VIII’s split from the Roman Church in England. But none of this would have gotten far without the printing press, which for the first time in history allowed for mass distribution of media content. The Middle Ages, the period between the decline of Pax Romana and the Enlightenment had come to an end.

There is so much more in this book, so many stories and personalities, parallels between those centuries and ours that no 3-minute description can do it justice. It is not a short book or a quick read (at least for me), but it is one I went to every night for weeks. I might have become a historian had I had this to read in college instead of the books available back then.


A New History of the Middle Ages, Part II
by Mary Emeny

A New History of the Middle Ages by Mary Emeny, Part II

Probably my favorite book of the last 8 months I learned about on this program, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. But in a totally different direction Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a close second. Jones calls it A New History of the Middle Ages. And that it is.

It is almost a page turner because it is not just about battles and brutalities, but also about mega- personalities, and popular uprisings, priests, poets and pandemics, engineers and artists, merchants and mischief makers. The effects each had on the long course of history we are still feeling today. There is not much of a sense that the arc of history bends towards justice, but it does turn increasingly toward cross-fertilization of cultures through trade as much as through war. It is about how war sparks advances in construction and technology, and how this leads to increasing interconnectedness, and in the very long run to greater prosperity for more people.

The book is divided into four main sections: Imperium (410-750ad) deals with the decline and fall of the Roman empire, for almost a millennium Rome held sway over an empire that spread from the Asia minor to Britain, unified by good roads, common administration and a powerful, professional army. But when the Huns, and later other tribal groups, finally were able to break in, everything got turned upside down. The center of Catholicism moved east to Byzantium. Volcanoes in other parts of the world (unknown to the Romans) spewed enough ash to create climate change, and a major plague (probably bubonic), wiped out whole communities. It was into the trauma created by this chaos that Arabs swept through the middle east and what is now eastern Europe in the early days of Islam, capturing Christianity’s most sacred sites in the process.

The second section entitled Dominion (750-1215 ad) brings in monks, the rise of chivalry, knighthood and crusades. Knighthood was not Camelot by a long shot, it seems, but rather an enticement for young men to agree to take on a vocation that would destroy their bodies in warfare in the gamble that by doing so they would be granted land (not unlike pro-football players today). It was the time of city states, competing minor fiefdoms, and struggles for power within the church. The main object of crusades, but by no means the only one, was to regain the holy land from the Muslims, but with that came the introduction at least to some from the west, of the mathematical, geometric and construction knowledge of the Arab world.

Rebirth (1215-1347) starts more like a mass slaughter than rebirth, as the Mongols under Genghis Khan swept out of the east and conquered an area larger than the Roman empire. His tactics were brutal for any who stood in his way, but for those who accepted Pax Mongolia, there was great tolerance for various religions and cultures.

There were also roads over which merchants, scholars and even priests could travel safely (the great Silk Road being the one we know best). This in itself led to much greater interconnectedness of peoples and cultures.

The biographical descriptions of both Genghis Khan and Marco Polo are fascinating. Khan grew up a poor kid on the steppes of Mongolia and rose to power through pure strength of personality and willingness to use brutality to get his way. Polo came from a family of merchants and had a real gift for languages. He was highly respected and appreciated by Genghis Khan and sent as his ambassador as far as southern India. The Khan dynasty lasted about 100 years before it started to splinter. In the meantime, England had become rich because the sheep raised in the Cotswold area had the best wool in all of Europe. One of the main traders of this wool is not the Dick Whittington stories tell about wandering the streets of London with a cat, but Sir Richard Whittington, who was one of the first major financiers of Europe. Then there were the scholars and the beginning of what would become universities, and the builders – of castles and cathedrals.

Part 4, Revolution (1347-1527), begins with the black plague, a long drawn-out pandemic that killed half the population of Europe, resulting in a shortage of labor, which led to popular uprisings of laborers and serfs for better pay and living conditions. “Universities, which flourished in the century after the Black Death, were a particularly regular source of urban conflict.” (So, today’s student protests are nothing new.) This was also a time of rivalry between city states, both for trade and for social and ecclesiastical power. One of the ways this was exercised was in patronage for the artists that form the core of most Art History classes.

This was the Renaissance – or rebirth of European culture, in art, architecture, political and natural sciences, and medicine. It was also the beginning of Humanism – the contemplation of life’s vicissitudes outside of the passion of Christ. And of course, there was political competition, which advances in navigation allowed to take wandering far beyond the known world – first into southern Africa, then around the cape of Good Hope and finally to the Caribbean.

These expeditions – especially to the Americas, led to the history we all know of exploitation and global trade based on slavery. And finally, there was Martin Luther, who challenged the Church on indulgences and other practices it used to line its coffers, which birthed the Protestant church in Europe and among other conflicts and opened the way from Henry VIII’s split from the Roman Church in England. But none of this would have gotten far without the printing press, which for the first time in history allowed for mass distribution of media content. The Middle Ages, the period between the decline of Pax Romana and the Enlightenment had come to an end.

There is so much more in this book, so many stories and personalities, parallels between those centuries and ours that no 3-minute description can do it justice. It is not a short book or a quick read (at least for me), but it is one I went to every night for weeks. I might have become a historian had I had this to read in college instead of the books available back then.


Mary Emeny
Mary Emeny

Mary Emeny lives outside of Bushland on a ranch that has been in her family since 1880. She and her late husband were founding members of HPPR in Amarillo, and both have served on the HPPR board. She loves getting into good trouble wherever she can.

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