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Power in the Darkness

Reviewed by Ben Soton

Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones. Hardback: Apollo (Sept 2021), 720pp; RRP £25; ISBN-13: 978-1789543537. Softback: Apollo (April 2022), 736pp; RRP £12; ISBN-13: 978-1789543544. Kindle: Apollo (Sept 2021), 832pp; £0.99. Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages

DAN JONES is a journalist best known for producing television series such as Secrets of Great British Castles and Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, and writing popular histories about the Crusades, the Templars and the Wars of the Roses.

His latest romp through history, which hit the bookshelves last year, covers a thousand-year period from the last days of the Roman Empire to the European conquest of the Americas. The 600-page work is divided into four sections entitled: Imperium (410 – 750AD), Dominion (750–1215AD), Rebirth (1215–1347AD) and Revolution (1347 – 1527AD).

Feudalism, a complex system based on obligations and duties, was the dominant economic system in Europe at the least throughout the Middle Ages. A system highly skewed in favour of the those at the top, who demanded obligations from those below them and seldom honoured theirs.

The period covered by Jones, however, begins with a European economy dominated by slavery, the basis of the Roman economy that stretched from Palestine to Scotland and spanned both sides of the Mediterranean, and ends with the early stages of capitalism.

The author takes a linear approach through, with a focus on particular groups and institutions. These include Romans, Franks, Monks, Mongols and Navigators. Arguably the book focus is primarily on Europe and the Middle East, although a chapter on the Mongols is included as their Empire covered the immense area from Seoul in Korea to the gates of Budapest.

It was during the Medieval Crusades that the notion of a world divided into distinct civilisations emerged. Most notably the concept of a Christian West and an Islamic East, which became the basis of the reactionary ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory. On a positive note, Jones rejects this theory and points out that the Crusades were simply a means of cementing the hegemony of the Catholic Church over Western Europe.

Meanwhile, a chapter entitled Survivors covers the numerous rebellions that broke out in the period following the Black Death. Most notable of these was the Peasants’ Revolt in England. This was, however, part of an upturn in the class struggle that took place across Europe. There were uprisings in France, with the movement known as the Jacquerie, and Florence with the Ciompi, as well as student revolts in Bologna.

The book ends with the sacking of Rome by the armies of the German Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; the event Jones considered to be the end of the Middle Ages.

What is most concerning is the total lack of Marxist sources in the bibliography. I refer particularly to the works of the famed French historian Marc Bloch, who joined the resistance and was shot by the Gestapo in 1944, or British historians such AL Morton and Christopher Hill.

Nevertheless, despite obvious flaws, the book is a useful source of reference about an important period in European and World History – the period following the Middle Ages that saw the beginning of European dominance across the globe.