I actually started Dan Jones’ Powers and Thrones for last year’s Nonfiction November but found it so long and intensely detailed I could only read it in small doses. Although it’s a fascinating book and I’ve been learning a lot from it, 736 pages covering more than a thousand years of history is not something I could read quickly. I confess that I kept putting it aside and getting distracted by other books…so here I am, finishing it a year after I began and conveniently just in time for Nonfiction November again!
In Powers and Thrones, Jones explores the long period of history known as the Middle Ages. Starting in 410 AD, just before the fall of the Roman Empire, and ending in 1527 during the Renaissance, he looks at some of the ‘powers’ that helped to build the world we know today – not just ‘thrones’, but also powers such as money, trade, religion and exploration. He moves forward chronologically throughout the book while choosing a different topic to focus on in each chapter; Monks, Knights, Scholars, Crusaders, Merchants and Builders are just a few of the chapter titles.
As well as putting key events into the context of their own time, Jones also draws lots of parallels with modern life. It’s impossible to read about the first recorded global pandemic – a form of bubonic plague thought to have killed millions of people worldwide during the middle of the 6th century – without thinking of the similarities and differences with our own recent Covid-19 pandemic. Again, when he discusses the later outbreak of plague in the 14th century known as the Black Death, he looks at the economic impact on prices and wages, something as relevant now as it was then. It was also interesting to read about the effects of climate change and extreme weather such as droughts on the mass migration of people in the 4th and 5th centuries that led to ‘barbarian’ tribes pushing across the Roman frontiers and contributing to the fall of Rome.
Although the book concentrates on broad themes like these, Jones does pick out individual historical figures to write about in more detail. These range from ancient leaders such as Attila the Hun and Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths to Henry the Navigator, Marco Polo, and Dick Whittington – a real-life merchant and politician before he became a British pantomime character! The book is quite Eurocentric, but Jones doesn’t ignore things that were taking place in other parts of the world, particularly where they affect European life and culture. For example, he includes sections on Genghis Khan and the Mongols and on the caliphates of the Arab world.
The problem with Powers and Thrones is that there’s just too much information here for one book. Any of the chapters could have been expanded into an entire book in itself; trying to condense it all into one volume was a bit overwhelming. I’m still glad I read it, though, and am pleased I made it all the way through to the end – I finished it with a real sense of achievement!
Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.