Book Review: “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages” by Dan Jones

57347786When we study human history, in general, we tend to pick a country and a period to focus on and research. Books on the subject material tend to focus on one land with interactions between other nations. It is infrequent for authors to take on multiple countries unless concentrated on one event that affected numerous locations. Those books often read like textbooks and can be a bit dry. Finding the perfect balance between these elements and engaging with the reader is a monumental task for any author, but Dan Jones has taken on the challenge. His latest behemoth tome, “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages,” takes on the gigantic task of telling the story of the Middle Ages from diverse perspectives.

To take on such a massive undertaking is no easy feat, but Jones seems to do it seamlessly. He breaks this book into four segments to not overwhelm his readers, each dealing with a different element that made the Middle Ages unique. Every story has a foundation, and the story of the Middle Ages begins with the fall of the Roman Empire. With the empire’s fall, we see the rise of Barbarian groups, the Byzantines, and the Arab states that would define this era with the Crusades. Jones takes his readers on a journey through climate change and pandemics that forced humanity to move from place to place to survive.

We encounter revolutions of all kinds; religious, political, artistic, architectural, and technological. Humankind was not as stagnant as many people believed during the Middle Ages. This was an age full of life and colorful figures that shaped the world around them, from philosophers and artists to kings and conquerors. Men and women like St. Aquitaine, Attila the Hun, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther, and Christopher Columbus defined this era. Although Jones does focus on more European figures, he takes the time to show people groups like the Mongols, the Franks, the Arabs, and the Byzantines to show how diversity ruled this period in history. Those who study the Middle Ages know the stories of the Black Death, the Crusades, and the Sack of Rome, but there are so many more stories that give life to this period in human history.

I felt nostalgic for my high school and college classes when I read this book. These were the classes that made me fall in love with studying history. Other stories in this book were brand new to me, which thrilled me to read. If there were an element that I wished he would have included, I think I would have liked to have seen more stories of medieval Asia and Africa. I think it would have added a new element to the story of the Middle Ages.

Out of all of the books that I have read by Dan Jones, I think this one is my favorite. I could tell how much passion and the amount of research Jones poured into this book, and it shows. Combining over a thousand years of history into one book is an impressive feat that Jones has mastered. “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages” by Dan Jones is a triumphant tome that any fan of medieval history will appreciate.

Book Review: “Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times” by Juliana Cummings

56549196The period of human history that we know today as the Middle Ages spanned over a thousand years, and within that time, significant progress was made into understanding our world. Inventions and discoveries were made not just in Europe but throughout the known world during this time. One area of study that saw a lot of change was medical studies and understanding the human body. How did physicians heal the sick during the Middle Ages, and how did their experiences change their field of study? These questions and more are all explored in Juliana Cummings’ latest book, “Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I like learning about aspects from the past, so when I saw this title, I was interested in reading it. I am not usually curious about medical information, but medieval medical history draws me in, so I hope to learn more.

To understand many of the theories of medieval medicine and their origins, we have to go back to the Greeks, primarily Galen and Hippocrates. Many people would be familiar with the works of Hippocrates. Still, they might not be familiar with Galen even if they know his Four Humours Theory, which was pivotal in understanding the human body. Cummings also includes the works of Arab scholars, European scholars, and physicians to help the audience understand how vast the world of medical history was during the Middle Ages.

Cummings does not stick with one medical treatment or disease during this time, and she covers everything from the Black Death, syphilis, and leprosy to pregnancy and injuries during battle. Reading about the theories and cures that physicians, apothecaries, and barber surgeons applied to heal the sick and dying was quite fascinating. Even though I did take a copious amount of notes while reading this book, I did feel like other books on this subject did a better job of focusing on the medicine part. This book introduces many theories and physicians to those unfamiliar with medical history, but it falls a bit flat with actual cures that they would have used. The ending of this book also needed a bit of work since it just ended abruptly. I think it would have been appropriate for Cummings to explain why the history of medieval medicine is important for readers to understand in the 21st century and beyond.

Overall, I think this was a decent introductory book into the vast world of medieval medical history. Cummings’s writing style is easy to follow, and she has done her research about this subject. If you want a solid introductory book into the world of medieval medical history, you should check out “Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times” by Juliana Cummings.

Book Review: “World Without End” by Ken Follett

Europe during the 14th century was full of danger, the start of a conflict that would be91zMJG7u8vL known as the Hundred Years’ War, and the massively destructive illness that we know today as either “the Black Death” or “the Black Plague”. This was a time of despair, but it was also a time where we see a shift from old traditions of the church and the state. It is also two centuries after the events of Ken Follett’s massively popular book, “The Pillars of the Earth”. Follett explores how the people of Kingsbridge survived during this tumultuous time in his second book of the Kingsbridge series, “World Without End”.

Follett begins his book with his main characters as children in the church that he wrote about in the first book, Kingsbridge Cathedral. They are the descendants of the protagonists of “The Pillars of the Earth”, but they all come from different backgrounds. Their names are Merthin, Caris, Gwenda, and Ralph. These children decide one day to play in the forest near Kingsbridge, where they come across a man named Thomas and they witness a killing. They promise to keep the secret until Thomas dies, but this one act will intertwine the lives of the friends forever.

Like “The Pillars of the Earth”, “World Without End” focuses on the growth of these characters over decades and how their lives and their hard work change the town of Kingsbridge. Merthin takes on the role of the builder, just like his ancestor Jack Builder, who believes in his radical new ideas to help the town, even though his elders think his ideas are too far out there. Ralph is Merthin’s brother who strives to be the best soldier he can be in order to bring honor to himself and to impress those around him. Ralph does whatever it takes to make sure his ambitions are realized, even if it means stepping over his family and friends. Caris is an independent woman who has a love of helping others, learning how to dye and sell wool, and learning medical practices. She has a complicated relationship with the church and with Merthin. Finally, Gwenda is a woman in love with the handsome  Wulfric and would do anything to make sure his dreams come true.

At the center of their world is the Kingsbridge cathedral and the struggle between the guild, the monks and the nuns. All three groups are fighting against each other for the power to control the town. It is the struggle between the monks and the nuns that adds a layer of depth to this story as we see that although both groups are focused on bringing glory to God, they have different means of achieving that goal and they often get in each other’s way. The nuns want to help heal the people of Kingsbridge, especially during the time of the plague, but the monks don’t believe the nuns know what they are doing.

To top it all off, this was the time of King Edward II’s murder, Queen Isabella, Roger Mortimer, and King Edward III. It was a complex time for English politics and to add a cherry on top, Edward III declared war on France because he believed he was the rightful King of France, thus starting the Hundred Years’ War. We see elements of the repercussions of the start of this conflict as we see some characters in France, fighting at the Battle of Crecy, which was a victory for the English. If I do have one thing to criticize about this novel, it would be that I wish Follett included more with King Edward III in the story. The actual historical figures feel sprinkled in and I wish they were more incorporated into the story.

As a whole, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the story. Like in “The Pillars of the Earth”, there were moments in this sequel which did bother me a bit because of the graphic detail, but the actual story was very engaging. I would spend hours at a time binge reading this book. The characters and their individual stories were well written. Sequels, especially for extremely popular books, can fall flat. Not this book. It is the perfect sequel for “The Pillars of the Earth” as it continues the legacy left behind by Prior Philip and Jack Builder. If you enjoyed the first book in the Kingsbridge series, “The Pillars of the Earth”, I highly recommend you read Ken Follett’s book, “World Without End”.