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: “The Last Knight” by Norman F. Cantor

the-last-knight-9781439137581_lgWhen we think of knights, we often think of shining armor, King Arthur and his fabulous court, fair maidens, and of course chivalry. These are considered to be literary ideals, almost too fantastic to be real. However, knights did live in the Middle Ages into the 14th century where some of the greatest knights lived. One is known as The Black Prince; the other was John of Gaunt. Both were brothers, sons of Edward III, the one who helped launch the Hundred Years’ War with France. The Black Prince might have a pretty cool nickname, but the one who really stole the show was John of Gaunt. The subject of Norman F. Cantor’s book “The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era” is none other than the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt.

Now I know what you are thinking, why do a book review for about someone who lived in the 1300s when this blog is focused on the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors. The answer is simple. It is because John of Gaunt and his children with his third wife and mistress Catherine Swynford would create the Beaufort line, the same family of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, the founder of the Tudor Dynasty. It was also with John’s first wife Blanche of Lancaster, that the line of Lancaster was formed. He may have only been a third son but he became one of the wealthiest men in Europe and his family would shape the future of England forever.

Cantor, in this book, explores the world that John of Gaunt called home. What was it like in not just in England but in all of the medieval world? What about religion and literature? What was life like for women and knights in court? All of these aspects are explored throughout this book as well as elements in John of Gaunt’s life that made him unique, including his wealth and becoming King of Castile after he married his second wife Constance. Through wars and plagues, politics and rebellions, exploration and the beginning of the Renaissance, John of Gaunt navigated through it all.

It sounds like a very complex time, however, Cantor has a way of explaining it all in such a way that is both engaging and educational. Cantor through his writing style makes it easy to understand John of Gaunt’s legacy, not only is his time but how his legacy affected even our time. It was through his patronage that men like Chaucer and John Wyclif were able to complete their best works.

Shakespeare gave John of Gaunt a very patriotic speech, “this sceptre’d isle…This other Eden, demi-paradise”. Shakespeare was speaking as though John of Gaunt was an old man, reminiscing about the good times as the younger generation was taking over like Henry Bolingbroke and Henry the Navigator. Cantor brings to life the legend of John of Gaunt. Towards the end of his book, Cantor nicely sums up John of Gaunt’s life:

Above all, Gaunt’s taste for war, his frenetic energy, and his physical strength, as well as his love of women and his wealth and lifestyle, set the model for European aristocratic behavior, which went unchallenged until the nineteenth century and is still the pattern for all effective and durable social elites. (Cantor, 239).

John of Gaunt was a Renaissance man of his times. He wasn’t just some old man of Shakespearean lore. Cantor makes John of Gaunt and his world of the Middle Ages come alive. If you want to learn more about John of Gaunt, his family, and his world, Norman F. Cantor’s book “The Last Knight” is the book for you.

 

Sources

Cantor, Norman F. The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.