‘Powers and Thrones’ Review:
Plagues, Princes and Pardons

Why did Rome fall and the long cycle of invasions in Europe begin?
The answer may be locked in the rings of a tree in Tibet.

The Mongol army defeats combined European forces at the Battle of Legnica (1241).


‘What has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Dan Jones places this canard from Ecclesiastes as the epigraph for his often surprising “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages.” After such an opening salvo, how can he offer a “new” history? In fact, Mr. Jones does just that, recalibrating our sense of what the old and the now have in common. Using continuous references to the present, enabling modern readers to understand not only the “whats” but the “whys” behind events in the distant past, “Powers and Thrones” makes those events immediate, personal and understandable. Much like Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Mr. Jones recontextualizes medieval history by using recent findings about the impact of climate, technology and pathogens on human cultures. His narrative stretches across a wide area of interconnected empires, cultures, and wars: from China to Africa; from the steppes of the Mongols to the deserts of Arabia.

Mr. Jones agrees with traditional scholars that the Middle Ages begin with the fall of Rome in 476 and end around 1500. We all remember the arrows on the map in the high-school textbook that represented the barbarian hordes that ultimately descended on Rome. Mr. Jones’s book shows the same arrows, but he explains why the Huns arrived when they did. The clue came from a newly discovered source: a 1,000-year old juniper tree on the Tibetan plateau. Its growth rings recorded a spectacular megadrought from 350 to 370, the worst in 2,000 years, that turned members of the tribal Hun empire into “climate migrants” or “refugees.” The Huns sought literally greener pastures in the west, displacing many thousands of Goths. Thus a secondary migratory crisis arose when the Goths petitioned Rome for direct entry into the Empire. They rebelled soon after, and the long process of eating away at Roman law and order began.

Mr. Jones goes on to argue that the Pax Romana had persisted not merely because of Roman engineering and military might. From 200 B.C. to A.D. 150, in his account, the empire also enjoyed the “Roman Climate Optimum,” when there was no volcanic activity to cloud the skies. Within the period of the empire’s existence, Mediterranean Europe enjoyed “a cycle of unusually warm and hospitable decades, which happened to be very wet”—and boom agricultural times. Hence the spread of Roman power, amassing not only new territory, but also the immense population of slaves needed to work the more fruitful land.

Mr. Jones lists in his index entry for “climate conditions” no fewer than nine major turning points in the history of the Middle Ages caused by changes in the weather. Another example he cites is the rise of the Mongol Empire during a period of beneficent weather that enabled Genghis Khan to flourish on the steppes. Well-fed Mongol warriors opened new interconnected trade routes while spreading both terror and—strange to say—religious tolerance everywhere. (Although Mr. Jones does not mention this, the great Khan also put his daughters rather than his sons in charge of the cities along the Silk Road.) This network of trade routes not only stimulated economic activity everywhere, it also dispersed the bubonic plague’s second wave, powered by a more virulent strain that included pneumonia and was able to transmit by breath among human beings as well as by flea bites. We may now better understand how difficult it was for people who had only isolation as a weapon to combat this rampant pest. It ultimately slayed 60% of the population in some countries, far more even than those killed by the Mongols themselves.


Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages

By Dan Jones


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As in our day, technological advances also posed their threats. Mr. Jones argues that the printing press destroyed the centrality of the Catholic Church in Europe, but not, as is often claimed, via dissemination of the Bible or the words of Martin Luther. Instead, he insists, the first item mechanically printed was a single sheet of printed vellum, a papal indulgence, or “Pardon.” Purchase of pardons had traditionally allowed people to bypass the penitential rituals the Church required for remission of sins. But for centuries each pardon had to be laboriously copied out by hand. When 50,000 mechanically reproduced indulgences hit the market all at once, the great mass of documents made a very noisy display of the institutional venality of the Church. Luther went on alert. It was, in Mr. Jones’s telling, a “communications revolution,” as the printing press prefigured the cellphone’s disturbing power to disrupt and re-create access to information that reshapes an entire world.

With comparisons like this, Mr. Jones is able to connect the medieval past to our present. Readers can grasp the terror produced by a pandemic causing millions of agonizing deaths around the globe. We can recognize the threats to civilized order created by cynical politicians recruiting the discontented and “angry” to turn violent against other elites, and we can sympathize with the fears endured by those populations facing floods of migration.

All medieval history is here, beautifully narrated: the falls of Rome and Constantinople, the rise of the Ottomans, the advent of Crusades (a “medieval moon shot”), the origin of Islam, the spread of Christianity, the founding of universities throughout Europe, and the dawning of the relatively short age of chivalry. Massively detailed and informed, the pace of the narrative is as brisk as it must be in a book that covers 1,000 years of history in 600 pages. The vision takes in whole imperial landscapes but also makes room for intimate portraits of key individuals, and even some poems.

Sometimes laugh-out-loud comic and sometimes coldly caustic, Mr. Jones’s wit as a narrator makes the Middle Ages seem very up close and personal. His book is not only an engrossing read about the distant past, both informative and entertaining, but also a profoundly thought-provoking view of our not-really-so-“new” present.

Ms. Quilligan is the author, most recently, of “When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe.”