Powers and Thrones - Dan Jones

Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones's trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting - or stealing - the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations - Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople - and it features some of history's most famous and notorious men and women. Ahead of his upcoming appearance at Hay Festival Winter Weekend, we’re offering an exclusive extract of the novel: here is chapter one...

In the sixteenth century the English historian John Foxe looked over his shoulder at the great sweep of the near, and distant, past. History, thought Foxe (or ecclesiastical history, which was the stuff that really mattered to him), could be sliced into three great chunks. 

It began with ‘the primitive time’, by which he meant those ancient days when Christians hid in catacombs to dodge persecution by wicked, faithless Romans, and tried to avoid being crucified or worse. It culminated in what Foxe called ‘our latter days’ – the era of the Reformation, when the grip of the Catholic Church on life in Europe was challenged, and when western navigators began to explore the New World. 

Sandwiched between these two periods was an awkward slab consisting of about one thousand years. Foxe called this ‘the middle age’. It was, by definition, neither fish nor fowl. 

Today we still use Foxe’s label, although we have added a plural. For us, the years between the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD and the Protestant Reformation are ‘the Middle Ages’. Anything relating to the time is ‘medieval’ – a nineteenth-century adjective, which literally means the same thing. But if we have added an extra letter, our periodization is largely the same. The Middle Ages were (it is usually supposed) the time when the classical world had vanished, but the modern world was yet to get going; when people built castles and men fought in armour on horseback; when the world was flat and everything very far away. Although some twenty-first century global historians have tried to update the terminology, speaking not of Middle Ages but of a Middle Millennium, that has not yet caught on.

Words are heavily loaded. The Middle Ages are often the butt of a big historical joke. Medieval is frequently deployed as a dirty term, particularly by newspaper editors, who use it as shorthand when they want to suggest stupidity, barbarity and wanton violence. (An alternative popular name for this period is the Dark Ages, which does much the same job: caricaturing the medieval past as a time of permanent intellectual night.) For obvious reasons, this can make today’s historians quite tetchy. If you should happen to meet one, it is best not to deploy ‘medieval’ as an insult – unless you want a lecture or a punch on the nose. 

The book you are about to read tells the story of the Middle Ages. It is a big book, because that is a big task. We are going to sweep across continents and centuries, often at breakneck pace. We are going to meet hundreds of men and women, from Attila the Hun to Joan of Arc. And we are going to dive headlong into at least a dozen fields of history – from war and law to art and literature. I am going to ask – and I hope, answer – some big questions. What happened in the Middle Ages? Who ruled? What did power look like? What were the big forces that shaped people’s lives? And how (if at all) did the Middle Ages shape the world we know today? 

There will be times when it may feel a little bit overwhelming. 

But I promise you, it is going to be fun. 

Dan Jones joins us at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on 26 November to discuss Powers and Thrones. Buy tickets here or buy a copy of the book here.