Dan Jones has carved himself out quite a nice niche writing heavy but definitely still-pop histories on various Middle Ages-based topics, and this book feels like somewhat of a career-defining masterwork for him.
It’s real good.
And I was pleasantly surprised at that fact; I’ve read some of his other stuff and it ranged, for me, from generally competent but not particularly inspired (The War of the Roses) to somehow quite dull given the not-dullness of the topic at hand (The Tempars, Crusaders).
None of that plagues this volume; he synthesizes all of the major strands I consider necessary for a “good” history into a wonderfully-cohesive whole, and it is entertaining as fuck along the way.
There’s a lot to cover and he does it with an economic precision; short, personal vignettes open each chapter, usually, basically providing a sort of “local color” to ground the reader in an individual perspective on the larger topic that’s about to be covered. And it’s not always the predictable option; Marco Polo existed and is well-known, but he’s not the guy whose life is chosen to intro the chapter on global trade. I like that choice.
All of the expected topics are covered well. Opening with an overview of the western Roman collapse and how the backward proto-states of Europe began to re-organize themselves in that absence, he proceeds smoothly through the rise of Islam and its impact on those nascent polities. From there we proceed through the high point of Catholic power and culture in the high Middle Ages, coverage of the expanding population growth and impact on the economy… things are nicely moving along to the creation of the Europe we know today.
Then the Mongols and the Black Death show up and everybody dies.
The rest of the book is concerned mostly with the massive impact of those shattering events and how they reordered the European economy and eventually society.
He wisely wraps things up with the Renaissance, Age of Exploration, and the printing press making the Reformation possible, sensibly bowing out before getting into the morass that was the Counter-Reformation and subsequent annihilating wars that prefigured the imperial/colonial era.
As you can tell from this recitation of topics, he covers a LOT of ground in this book. I agree with the many editorial choices he had to make to keep this sucker under 1000 pages. I was particularly pleased to see a good chunk on the role climate change played in how things developed in Europe during this period, with the Medieval Climate Optimum enabling an expansion of agriculture (and associated growth in population) getting due credit, and the end of that blessed period due blame for influencing much of what happened after.
Basically, if you’re new to the Middle Ages or want a digestible update on the state of scholarship of that era, you’re not going to find a better single-volume way to cover the topic. This book is very good and I recommend it as a more honest look at the era than something like The Bright Ages, which, in my opinion, tries too hard to come up with a revisionist slant on the Middle Ages not having been mostly a regression when compared to the eras that both preceded and followed.
4/5 bloodied halberds
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