Sharing my learnings from the book, Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones
Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones
When the once-mighty city of Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410 and lay in ruins, it signaled the end of an era–and the beginning of a thousand years of profound transformation. In a gripping narrative bursting with big names—from Sts Augustine and Attila the Hun to the Prophet Muhammad and Eleanor of Aquitaine—Dan Jones charges through the history of the Middle Ages. Powers and Thrones takes readers on a journey through an emerging Europe, the great capitals of late Antiquity, as well as the influential cities of the Islamic West, and culminates in the first European voyages to the Americas.
- Spanning from the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fourth century to the Protestant Reformation in the fifteenth, this book survey the rulers and forces that shaped the Middle Ages.
- The Roman Empire was a global force for more than one thousand years. During its heyday, it spanned northern Africa, Asia Minor, and most of Europe. Roman rule influenced the politics, culture, religion, and military of its dominions. But by the fourth century CE, the Roman mega-state was beginning to collapse. And, surprisingly, a large factor in its fall was climate change – thousands of miles away from central Italy.
- In the mid-fourth century, eastern Asia experienced the most severe drought recorded in the last two millennia. So the Huns, a nomadic people living in eastern Asia at that time, began to migrate across the Volga river, invading the lands of Germanic tribes known as the Goths. Since the Huns had an upper hand with their advanced archery capabilities, huge bands of Gothic tribes were forced to flee and seek refuge in the Roman Empire. Soon, eastern Europe was overwhelmed with a migrant crisis.
- Over the decades that followed, waves of barbarian migrant tribespeople posed an increasing threat to Roman power. Perhaps the most famous barbarian assault on the Roman Empire was led by Attila the Hun, who, in the fifth century, united the Huns and many Germanic tribespeople against Roman rule. The power of the western Roman Empire had all but dissolved by the time a coalition of Gothic tribes led by Odoacer deposed the final Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, in 476.
- Following the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the eastern Roman Empire began to transform into what is known as Byzantium, or the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire reached its height during the reign of Justinian I, who succeeded his uncle Justin I in 527. With the help of his wife and empress Theodora, Justinian launched an ambitious plan to restore the eastern Roman Empire.
- Half a century after Justinian, another emperor, called Heraclius, came to power. In order to distinguish the eastern empire from the Latin West, Heraclius adopted Greek as Byzantium’s official state language. With its power stemming from Constantinople, the state was now focused on eastern Mediterranean domination, while its geopolitical rivals were in the south and east.
- In the seventh and eighth centuries, the foundation of Islam led to the establishment of the far-reaching Islamic Empire.
- Among the barbarian kingdoms established in the fifth century, the most successful was that of the Franks. Originating as a coalition of German war-bands, the Franks had settled west of the Rhine during the age of barbarian migrations before slowly gaining power in the collapsed Roman state. it wasn’t until the mid-eighth century, during the Carolingian dynasty, that one Frankish king would dramatically alter the course of European history. His name was Charlemagne.
- At the height of his reign in the year 800, Charlemagne’s realm covered most of western Europe, and he was crowned by the pope as the first Holy Roman Emperor. But after his death, Charlemagne’s plans to restore western and central Europe to their imperial glory didn’t roll out as he’d hoped. While Charlemagne’s heirs failed to live up to his ambitions, another enemy soon arrived on the geopolitical stage. These violent pagan warriors, collectively known as the Vikings, took Europe and other parts of the world by storm.
- By the tenth century, Viking efforts had evolved into a full-blown campaign for expansion and settlement. So Charles the Simple, the king of West Francia, struck a deal with the Viking leader, Rollo. In return for Rollo abandoning his raids and converting to Christianity, Charles offered him the lands around the Seine Valley. Rollo agreed, and his new Christian realm became the duchy of Normandy.
- Around the turn of the first millennium, new forms of cultural soft power emerged amid changes in social organization.
- Around the year 1000, developments in agriculture began to provide landowners with disposable income from sales of abundant crops, thanks to a favorable climate known as the Medieval Climate Optimum.
- Monasticism soon became a central feature of the Middle Ages, and the clergy enjoyed increasing influence in Europe. Monasteries weren’t just places for the godly to pray. By the eleventh century, they were centers of education, literacy, hospitality, medical treatment, care of the elderly, and spiritual counseling.
- As monasteries were gaining prominence in western Europe, the status and relevance of heavily armored mounted soldiers called knights also came to define medieval life. According to some historians, the rising importance of knights instigated the so-called age of feudalism. Feudalism was the pyramid-shaped social structure in which lords granted land to vassals, who then subcontracted it to less-wealthy men in exchange for further service such as assistance or agricultural labor.
- While knights enjoyed their new social status, the reality of being a knight was objectively horrible. Training, riding, and fighting in armor were painful and frightening. But instead of writing about these realities, the Middle Ages invented a new art genre lauding knights as heroic questers and romantics. Stories revolving around knights, such as the tales of King Arthur, continue to be popular today.
- While the early Crusades were a tool for papal ambition, the Crusades are often misconstrued as a conflict between Christians and Muslims. But they were, in fact, a tool employed by the Roman Church against all of its enemies.
- Medieval merchants, scholars, and builders helped shape the world we know today.
- Around the turn of the first millennium, the period of economic stagnation that had defined Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire began to shift. The expansion of overland trading networks in western Europe, combined with new farming technologies, facilitated the rise of a new culture of markets and fairs across Europe. And thanks to a surge in coin production and basic financial services such as moneylending, spending money was easier than ever before.
- Scholars and builders also helped shape the medieval world. From the late eleventh century, scholars founded universities, reviving the wisdom of ancient philosophers during a period known as the Renaissance of the twelfth century. And across the medieval world, architects and engineers built cities, cathedrals, and castles. Many of these buildings still stand centuries later, serving as portals to the Middle Ages.
- In the fourteenth century, the Black Death devastated medieval populations and radically reshaped the Western world.
- Starting in the late fourteenth century, a cultural movement called the Renaissance, or “rebirth,” flourished in Italy and, later, across Europe. The Renaissance was a time of intellectual and artistic advancement that revived and built on ancient Greek and Roman culture while developing new inventions and ideas in art, architecture, literature, medicine, anatomy, and political philosophy.
- The most important navigator of the late Middle Ages was the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Columbus believed that within 3000 miles of the Atlantic, he could reach the Far East, bypassing the Ottoman Empire. Columbus believed that in that way he could revive the project of converting eastern kings to Christianity. Christopher Columbus’s arrival in what is today the Bahamas marked a new chapter in European history. The exploration of the New World was now set in motion.
- The invention of the printing press and shifting religious dogma led to the Protestant Reformation, signaling the end of the Middle Ages.