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Reading History: “The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England”(by Dan Jones)

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Maybe it’s my love of narrative that makes this genre so appealing to me, or maybe it’s just the fact that we happen to be living in a period in which this form of history writing is flourishing both within the United States and the UK, but whatever the case, I’m glad that we are living in such a time and that we have historians like Dan Jones.

In my view, there are few popular British historians who can match Dan Jones for sheer writing ability. As soon as I started reading this book, I found myself caught up in the sweep of events as we make our way from the disastrous sinking of the White Ship and the death of King Henry I’s only son to the similarly disastrous reign of King Richard II and his eventual deposition at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who took the name Henry IV).

Jones brings to life the tumultuous period of the Middle Ages, in which giant figures of the Plantagenet strode across the stage of history. These range from Henry II, arguably one of England’s most successful monarchs to such disasters as Edward II, whose reliance on his favorites ultimately led to his deposition by his own wife and her lover. These were monarchs who were grand and ambitious, and who wanted (and sometimes succeeded in) creating a vast empire that often encompassed significant portions of France.

However, in Jones’s telling, the saga of the Plantagenets is a tale of fortune’s wheel, which matches the rises of a great dynasty with similarly spectacular falls into ignominy. It’s also a tale of not only of individual monarchs but of the institution of the Crown itself. As he ably demonstrates, the medieval world was one in which a great deal indeed relied upon the person of the king being someone who could hold his realm together, someone who could steer the ship of state through both the good times and the bad. Some rulers did this superbly well, while others, often for reasons that weren’t entirely within their control, did not.

While, of course, Jones’s primary focus is on the personalities of the kings and queens of the dynasty, he has a keen eye for the sorts of detail of social and cultural forces that led to both the successes and failures of the Plantagenet monarchs. These range from the influence of foreign powers–most notably France and Scotland–to traumatic events such as the Black Death, which played a key role in reorganizing medieval English society. While these events and figures are often in the background rather than a focus, they still are an essential piece of understanding this dynasty’s successes and failures.

Just as importantly, Jones is very adept with description. Reading The Plantagenets, one can almost feel the terror of battle, hear the screams of those sentenced to a traitor’s death, the deafening clamor of medieval warfare, and the pomp and majesty of a coronation. Though it’s become rather a cliche to say that a book makes you feel as if you were actually there, in Jones’s case it isn’t very far from the truth.

As with his several other books, Jones also has a keen sense of narrative momentum. There was never a moment where I felt bored or felt like I was being dragged through all sorts of detail (much as I love the work of another prominent British historian, Alison Weir, she tends to lean too heavily on material details for my taste). Indeed, for such a large book, I’m still rather surprised by how quickly I tore through it, so engrossed was I in its narrative propulsion. Jones knows how to sift through the myriad details of the medieval period and to show us those that are the most germane.

It takes a rare talent to make the medieval period–in many ways so different from the Renaissance that succeeded it–come to life for modern readers. Fortunately for us, Dan Jones has done exactly that, and The Plantagenets is all that narrative history should be and more.

I’ve already finished the sequel volume, The Wars of the Roses, so stay tuned for my review!

Reading History: Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (by Dan Jones)

Dan Jones has established quite the reputation for himself as a purveyor of breathlessly-paced narrative histories. From the Wars of the Roses to the rise and fall of the Plantagenet dynasty, he’s always had the ability to convey important historical information in a way that is engaging, enjoyable, and erudite (the crucial, three “e”s of popular history).

In Crusaders, he’s done it yet again, immersing us in the cutthroat and bloody wars for the Holy Land that occupied so much of the medieval period. This is a saga peopled by some of the titans of the Middle Ages, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, and many others. Some of these figures will be somewhat familiar, particularly to those who have watched the Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven–such as Baldwin, the leper king of Jerusalem–while others will be less so. Regardless of how well-known they are, however, Jones manages to imbue each of them with the rich characterization that we would expect from a novel.

As Jones shows, these were men and women of both piety and politics, who strode across the stage of history in all of their barbarity and beauty. He demonstrates how the power of personality was a driving force of these conflicts, and how thin the margin of victory could be in any particular battle. Time and again, it was the foibles of human nature that led to defeat of the Crusaders and the victory of the Muslim forces that they were determined to expel. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the fact that so much of medieval society was founded on status. Small wonder that men and women often found themselves seduced into believing they were invincible.

Yet, for all that the book focuses a great deal on the Europeans, it also gives attention to the other key players in this drama, particularly the various Muslim dynasties that ruled over both Egypt and Syria and that continued, despite everything and despite their own fractious politics, to fight back against (and ultimately defeat) the Europeans who had invaded their territories. Most noteworthy in this respect is the Kurdish warrior who would become known as Saladin, arguably one of the greatest warriors of the Middle Ages. And, of course, it also focuses a bit on the Byzantines, especially the feisty Anna Komnene, whose accounts of the Crusaders are both wickedly funny and incredibly valuable.

As fascinating as the main narrative is, however, I personally found the bits toward the end to be the most illuminating. Here, Jones demonstrates the extent to which the rhetoric of crusading became increasingly debased as various popes used it to justify their own political aspirations. Here, we see crusading zeal turned against the Cathars in southern France in the form of the notorious Albigensian Crusade, as well as the brutal repression of pagans throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. And, of course, crusading rhetoric was also used as a pretext for the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula through the Reconquista.

Dan Jones has a keen eye for historical detail, and he gives us enough information for us to feel as if we truly have a firm grasp of the broad contours of the Crusades. At the same time, he never loses sight of the thrust of his narrative, so that by the time that you’re finished with the book you’re sort of at a loss as to how it could all have been over so quickly. What’s more, Jones has a voice that’s all his own, though it shares a bit in common with such noted contemporary historians as Mary Beard and Tom Holland (let’s here it for popular British historians!) Throughout the book, you feel like you’re in the hands of a truly knowledgeable guide, and you never get lost.

And, as Jones makes clear, the Crusades are very much still with us, continuing to inflect the ways in which the conflict between the West and the East continues to play out. Reading Crusaders, it’s hard not to feel discouraged about the rivers of blood that have been shed in the pursuit of religious war, if only because the problem seems as intractable as ever. History, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself.