Dan Carlin's Hardcore History: Addendum - Powers Thrones and Dan Jones


It’s Hardcore History.



So, I am a Dan Jones fan,

and many of you are, too, no doubt.

He’s one of our finest writers of history

for the period in the Middle Ages,

you know, the fall of Rome to the Renaissance.

A lot of stuff that made up

what a lot of us grew up with loving.

I mean, if you had…

Knights in shining armor, Crusades, Norman Saxons,

I mean, this is pretty par for the course

for a lot of history fans, and…

if that’s your jam,

then you need to pick up Dan Jones’ new book,

Powers and Thrones.

He’s with us today to talk about it.

But you’ve probably already read his stuff.

The Plantagenet’s was great.

The Wars of the Roses, Crusaders,

the Templars, Magna Carta.

The book covers the entire period

from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance

in the European, Middle Eastern, North African sort of zone.

656 pages.

I looked it up, covering a thousand years.

That’s audacious, isn’t it?

But just like there’s a lot of interesting stuff

you can glean from a very narrowly focused,

you know, targeted work on a small chunk of history

so you can really delve into it,

turn over every stone,

examine it to the nth degree,

there are advantages to doing the opposite.

You get a much larger sense of how cultures

are working together and pinging off each other,

larger sense of trends impacting over time, right?

They all have their place.

And Jones’ book is one of those that,

um, if you actually retained what’s in it,

it would fill in your foundational knowledge base

for a huge chunk of time

and a large, important region, geographically speaking.

It’s a page-turner.

There’s a lot of historical figures

that we’ve all fallen in love with

that fall into a book like this.

What I love about it, though, is at the same time

that it’s comforting, if you’ve always been interested

in this stuff to read this book, it’s comforting for me anyway.

He’s got all the new stuff, right?

All the new discoveries, all the clarifications,

all the overturned myths.

We’ve talked before about how interesting it is now

that the area of historical knowledge

is aided not just by historians and archaeologists,

the people that have always sort of had that as their purview,

but tons of other scientific disciplines

that working with these people

are making the kinds of discoveries and datings possible

that we never could have imagined.

I mean, just the other day, there was a story,

and you may have seen it, confirming,

certainly, what many of us had already known,

that the Vikings had arrived in the Americas,

but coming up with a pretty solid date for it.

And they said, 1021, you know, 1021 ADCE.

And when you read the story of how they came up

with the date, the radiologists that are involved,

the climatologists that are involved,

I mean, it is so many experts from so many varied fields

working together to get us this information.

Anyway, it’s fascinating.

It’s a part of what makes the modern historical study

so interesting to people, you know,

who’ve been reading the books forever,

but all of a sudden, you have new stuff on old stories, right?

Who doesn’t love that?

And Powers and Thrones has a bunch of those,

where you’re going, oh, really?

So this major invasion happened because of a climate change

that they can now prove was going on.

I mean, it’s that kind of thing.

So I loved it. I think you’ll enjoy it, too.

And if you’re a Dan Jones fan, I don’t have to tell you

what he writes are sort of page turners

in terms of being able to pick out really interesting things.

It’s fabulous, and so is he, and he’s on the show today.

And so, without further ado, and I hope you like this,

but I’m just sort of fanboying out.

It’s more for me than for you.

But, you know, you guys pay the bills around here,

so I’ll let you listen in.

Dan Jones, ladies and gentlemen.


The first thing I want to say is that this book,

you know, I think I tried to describe it once

as comfort food for a history fan like yours, truly,

because I grew up reading stuff like this.

But what I love about your book is it incorporates

all these favorite topics of mine

with all the latest stuff, right?

The latest evidence and theories.

I mean, I remember, for example, when you got to the part

about the famous arrival of the Huns into the Roman world,

and you threw the climate element in there,

and talked about, is it called a Killian juniper plant

or whatever that they used for climate dating?

I was absolutely enthralled.

So, start off, I mean, there’s a lot of people

that think that history is sort of a set thing,

and because once you know what happens, nothing changes.

But talk to me about, you know, like I said,

a guy, yours truly, I was reading this stuff

at 14 years old, 13, 12, and there’s so much new stuff

in a story that I thought I knew.

Um, that’s pretty normal, though, isn’t it?

I mean, we’re always updating stuff, aren’t we?

Well, firstly, I mean, thank you for those kind comments.

And I’m glad it did, like, the book reminded you

of those classic histories that you like to read,

because I like to read those histories, too.

And I wanted to create a book that had that feel

like you want to turn the pages, like I could give this

to an intelligent 13-year-old and get them, like,

buzzed on medieval history.

Um, but if we’re talking about…

I suppose we’re going pretty deep here early on,

like, what is history? And history’s a dialogue,

I think, between the past and present.

Although, in a book like I’ve just written,

it’s narrative, it’s chronological,

it starts at the beginning of the Middle Ages

and follows the story through to the end.

There’s always new research going on

in lots of different areas.

There’s always, and even more than that,

every generation has its own preoccupations,

which it seeks to somehow see reflected

or see the foundations of them in the past.

So, that’s why we can write new histories of,

be it the Tudor dynasty, the Plantagenet dynasty,

the Second World War, the, you know,

the Mongol conquest, or whatever, each generation.

Because there’s always new research to draw on,

but even more than that, there’s new…

There’s new societal preoccupations to reflect.

You know what? So, one of those classic books

that you’ve referenced, I don’t know,

I mean, tell me if you enjoyed this book as well

when you were growing up, was Barbara Tuchman’s

-“A Distant Mirror.” Right? -“Oh, sure, sure.

Have it up in the bookshelf. Yeah, I can see it from here.”

I mean, that’s a great book.

That’s a book that takes the calamitous 14th century,

and it’s written in, I think, 1974,

and uses the 14th century as, as the title suggests,

a distant mirror on the 20th,

another time of war and instability in Europe

and plague and social turmoil.

And when I started writing Powers and Thrones,

I set out to write this history of the Middle Ages.

I thought, how do we do that for the 21st century?

How do we look at the Middle Ages

with a sense of what matters to us today,

and thereby create a form of empathy

in the mind of the reader?

And so, when I tackled the Middle Ages,

I was looking for things that…

I actually had a list of things I thought

were going to be important, were already important,

were going to become more important

as the first half of the 21st century went on.

And that list was climate change, mass migration,

pandemic disease, technological change,

and global networks.

So, as I was putting together this new history

of the Middle Ages, I didn’t seek to just

only look at those things, but I thought,

if we can lift those out of the research,

lift those out of the storytelling,

then this will make the Middle Ages

somehow seem approachable to this, you know,

be it an intelligent 13-year-old reading history

for the first time, or, you know,

someone of our kind of generation

reading history for the 15th time.

That’s the big philosophy of what I’ve been doing, anyway.

There’s a line I like from an Ohio State

University historian named Robert C. Davis,

who says, history is, often is not,

our present politics projected onto the past.

And that makes it sound artificial,

but the way I look at it is like,

when I’m reading your book and you’re referencing

climate change, tipping off certain

major historical events, I recall that when I was younger,

they still talked about climate change doing this,

but because we understand and are living through

more climate change than we were when I was younger,

I think we get it better, if that makes sense.

Look, you had talked about, like, globalized networks.

Well, you know, you understood that in 1982 also,

but boy, you understand it so much better now

when we live in it and it’s so in your face.

So, I think that’s just reflective of a better

understanding that we have of how those things go now

in our world, and then it’s easier to imagine

how they might have impacted an earlier world.

Yeah, and I think that history, as you know well,

goes through, like, trends in terms of it’s kind of…

-…scholarly concept. -…Fashion, yes.

And some fashions, right? And sometimes that…

Every so often, someone will come along and say,

you know what, history should be objective.

It should be about truth-seeking and truth alone

and the facts. Let’s stick to the facts.

And that will be fashionable for a little while,

and then some bright spark will go, you know what?

That there is… You don’t have to be a kind of

French relativist philosopher to realize

there is no objective truth. There’s perspectives.

You know, relativity defines how we think about the world.

And so, as a historian, as I’ve gotten older

and a bit more confident, I suppose,

I’ve stopped trying to shy away from this feeling

that we… I’ve tried to avoid this feeling

that we shouldn’t project our own concerns

into the art study of the past.

Because otherwise, what’s history for?

History’s, like, about creating a context for the now.

And so, it’s not just inevitable, it’s natural,

and it’s probably advisable that we take with us,

or as long as we acknowledge that we take with us

our preconceptions, our prejudices,

our concerns, our angst, our worries,

when we go looking at the past, right?

Otherwise, why are we bothering?

What are we gonna learn from it?

You know, if it’s not there to give us context

in the now.

Well, and I think sometimes, if you’re not looking

for something, you don’t find it.

And sometimes, you don’t know you should be looking for it.

And I think certain things, like,

I’ll just reference the climate again,

because to me, that was such an obvious…

I mean, I remember as a kid hearing about the collapse

of the Bronze Age, and climate was one of the things

that they threw out there.

Drought, starvation, all those things.

But I think when you look at our situation,

say, well, what’s our situation gonna be like climate-wise

in 100 years, 200 years?

It helps sort of inform the listener to go back and go,

well, gee, how bad can it get?

And when was it bad? And how did they deal with it?

And how does an ancient society deal with some

of the problems we’re looking at?

So, I mean, I find it, um, not…

It’s funny, it’s not just informative and useful

as a comparative tool to me.

There’s a little bit of something that’s comforting.

I mean, um, you know, if you’ve been through something before,

it’s a little less scary, um, even if you’ve never been

through it quite this way.

So, let me talk, because you have to frame something

like this, right? If you’re gonna start a story

in the middle, as you do, right?

The Middle Ages start in the middle.

You have to have sort of a touchstone, right?

And the touchstone is the obvious one.

It’s Rome, right?

So, you have a civilization that starts as a city-state

around the time, you know, the Persians are invading Greece,

right? So, the 500s.

It’s really… And then it goes through the Republican period,

and then it goes through the Imperial period.

And by the time the Middle Ages start,

you have this ancient…

And I mean, I try to think about our modern world now,

which hasn’t existed.

If you say the modern world starts in the Renaissance,

or, I mean, we haven’t existed now,

as long as Rome was around as a civilization

that could trace its roots back to something real.

Um, explain a little bit on how this…

On what happens to a world when a touchstone

that’s that concrete goes away?

I… Yeah, right. I… So…

You’re completely and utterly and 100% correct.

You know, the framing of the Middle Ages has to be Rome.

You know, that’s… That’s how…

When the Middle Ages first was conceived in the 16th century,

it was conceived as, by definition,

the bit between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West,

and the Reformation, and the sort of the…

You know, it’s a Protestant idea,

but the scales falling away from the eyes

of the great enlightened, uh, new Christians

of the 16th century.

And you’re also absolutely right to say…

To point to this longevity of Rome,

as compared to the longevity of our, quote-unquote,

modern world, if we go back to the 16th century

to date the origins of that.

What happens when an empire like that falls to bits?

What happens when a Roman empire like that falls to bits?

I think… Is…

In one sense, the answer is not very much.

Because it happens relatively slowly.

Now, even though in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire,

there are cataclysmic events,

the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Goths in 410 A.D.

being the most obvious of them,

it’s not like the Western Roman Empire

just falls to bits in one day.

Now, here’s a not very encouraging dystopian read

on the 21st century, okay?

If we were to hypothesize,

and I personally hope this doesn’t come to pass,

but if we were to hypothesize that we’re seeing

the end of the American…

The end of the United States as a superpower, right?

And with some future historians writing

from the 22nd century,

we might look back on, say, 9-11

as a spectacular assault on the heart of America

that wrought great chaos and tragic death

and was horrifying and shocking around the world.

But what we wouldn’t say was…

And at that moment, America ceased to be a superpower.

We’d say, that was some crazy…

There were crazy repercussions to that one event.

But to everybody who lived in the 20 years subsequently,

it didn’t really look like America collapsed.

Okay, let’s hope that’s a dystopian

sort of conjecture on my part,

but I think you see what I’m saying.

So I think if we project that idea

back to the collapse of Rome,

there were big moments such as,

well, Rome’s being sacked by Allochian and the Goths,

or, I don’t know, I’m talking to you from the UK,

Britannia being sort of jettisoned,

like booted off into space from the Roman Empire.

These, in retrospect, look like huge moments.

But on the other hand, I think if you were living through it,

there’d just have been a time of rising instability

in different places and at different times,

which, over the course of several generations,

added up to the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

But, you know, even if we think about the distance in time

between 410 AD, sack of Rome, and 476,

you know, the last recognized Western Roman Empire,

that’s 66 years.

Like, in terms of human lifespans of any age,

that’s quite a long time.

So it’s a, what am I looking,

what’s the analogy I’m looking for?

It’s a boiling of the frog, I suppose.

Does that make sense?

Absolutely, absolutely.

Crazy and abstract?

No, it makes sense.

I always describe it as, you know,

being cut off from the equivalent

of the global information superhighway,

if you’re Britain, when Rome says you’re on your own

and whatnot, but as many historians have pointed out,

if you’re actually living in Italy at this time period,

closer to where the center of Roman activity was,

things continue differently.

It’s the hinterlands that feel it first and most strongly

and recover the slowest.

So let’s talk a little about the recovery,

because that’s one of those periods

that I don’t think enough people, yours truly included,

know enough about, and that’s the Carolingian,

the attempts to recreate something of Rome’s grandeur

from the ashes a couple centuries later.

And they’re connected to these people that,

it’s funny, because the terminology will kill you

when you start using terms like Franks

to talk about a tribe that the Romans had dealt with,

and you’re still using Franks to describe Crusaders

in the 1100s.

Who, maybe talk about this, because it’s almost like

when you talk about the Roman ashes,

the entities that begin to arise from the ashes,

as you said, that you look at and say,

they didn’t know then that they’re gonna play a huge role,

but we, looking back on it now, realize these Franks

are gonna be an important entity.

Whatever those Franks are, who are the Franks?

Well, the Franks are one of, I mean, originally,

one of many tribes who move into the territories

that were ruled by the Western Roman Empire

and ceased to be ruled by the Western Roman Empire

as these barbarian tribes move in.

But you’re absolutely right.

I mean, look, if we’re placing bets in, let’s say,

the sixth or even the seventh century AD

as to who’s gonna be around in a thousand years,

is it the Franks?

Is it the Burgundians?

Is it the Lombards?

Is it the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths,

the Vandals, the Swabians?

All of these different tribal groups moving around

what had been the Western Roman Empire.

And at different times,

a lot different of them were ascended.

But by the eighth, ninth century,

the Franks, who traced in their own mythology,

they said they’d come a-wandering

from the Trojan Wars originally,

but they’d come a-wandering from Eastern Europe, probably.

Germany, Central and Eastern Europe,

across the Rhine into the, broadly speaking,

the area that we now call France.

And had over several generations coalesced into a kingdom.

Let’s call it a kingdom.

It was ruled by kings.

First, the Merovingians, the long-haired kings,

in which the king was connoted by his,

literally, by growing his hair very long

and could be deposed by having his hair cut off.

And by and by, the Merovingian dynasty

became less politically influential.

The Frankish territories were governed on their behalf

by mayors of the palace, by politicians.

And then they were done away with by a dynasty

who we now call the Carolingians,

named after Charles Martel,

but most famous for producing Charlemagne,

the king of the Franks who had himself crowned

in the year 800 as the first Roman emperor

of the reborn Western Roman Empire,

which came to be the Holy Roman Empire.

So we have a barbarian tribe which, over many generations,

becomes, collectively, a kingdom.

And then they become, for a time,

under Charlemagne and his descendants,

the preeminent force in Western Europe.

The way they sort of absconded

with the Roman reputation, title, and all that

reminds me of one of those companies

that has a great old lineage.

Like, in the United States, it might be AT&T or something.

And then AT&T goes out of business,

but somebody buys the name.

And then they get to be the new AT&T,

and they get to inherit all that cachet,

even though they had nothing to do with the original entity.

For those who don’t know, or maybe those in Germany

right now, the name for France and Germany

is still Frankreich, the Empire of the Franks.

I also like it, and I never made this connection

when I was reading the Crusades from the Middle Eastern

viewpoint, I forget what the book was called.

And they referred to the Crusaders from Europe

as the Frange.

And I remember thinking, that’s, yeah, it just turns

Frank into French right there.

And then you begin to see the connections,

because Frank doesn’t mean anything to most people who

speak the English language, but French obviously does.

And when you see one word morph into the other,

the light bulb goes on in your head, and you go, oh, OK,

I see the connection.

So this is interesting, though, also,

because we did a show a long time ago

on that transition period, from Merovingians to Carolingians.

And when you read the accounts of what

these Merovingian Franks were like, they sound like Vikings.

When you look at pictures, and they’re

contemporary type stuff, but they’re sort of idea,

I don’t know if they’re idealized

or if we’ve barbarized the Merovingians in their true cut,

but they all look so civilized and so King Arthur-like.

And they look clean and washed and well-dressed,

and they look like they’re very, very civilized.

And then when you read the accounts of people like some

of these, some of the one, Charles Martel

is a perfect example, but some of the Merovingian kings,

what’s the one who would have people bend over to bow for him

and then he’d split their skull with a battle axe?

I mean, they had all these wonderful.

So let me ask you, I guess what I’m saying in my typically

long-winded question, I am getting to somewhere,

is that looking back on it with your eye, which

of those two impressions of the Merovingians,

the Franks before Charlemagne and Pepin, his father,

which of those two interpretations

seems more like to you?

Have we barbarized a bunch of people

that were more civilized than we thought?

Or have the chroniclers made a bunch of Viking types

look better than they actually were?

I think so much is what you want them to be.

And I think particularly in the early Middle Ages,

late antiquity, early Middle Ages,

the evidence is so scant.

I’m a late medievalist by inclination, by training.

So when I came to writing this new book,

a lot of the early Middle Ages was kind

of virgin territory for me.

And that was one of the reasons I enjoyed doing it.

Of course, as it always, you can be swayed very easily

at first by the account that you’re reading.

Now, of course, if you’re reading

accounts of Romans watching the barbarians swarm over

one’s solid Roman territories, they are barbarians.

They’re the sort of hideously uncivilized folk

who have no right being where they are.

But of course, as time goes by, and those hideously

uncivilized folk who have no right being where they are

become the ruling power, the chronicles

become somewhat more, somewhat kinder to them.

I’m a sucker for grave goods, Dan.

And so if you take someone like Childrik I,

probably the first Merovingian king

we know very much about at all.

You start finding all those bees in the grave goods,

don’t you?

You find the gold bees.

And so we’re talking about a guy who

died at the end of the fifth century, probably in 481.

And yeah, in the scene, ornamental gold bees,

signet rings, spears, axes.

Lots of garnet.

Garnet everywhere, I love it.

Oh, garnet everywhere.

You know you’ve made it when you’ve got a bit of garnet

on you, don’t you?

So obviously, here is a society that

has a luxurious material culture accessible, at least,

to the people at the very, very top of it.

Here, probably, is also a society

that, like most societies in human history,

doesn’t really offer very much for the ordinary Joe

at the bottom of it, just sort of subsisting as best he,

she, and family can do.

So I think, yeah, look, it’s totally a question of who

you’re looking at and from what perspective.

Certainly, I think, as here’s the thing about the Middle

Ages in general, to blow back into a big point,

as the Middle Ages wear on, the evidence becomes fuller

and the people start to seem a little bit more like us,

you know, recognizable to a modern eye

and somewhat more sympathetic.

So for example, it’s much easier for us

to sympathize and empathize and feel

some kind of fraternity with Leonardo da Vinci

at the end of the Middle Ages, you know, the universal genius,

the man designing machines and dissecting bodies

and painting great paintings, than it is for us

even to put ourselves into the mind of Childrik I

with his lovely bees and garnets.

Do you know what I mean?

It’s just, it just is easier because the time brings

us closer to those people.

So inevitably, I think when we look back very, very deep

into the early Middle Ages, we can be somewhat appalled

by the barbarity of the time.

You know, you make me think of something that I’ve always

been fascinated with and I don’t know,

I’d be very interested maybe, maybe

this is a future book I need to work on or something,

but I’m fascinated.

So like when we look back at Leonardo da Vinci,

like you just said, we understand

that there has been tremendous amount of change

and we’re comfortable with the idea

that Leonardo would have dressed differently,

looked differently, lived in a different sort of milieu

than what we do and that’s understandable.

But when you look at, for example, a portrayal,

so you had mentioned the later Middle Ages

or the solid Middle Ages, let’s just say the 14th century,

right, 1300s.

Somebody, you’ll see manuscripts with them

portraying a much earlier historical event.

So maybe something from Rome or maybe something

from the Carolingians or what have you,

but they portray it in contemporary terms, right?

So the people will be wearing the same sort of armor

that they would be wearing in the 14th century

rather than armor that would have been, you know,

something more, in other words, we acknowledge

that the things in Leonardo’s time

are not going to be like our own.

They don’t necessarily do that in the artwork.

Did people, and this may not be a question

that Dan Jones is the right person to ask,

but do people back then, when they’re talking

about the kings of yore or whatever,

do they understand that they’re going to be living

in a different sort of technological sort of situation

or is the assumption back then

that everything is as everything was?

Well, this is a really good example

because we do the same thing today.

So let’s take these, let’s drill down

into the example you gave.

Let’s imagine a sort of 14th century French chronicle

depicting the Song of Rolands,

probably the most famous story told in the later Middle Ages.

Right, in Spain or southern France, right, right, right.

He’s, yeah, he’s on his way back from northern Spain

fighting the Saracens in northern Spain

and he’s ambushed in Rocheval and blows the horn

to warn Charlemagne, you know, the great king of the Franks,

that there’s trouble afoot.

And in blowing the horn, his temples burst

and he dies a hero’s death.

Okay, the big story told in the 14th century

telling a heavily romanticized version

of a story set in the late 8th century.

So what is that?

Well, 14 minus eight, my maths isn’t very good.

600 years previous.

I just watched, okay, and in that 14th century telling,

you’re right, the drawings will have been 14th century armor

and the mores of all the characters

will essentially be 14th century.

These will be 14th century people

gadding about 600 years earlier.

Now, I just watched Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel

about a 14th century duel between two dudes

over whether Adam Driver,

the Adam Driver character, Jacques Legree,

had raped the wife of Matt Damon,

Jean de Carouges.

And of course, in the hands of the writers,

Damon and Affleck and the director, Ridley Scott,

this has become a movie that is really about

Hollywood politics and American gender politics

in the 21st century.

It’s just put into,

it just happens to be taking place in the 14th century.

Now the costume in that movie is the 14th century.

So they’re not all wandering about in skinny jeans

with iPhones.

I’ll grant you that, we don’t do that anymore.

But what is obvious throughout that entire movie

is that this is one big analogy for the modern world.

So we’re doing exactly the same thing in the 21st century

as was being done in the 14th century.

And we’re aware that we’re doing it.

Now, the big question is,

to what extent in the 14th century

are they aware that this is a sort of fabricated vision

of life or that maybe it wasn’t quite like this

under Charlemagne?

This is only really speculation,

but I think that we must credit our historical forebears

with some intelligence and self-awareness.

I think we often write self-awareness,

we don’t credit self-awareness

in historical figures enough.

I think people realize that this is not maybe quite how it was,

but this is also the best way to make this story

recognizable to a modern audience.

And so the attitudes between then and now,

I don’t think are that radically different,

just the technologies are.

I think that’s a great answer.

And I think I should have made a distinction

between the highly educated members of society

and those who’d never had any education at all

and that you were just pointing out

may not even know about these events.

So you have to make them relatable.

So let’s talk about, because when I was a kid

and I was so interested in European history,

you tend to forget all of the outward pressures

of the other civilizations that are impacting that history.

And you mentioned the Saracens

and the Song of Roland situation.

So let’s talk about that for a minute.

One of the more interesting and little known, I would think,

and something that we should study more here in the West

is the great original Muslim conquests of the Arab

and Byzantine and the other worlds.

Can we talk a little bit about this?

And can you, because I was trying to figure out

if there was anything I could think of,

historically speaking, from any era,

that was an analogy that made sense to that.

That to me seems a singular,

when you start looking at all the different angles,

a sort of a singular event.

Talk to me a little bit about the original Arab-Muslim conquest.

You know, when Islam first appeared on the stage

and rolled over several traditional superpowers.

It’s one of the most extraordinary episodes

in the whole of the Middle Ages.

I mean, arguably, in the whole of the last two thousand years.

I would say anything, anytime. Yeah, anytime.

I think maybe, so, the speed of conquest,

and this is something you’ve obviously worked a lot on,

is comparable with Genghis Khan’s conquests.

You know, that scale, that speed,

that rapidity of a sort of a new movement.

But what’s different between the early Islamic conquests,

you know, out of Arabia, through half of Byzantium,

through the whole of North Africa, into Sicily,

into Spain, all the way up to the Pyrenees,

you know, in no time at all.

The edges of China. Think about, I mean, you know.

The edges of China. Right.

And leaving an imprint in all of those places,

from Transoxania to the Iberian Peninsula, you know.

Half the known world, that is in almost everywhere

that the first Arab caliphs, after Muhammad,

the rightly guided Rashidun caliphs,

Abu Bakr, Umar, Ali,

through to the, well, all the way to, say, 750.

The splitting point between the Umayyad caliphate

and the Abbasid.

Almost everywhere that was conquered by the Arabs,

by the Muslim Arabs in those first generations

of Islamic expansion remains Islamic today.

That imprint has lasted as long as all of the imprints

the Middle Ages have left in terms of, you know,

in the Western Christian world.

The rule of law, the cathedrals, the castles

that are all over, you know, Western Europe,

and England, Wales in particular.

The music, the art, the elements of the political thought.

Just as much in the Arabic and Persian worlds,

the first Islamic conquerors have left their mark.

However, there is a schism that exists in scholarship

between Christian, Western, Anglophone,

as well as French and German scholarship

and Islamic scholarship.

And there are very few writers.

You mentioned earlier on a book about the Crusades

from the Islamic perspective.

And I’m going to place a small bet

that you’re thinking about Paul Cobb.

His book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

I think it’s that book.

Fantastic book, but a very, very rare book.

Almost nobody on either side is doing that.

And so we still have this enormous historical schism.

When I wrote the chapter in Powers and Thrones

entitled Arabs, which narrates the story from Mohammed’s life

all the way up to 750 and the end of the expansion,

I went into a totally new scholarship.

And I had to talk to completely new scholars.

I called up my friend Samir Rahim, who’s a brilliant,

I’ve known for more than half my life, brilliant journalist.

He’s also a fantastic scholar of early Islam.

And I said, Samir, you know what?

I’m going to need a reading list here.

And he sent me a long reading list,

which I dug straight into.

But there was no crossover with anything else

that I was reading.

This was a scholarship that sat on its own,

away from the rest of what I was reading

for this history of the Middle Ages.

And so we don’t tend to think about the early Islamic

caliphates as being part of, quote unquote, medieval history.

And yet they were.

Chris Wickham, brilliant scholar of the early Middle Ages,

wrote an amazing book called The Inheritance of Rome.

And it asked the question, after the fall of the Western Roman

Empire, what comes into that space?

And Wickham looks at the barbarian kingdoms.

He looks at Byzantium, and Easter, and Constantinople.

He looks at the Franks.

And he looks at, so he’s one of the few scholars who

looks at the Islamic caliphates.

Now, when I think about the big question,

who has the best claim out of those groups

to really call themselves the heirs of Rome,

I would argue it’s probably the early Islamic caliphs.

Because they put together the biggest empire on Rome’s patch,

bonded by a single language, Arabic,

whereas Rome had Latin, bonded by something approaching

a common bureaucratic imperial culture that’s

all the way from Transoxania to Spain.

There is this sort of common feeling.

Bonded by a coinage, bonded by a faith above everything.

Capable, militarily fearsome, all of these.

Arguably, it’s the Arabs who are the real heirs of Rome.

But I can almost feel people bristling

as they hear that, because we just

don’t connect these two things as being part

of the same historical story.

Well, and maybe forget that.

I mean, again, if we’re looking at this

from a geopolitical standpoint, and you put a map down

from this era, you’re going to see.

I mean, this is how American military planners

would look at it, right?

They would say, well, look, you’re

surrounded over here in Spain, which is Moorish.

North Africa’s all Islamic.

The Middle East is Islamic.

The Byzantines are under siege.

And in the north, you have non-Christian people.

And this would have been where Christianity was considered

almost a power bloc, the way we saw communism

and the free world as power blocs.

So it’s not your power bloc in the north.

It’s not your power bloc in Spain.

It’s not your power bloc in North Africa.

And then if you’re looking at this

from a European point of view, you also have,

and I love these cultures, you also

have what you could call sort of the, what would you refer to?

You’d call it the Berlin Wall of Europe.

But it’s what happens once you get to the plains of Hungary

and the more flat territory that becomes the Great Steppe.

And you’ve always had, I mean, Herodotus

is talking about Cimmerians and Scythians.

And the Romans would use those same terms

for much later peoples.

But you have, you know, we mentioned the Huns earlier.

You’ve got an area there that just not only keeps

the Europeans from expanding in that direction,

but is continually pressuring towards the European direction.

And it’s one people’s after another, after another,

you know, from Magyars and Huns and Avars and Seljuks.

And talk to me a little bit about this great wall

on the eastern side of European culture

that is the Steppe people, who also, of course,

you know, the other side of them is

watching Chinese civilization.

And they’re acting as a conduit between the two worlds that

are not only not connected, but in a lot of cases

don’t even know of each other’s existence.

Right, and maybe the analogy is the way

we sometimes talk about bodies of water being either roads

or walls, right, you know, on a tiny scale.

It’s the English Channel is either a barrier

or it’s a bridge.

And the same is probably true of the Great Steppe that

conjoins Eastern Europe with northern China.

Now, I think you’re absolutely right.

For the most part, that sort of keeps these big power

blocks, these different peoples apart.

However, when you come to a suddenly the Mongols appear

end of the 12th century, it becomes like a super highway.

And for the right military superpower,

as the Mongols turn out to be, that’s

a road, that’s a super highway for them to charge along.

I think if we’re thinking about those big blocks that

emerge in the Middle Ages, and to connect this a little bit

with the role of Islam and the Arab-speaking and Persian

world, it’s interesting.

After the 8th century, roughly, those blocks

don’t really move very much.

And it’s only in, well, there’s an expansion

of the Western Christian world.

In Spain and Portugal, something interesting happens.

The Reconquista is very, very unusual.

Unlike the Crusades to Egypt, unlike the Crusades

to the Middle East, you know, to the Near East,

Eastern Mediterranean, there’s a permanent change

in the sort of faith groups which govern that territory.

We can look at Northern Europe, the Baltic, Scandinavia,

that too, there’s a Christianizing process there,

a Christianizing process in Poland and Hungary and so on.

But it does, that remains the block.

Europe doesn’t, it’s not like the Crusaders go along

that step, you know, marauding their way all the way

to modern Beijing, is it?

It’s, for the most part, I think you’re right.

I think that that great steppeland is a barrier.

And it’s not, it doesn’t become a conduit west to east.

It’s only ever really east to west.

One of the really interesting periods of history,

I think, is the one where, you know,

it’s analogous, I think, to the American so-called conquest

of the Old West, when the Russians begin to push,

you know, 16th century, 17th century,

they begin to push east going after the various steppe

tribes in that direction.

And the Chinese simultaneously are

pushing west.

And it’s only with the change in technology or whatever

that they’re able to master this weapon system that

had dominated that area and kept those powers out

for millennia.

Let me shift a little bit, because I’ve

got another interesting people, and I really

want your take on it, because I’ve never

known how to classify them or put them

into the proper sort of place.

How do we classify Normans?

I mean, to me, this is one of the great, great, I mean,

for those who don’t know, we have this group of people,

and I’ll let Dan explain the background or the fusion

that’s always been, you know, blamed

for creating these people.

But they arrive on the world stage.

I mean, this is a giant play, right?

Human history is a giant play.

You have certain characters, you know,

we have American soap operas here in the United States

that have been on TV for like 50 years.

So we have this giant play, and there

are certain characters that are always there.

There’s always the Chinese.

There’s always, you know, the Persians.

But then there are these characters that come in

and are really important to the story

for a short period of time, and then just sort of disappear.

Talk to me a little bit about the Normans

in that kind of a context.

Well, first, we’ve got to think about what

the word actually means, don’t we?

Yes, yes, don’t we, yes.

It’s connected with Northman.

And the reason it’s connected with that

is because the Normans, you used the word fusion.

I think that’s exactly the right word.

The Normans are a people who were

created in a sort of a process like nuclear fusion

between the Franks and the Vikings.

So the Franks under Charlemagne, around the turn

of the 8th into 9th centuries, had

begun expanding from a state that bridged

modern France and Germany.

It’s the original European Union.

It’s France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria,

Northern Italy.

It’s like the 1950s version of an economically united Europe.

That’s the core of the Carolingian Frankish world.

And then there’s dual processes of expansion

of the Frankish world, south over the Pyrenees

into Muslim Iberia, and then north

into the pagan lands of Saxony, and up

towards what becomes a Danish march,

a sort of liminal zone between the Christian Frankish

people of the Carolingian Frankish world

and the Vikings, the Scandinavian pagan people

of the north.

Now, over time, those people start

to come into more and more regular contact

with one another.

And I’m quite persuaded by the line of thought that

says the reason you start to see Viking raids in, you know,

the reason the Vikings set up at Lindisfarne

and in the mounds of rivers all down modern France

at the end of the 8th century is because the Franks are starting

to make themselves known, make themselves

known as a wealthy people who like to build monasteries,

i.e. undefended, wealthy places that are easy to raid.

So anyway, the bigger point is, little by little,

the Franks and the Vikings come into more and more

regular contact with one another,

so that by the end of the 9th century,

there’s constant Viking raiding into the Frankish world,

and a succession of Frankish kings

have to sort of scratch their heads

and wonder what on earth they’re going to do about this.

This is sort of settled eventually

with the creation of Normandy.

With the award of land around the River Seine

and the city of, you know, the important city of what’s

now Rouen, this is settled upon, effectively, a bunch of Vikings.

And the appeasement of the Vikings

is by giving them a little portion of the Frankish state

in which to live.

Now, their accommodation with the Frankish world

is most notably conversion to Christianity.

And then over a few generations, you know,

by the time we get to the middle of the 11th century,

you have a sort of quite unique people,

the people that produce, famously,

William the Conqueror, the bastard of Normandy

who invades England, or Robert Giscard and Count

Roger of Sicily, down in southern Italy and Sicily,

scourges of Byzantium and popes all at the same time.

But really, what are these Normans?

They are a hybrid of Franks, Christian,

but quite warlike Franks, and Vikings, you know,

out and out traveler, robber, pillager, trader.

And there’s some trader, of course.

You mustn’t forget trader.

After they pillaged you, they’ll trade with you.

That’s right.

Wonderful news.

So these, but they’re an extraordinary people.

Here in England, where I’m sitting right now,

1066 is one of those turning point dates in history.

It’s one of the biggest dates in the whole of English history,

better known even than our loss of the American colonies.

You know, we’re still much more hung up on the invasion

by William, Duke of Normandy, than we are by the sort of loss

of the colonies.

So the Normans get about.

But it’s not just England.

Because as I’ve just mentioned, it’s also southern Italy.

And I think the arrival of the Normans in southern Italy

and the Norman conquest of Arab Sicily

is a judderingly important historical moment.

Because it becomes, those Norman territories

in southern Italy and Sicily become pivotal to the Crusades.

And I think the Crusades, 30 years on from the Norman

conquest, the first crusade, that really

is a historical turning point.

That’s something that everybody in the whole

of the Western European world hears about.

1066 in England is not in that order of magnitude at all.

The fall of Jerusalem in 1099 to effrange, yes, the Franks,

but driven by the Normans, Beaumont and Crewe

at the heart of them.

I think the expansion, the creation of Normandy

and the expansion of the Normans into other parts of Europe,

that’s a really central part of the story of the High

Middle Ages.

There are some interesting historical ironies.

If I’m not, if I, see, it’s funny,

you don’t need, you want to mention

these historical ironies, but then you catch yourself

and say, OK, is this a real historical irony

or is this something that just appears that way,

you know, looking back from our modern eyes.

But for example, here you have these Frankish people

that are continually tying themselves

to ancient Roman sort of behavior.

The Franks themselves come into possession

of the territories they’re in because

of Roman policies that brought barbarian people in

and made deals with them, right?

You defend this territory for the emperor

and you can have it.

Well, now you have the Franks who

are hundreds of years later essentially adopting

the same policy with these Viking peoples.

You can have a little of our Frankish territory, which

was originally given to us by the Romans

so we could defend it, so you can defend it.

And they just did what the Franks did too

and ended up creating their own empire based in Normandy.

But it’s interesting because it’s not

like the other empires.

So if you think about like a Frankish empire

and what’s now modern day France morphing into France,

if you think about what becomes the Holy Roman Empire morphing

into Germany, but the Normans are more like a free agent

people, if you will, like the first question someone

should have when you say the Normans in Sicily is you go,

wait a minute, how did the Normans

find themselves in Sicily?

And are these Norman soldiers or are these?

So in other words, trying to figure out and relate them

to peoples.

I mean, I was trying to figure out what the proper word

for Normans is.

Do you call Normans a tribe?

Do you call them a family?

Are they like proto-Hapsburgs?

They go around everywhere and rule multiple.

You had mentioned at one point that you

have Normans who are up at the wall between the Scottish

and English borders up at Hadrian’s Wall

at the same time that they’re all the way down at Sicily.

They’re moving towards the Middle East.

I mean, who are these guys?

And who makes up the soldiery?

I mean, is there a Norman ethnic group?

How does one put them in the normal boxes

we’re used to working with?

Yes, I mean, it’s interesting.

I think part of this, I’d be interested to know

what you think about this.

Isn’t part of it just the fact that by accident of history,

there aren’t really Norman, there’s

not a sort of autonomous Normandy anymore?

Because we could say the same for the Burgundians.

You know, or maybe even the Gascons.

You know, these people from different regions

that have since been swallowed up.

Yeah, do you say they’re absorbed maybe?

I mean, is that the way, or do they,

is absorbed or die out better?

I mean, how does one associate this?

They are, I mean, the history of Normandy,

Normandy’s rolled into France, isn’t it, after 1204.

Because the Normans become kings of England,

and then it splits up again.

But by and large, in the early Plantagenet era,

the Normans have become kings.

And so the Duchy of Normandy is no longer the grandest

of their possessions.

They’ve also fused with the counts of,

you know, in the Plantagenets, you

have Dukes of Normandy, Counts of Anjou,

and then they peg on Aquitaine as well.

And they’re ruling England, but France is the language,

French is the language they speak to each other, correct?

They speak in French, they’re ruling England.

Yeah, so, but by this time, we’re

not really talking about them in terms of a people or a tribe.

We’re not in that barbarian era anymore,

because really, we’ve switched our thinking as historians

by this point, to thinking about ruling dynasties.

And so when we talk about the Normans in, you know,

in the early, in the late 12th century, early 13th century,

what we really mean is a very small aristocratic, you know,

a tiny royal family, a very small aristocratic group

connected to that family.

And really, you could be anybody,

as long as you’re connected to the Duke of Normandy,

then you’re, quote unquote, a Norman.

And similarly, in the south, you know,

Count Roger of Sicily, well, before he’s

Count Roger of Sicily, he’s a Norman dude in southern Italy.

But once he becomes Count Roger of Sicily,

and then subsequently, you know, King Roger II of Sicily,

the fact of Norman-ness is now hidden

underneath the grander title of King of Sicily,

or, you know, whatever it happens to be.

And because we’re not talking about tribal groups anymore,

because we can draw in much clearer detail as historians,

the pictures, the portraits, you know, the pen portraits,

I mean, of ruling individuals, we

stop really being concerned with peoples in general,

and start concentrating on people in specific.

Now, that ought to lead us to think, well,

hang on a second, then, when we’re in the barbarian period,

and we’re talking about the Franks, the Burgundians,

the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, are we really

talking about a people who are going around singing,

hey-ho, we’re the Franks, hey-ho, we’re the Visigoths,

watch out for us, mate?

Are these just historical terms we

have to use because of the paucity of evidence?

We’re just aware that a group of people, a ruling group of people,

moved into a certain area?

This is a problem of wildly different evidence,

I think, between the early Middle Ages

and the high-slash-later Middle Ages.

It’s funny, because when we think,

we had just mentioned the Arab conquests earlier,

and when you think about that in military terms,

there’s like a domino effect, where they’ll conquer people,

and they become larger and larger, and more powerful,

and more capable.

But the Normans are kind of an opposite sort of thing.

And I’m trying to figure out what

accounts for their success.

Like, over the eras, the viewpoint had changed.

I remember when we used to war game the Normans,

they always tried to figure out some sort of war gaming

advantage you can give them to try

to provide on the battlefield some semblance that

displayed the fact that these guys are doing amazing things.

I mean, if you read the Byzantine chroniclers,

for example, who thought all Franks were irresistible

chargers and whatnot, but even they

seem impressed by Normans and Norman leaders and whatnot.

Talk to me a little bit about what might explain

a relatively small number of people.

And the Normans are not some giant state.

They’re not creating the same sort of domino effect

and absorbing other peoples as steppe peoples did,

as the Arabs did.

What the heck did these guys bring to the table?

Whether it’s on a personal level, a personality level,

or a military level, that might account for this success.

Well, I think on a personal personality level,

it’s always tempting to see the kind of Viking outwardly

mobile mentality, right?

Yeah, describe what these guys looked like for a second.

Describe what the Byzantines were seeing when they ran

into Normans as people.

So the best images that we have, particularly

that you can tell a Norman by the sort of long teardrop

shaped shield.

But they look like Dolph Lundgren, don’t they?

The descriptions of them.

Yeah, right, right.

Well, and Beaumont.

Anna Comneny writes about Beaumont.

Oh, Beaumont of Toronto.

One of the most prominent Normans

among the first Crusaders.

Oh, I mean, she’s so conflicted in her account of Beaumont.

Because on the one hand, he’s a bastard.

But on the other hand, he’s super handsome.

And he’s got a broad chest.

And he’s really, really quite dishy.

And short blonde hair and clean shaven.

I mean, what the heck is that?

Come on, he’s sort of a rock star.

He’s a model.

But look, I think in your war game, or certainly in England.

Look at the Norman conquest in England.

In your war game, it’s castles.

Norman’s a great castle builder.

That’s their military, that’s their super source, isn’t it?

They come very well organized and very capable of building

these fortifications, which house bodies of knights

who are similar to Frankish knights.

The Frankish knight, as the Byzantine chronicles

you’re talking about.

Make a hole through the walls of Babylon, right?

Isn’t that the line?

Hole through the walls of Babylon.

Yeah, that Frankish charge.

Couched lance charge, that’s dangerous.

That’s a battlefield leveler against the traditional sort

of light cavalry mounted archers going to feign retreat

and then pepper you and come to chase it.

But I think the Normans in England, it’s castle building.

That’s their superpower, don’t you think?

Well, I do, except you have a hard time sometimes trying

to put into perspective.

I mean, if a Norman, you know, this

is the kind of conversations you’d

have on a war gaming table.

I apologize to people.

But I mean, you would sit here and say something like, OK,

is a Norman just another knight?

And are knights the people that we consider to have this?

See, everything is rock, paper, scissors.

I’m talking to the audience now.

But everything is rock, paper, scissors

when it comes to this kind of warfare.

Because we can extol the value of a Western knight,

for example, in hand-to-hand combat

or charging through the walls of Babylon,

as the Byzantine chronicler said.

And yet, that’s useless against a Magyar or an Avar or a Hun,

if you can’t catch them, or a Saracen in the Holy Land.

So everything is sort of the rock,

paper, scissors kind of thing.

What I can’t figure out is, if a Norman knight is no better

than a Frankish knight, then how does one differentiate?

I mean, there’s so many more Frankish knights, right?

And they build castles, too.

And they all use the same weaponry.

So you try to figure out, see, in the old days,

when people would talk about different ethnic groups having

different tendencies, they would talk about, you know,

100 years ago, they would say the Normans were possessed

with the spirit of their Viking ancestors

and the same sort of, you know.

And they’re trying to explain what

accounts for this dominance.

15 years ago, they would have talked

about economic differences and savvy capitalist traders.

I mean, I’m still trying to figure out

how you explain the rise of a people that

don’t have the traditional sorts of things

that one would look at, an economic base, a population

base, a religious explanation.

They seem like they shouldn’t be where they are.

If that makes sense.

And yet they’re, but then maybe, you know,

this has been super unfashionable for a long time.

But I just have a sense it might be coming back.

This great man theory of history,

which we will, great person theory of history,

let’s call it now.

We’ve been, we’ve been, we had an almost beaten out of us,

haven’t we, Dan?

Yes, beaten out of us is a good way to put it.

It’s not that, however, I have this little suspicion

that the next historical trends to come around,

as we’ve already discussed, and in a society

as we live in now, which is super, super, super

individualistic and completely focused on the individual

as being the most important thing,

and society as being really not very important at all,

unless it bends specifically to the will of the individual.

And of course, we’re living politically

in an age of strongmen and would-be tyrants.

This, the influence of the sort of remarkable individual

might just be coming back into fashion and history.

And I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing,

because what are we really talking about

in terms of the Normans?

Who are the ones who, who is it that makes

these great plays, that puts them out there?

Well, in England, William the Conqueror.

I mean, all bets are off.

A Norman conquest of England without William the Conqueror,

I find very hard to imagine.

Not, you know, not, you know,

not, you know, not just the sort of military organization,

but then the, the vision to completely redesign England,

to move the bishoprics about, to bring across this new sort

of colonizing group.

That is the brainchild of one extraordinary leader.

And similarly, down in Sicily, we

are talking about a pair of brothers, Robert Giscard

and Roger.

It’s funny, too, because energy was the word I recall hearing

when I was young, energy, the Normans had such energy.

They had energy, but maybe just like a few of them

had some energy.

Guess what they went and did, right?

And, and after that, who knows?

It was, it’s, uh, is it, as you were saying,

is it really the Normans at all?

I mean, certainly the Arab, well, again, as you’re saying,

the Arabs couldn’t tell the difference, could they?

Not really.

They say, well, they’re all the Franks,

they all look the same to me.

They all look the same to me.

So let’s, let’s talk for a minute because we had mentioned

earlier, um, uh, looking back and, and, and taking, you know,

what was the line from the Ohio state historian, right?

That, that history is the present politics

projected onto the past.

And we talked about climate change.

There’s another one though, that I found, you know,

and it’s funny because we’ve talked

extensively about this too.

So it’s funny how on one level you can know about it

and on another level, not think about it.

But, um, I mean, you, you had gone into the Justinian plague

so well.

Let’s talk, everybody knows about the black death and,

and, but the Justinian plague is really,

isn’t that the black death part one, or, or if this,

if this is a movie trilogy, the black death is

the original godfather or exorcist or Jaws.

Let’s talk a little bit about that and maybe give us an idea

because these people in the time of the Justinian plague

are accustomed to disease being a terrible

and regular occurrence.

But how does something like that stand out in an era

where they’re accustomed to, to, uh, pandemics or,

or, or, or terrible disease outbreaks?

The Justinianic play in the sixth century,

unnamed for, uh, the, the great Byzantine emperor,

Justinian is a form of Yersinia pestis.

It’s this, it’s, it’s plague.

It’s the same as a black death.

And insofar as we can tell, because the evidence

is much scantier for the Justinianic plague

and is also back projected from the black death,

which is a problem we might get into in a minute.

It’s, it seems to do a similar thing to what happens

in the 14th century, the black death,

which is it mutates and becomes very infectious.

It’s, I mean, it’s just as, as COVID-19 is a coronavirus,

one of the group of viruses that became incredibly virulent

and incredibly infectious.

So you sometimes see with plague, it just mutates

and becomes super, super, super infectious.

And that’s what you have in the sixth century

with the Justinianic plague.

And it seems to spread from may,

well, it finds its way into Egypt,

maybe from Zanzibar, maybe from East Africa.

It’s very, very hard to know for sure.

And then it rips into the Byzantine,

the Eastern Roman empire.

And you have these accounts from Byzantine chroniclers

of lockdowns, of thousands of people dying each day,

of bodies piling up in the streets,

of everybody being completely terrified

of catching this disease.

And they’re being, you know,

scarcely enough living to bury the dead.

There is, there’s evidence that the disease found its way

as far afield, certainly as Germany, into Western Europe.

There is massive disparity in the estimates

of how many people died of the Justinianic plague,

which ranges from tens of millions to about 100,000.

We just don’t know.

The accounts give us the impression that this was,

just as the Black Death in the 14th century was,

which we do know killed up to 60% of populations

wherever it struck, this was pretty apocalyptic.

Traditionally, we’ve been, you know,

I think that the historians have been on a journey

towards saying, well, maybe the Justinianic plague

wasn’t as bad as we thought.

And these accounts of pandemic disease

do seem very overblown.

And I tell you what, you read them during a global pandemic

and suddenly, you know, you’re back to thinking,

well, maybe actually these guys had a point, you know.

I found that certain writing about Justinianic plague

and the Black Death during a pandemic,

it’s impossible not to have your perspective

as a historian changed.

Let me give the listeners an example of your writing here

on the Justinianic plague.

This is a quote from Dan Jones’s book.

Quote, John of Ephesus was sent off by the emperor

to baptize pagans in Asia Minor,

but he found himself traveling through a death zone.

In town after town, the sick and suffering

staggered through the streets.

Their bellies swollen and mouths hanging open,

eyes bloodshot, pus leaking from their mouths.

Grand houses in which entire families

and their servants had died, stood silent.

Every room occupied by corpses.

Contorted bodies lay unburied,

their midriffs rotting and bursting

in the heat of the day.

The flesh half eaten by hungry dogs.

The roads and highways were empty.

The usual thrum of trade and traffic interrupted.

In desolate villages, no one was left

to harvest crops and fruit trees.

Animals were left unshepherded to roam the countryside

as they pleased.

End quote.

That’s heavy duty stuff, and all of a sudden

makes you feel like the pandemic you’re living in now,

you become very grateful

for modern medical technology, don’t you?

Yeah, look, you sure do.

But look, let me tell you,

I mean, all of that passage that you quoted there,

I’ve drawn on, the reason John of Ephesus

is presented as the lead character

is that that’s his account.

I mean, that’s just my putting it into a sequence.

And so this isn’t some sort of purple prose

flight of fantasy.

This is what your man saw and wrote down.

And as I was saying, I was writing that right at the…

I think I wrote that in March,

maybe April 2020.

So that’s peak COVID terror.


And it’s impossible to write that without…

You know, during a pandemic,

without feeling a degree more sympathy

for John of Ephesus than one might have done

had I written it a year earlier.

When you begin, pandemic?

Oh, well, you know, really?

Can it be being quite so bad?

But this goes back to the beginning of our conversation,

which is what I don’t do in that chapter

that you just quoted, is then really push the point

much harder and say,

see, see, this is just like COVID-19.

You just let that rise out of the text.

And I think anyone, well, I hope anyone reading that

in the next, say, five, ten years will go,

my God, yeah, that sounds really familiar.

Man, maybe I’ve got a little more in common

with these medieval people than I thought I did.

I wrote a chapter in my book which came out

four months before the pandemic called

Pandemic Prologue, question mark.

And then in four months,

it was completely outdated and obsolete.

So I know exactly what you’re talking about.

I would have loved the perspective of maybe being able

to look at our own time and draw some comparisons.

I probably would have done it in too heavy-handed a way.

So the way you did it is wonderful.

No, but I think you’d have done it brilliantly

because you’re a fantastically skilled historian.

But I think it is just…

Look, when I made that list I told you about,

climate change, mass migration, pandemic disease,

technological change, global networks,

pandemic disease was third on the list for a reason.

Like, this was before COVID.

And it was actually the thing I thought

might be hardest to sell.

Look, I knew I was going to have to write

about Justinianic plague.

I knew I was going to have to write about the Black Death.

But I was like, how am I going to sell this

to a 21st century audience as being something

that connects the modern to the medieval,

when the closest thing we’ve had is SARS,

and that’s 2004, and that’s the Far East?

Like, is an American audience really going to buy

the danger of a pandemic in the 21st century?

Now, I was aware that actually clever people

in certainly the UK government,

and I think in the US government as well,

who were pulling risk assessments

for the biggest dangers of the present day

were putting pandemic disease right at the top.

But, dang, I mean, I didn’t see one coming.

Did you?

No, well, I mean, you would hear people

like Bill Gates talking for a very long time,

talking about it’s a law of averages thing, right?

Eventually, you’re going to, it’s going to turn,

the die roll is going to turn up wrong,

and we’re going to get unlucky.

And then you hope that your ability

to pivot, medically speaking, can help you avoid

this sort of tragedy John of Ephesus was writing about.

So maybe now, because we’ve dealt with a bunch

of different things, and I’m jumping around,

but looking at my notes, there’s one little jump

I’d like to make, and it’s a perspective question, right?

And maybe this is another one of those things

that let’s hope not,

but that has some echoes in our own times.

I was curious about the way, and this is really how,

you know, your book starts with the Roman Empire

and then moves on from there.

I’m fascinated by the way that the transition

from a Roman Republic, which, you know,

if we’re looking at it from our perspective now,

whether it’s the UK or the United States,

you would say, oh, a representative, you know,

these terms don’t really apply to Rome,

but we’ll use them anyway.

A representative government is the superior form

of government to something like an autocracy

or a totalitarian state or an empire

or an imperial system that has an emperor

who has control of people.

But that’s not how someone like Augustus Caesar’s

changing, you know, and, of course,

he had several successors afterwards

who helped codify these changes.

But, I mean, they didn’t look at that

as a totalitarian ruler coming to power

on the ashes of a superior system, right?

A system of representation and wide distribution of power.

How come we don’t look at someone like Augustus Caesar

as taking, I mean, if it happened in Germany in 1932,

we would say that a republic was destroyed

and on its back was a dictatorship,

but it would be seen completely different.

How come we view the Roman transition

from a republican form of government

to something else in a more positive light?

Is it because compared to what the republic was

at the very end, it was a more positive light?

Or is this more of us viewing it from, you know,

I mean, I suppose the British empire

in the late 19th century might have viewed it differently.

But it seems to me that you’re celebrating something

that if it happened today, we would consider

to be a terrible thing.

Yeah, but I think it’s a special case, isn’t it?

And it’s a good way to put it.

So the turn against empire as a historical trend

right now is profound, right?

And I mean, you’ve got in London here,

people, you know, people defacing Churchill’s statue.

You know, I talked to one of my kids about Churchill.

I was doing something to do with Churchill the other day,


And I said, I mentioned Winston Churchill to one of them.

They’re ages 12 and nine, the oldest ones.

And the 12-year-old said, Churchill, Churchill.

Yeah, yeah, I heard of that guy.

He’s the racist guy, right?

I’m like, wait, hold on a second.

Hold on, hold on.

There are other things I might need to tell you

about Winston Churchill as well as that very salient fact.

You know, the turn against the British empire is,

well, it’s turned.

The turn against imperialism per se.

And yet we still remain sort of strangely sort of in love

with Rome, just as our medieval forebears were,

despite the fact this is one of the very few pure, true slave

states in the history of the world.


And we’re like, yeah, but I mean,

the statues and the underfloor heating, man,

the underfloor heating.

Yeah, I challenge anybody to go to the ruins of a Roman villa,

probably built by slaves on wealth pillaged from people

the Romans considered inferior to themselves

on what we’d now call eugenic basis.

And everyone would wander around going, shit, man,

the floor must have been super nice and warm.

But these people, they had it, you know, they had it right.

For some reason, we hive Rome off into a special case.

The turn from republic into empire wasn’t a good thing.

I mean, actually, the best representation of this

I’ve ever seen is in, oh, it’s one of Robert Harris’s novels,

in which he, through Cicero’s eyes,

spells out pretty clearly what a corrupt stitch-up

this destruction of the republic and creation of the empire

really was.

But we’re still not quite inclined to see it that way,

because just as our medieval forebears were,

we’re still blindly in love with Rome.

You know, you bring up, you know,

it’s unfortunate, perhaps, that this late in the conversation,

you bring up something like this question of context

in the way we view the past now, because it’s such a big thing

here in the States, for example.

And I know, you know, so this is it.

But it’s worth delving into it just a tad, I think,

because I have you here, and I’m going to exploit the moment.

But it seems to me that if you’re going to be fair,

it is wrong to hold people from, say, the Middle Ages,

because that’s what your book is about,

to our modern standards of behavior, ethics, morals,

and those sorts of things.

And I think most people would agree with that.

And then it’s perfectly fine to do that to people

from 10 years ago.

So there’s going to be some time period between those two

when all of a sudden, the forgiveness that comes

with living a very long time ago goes away,

and you’re penalized for not jumping on board

the more, shall we say, modern ethical bandwagon when you did.

So it seems to me that a guy, you know, we do it with

the people, the so-called founding fathers here,

who were all born British citizens, let’s remember,

people who look back on the Glorious Revolution

as one of their main influences,

that you look at those…

So Thomas Jefferson’s my favorite,

because to me, wrapped up in that figure

is all of the contradictions and hypocrisies

that are built into the American founding, right?

Here’s the guy who all by himself is respond…

almost all by himself, along with the earlier

Enlightenment thinkers who influenced him,

are responsible for the greatest marketing messages

to ever come out of this country, right?

Freedom, liberty, the rights of man, you know,

all men are created…

All the stuff that we emphasize in our own marketing campaigns

as a country.

And yet, obviously, the man owned slaves.

He was having, I’m going to say, a relationship,

which is the really wrong word for this,

with his own slave.

I mean, you look at him and it’s clear from his own view.

He’s trying to eliminate slavery long term on one hand,

but he’s doing nothing to eliminate it in his own life.

So you look at someone like that, you say,

okay, here’s a guy who’s going to be trapped

because he doesn’t come from 300 years earlier,

which probably would have exempted him

from modern moral questions.

And he doesn’t come from 200 years later,

which would have made it absolutely,

you know, there’s no excuse for it.

He’s in that transition period where some people realize

that this practice is wrong,

so you need to jump on the bandwagon.

One can say the same thing about Churchill.

Here’s a guy born into a world where so many of his peers

and the way he was raised and everything

thought the way he did,

and then he lived to be 90-something, right?

And all of a sudden, you know, things changed

and he was left, you know, and I remember reading

in the 1920s and 1930s, they were already thinking of him

as an almost embarrassing political dinosaur

in some British circles.

How should we, and this may be something

that’s not fair to even ask you,

but how should we roll with the punches here

in trying to figure, I mean, with Jefferson,

I always try to say, we’ll laud him for the good stuff

and punish him for the bad stuff.

How should someone look at someone like Churchill

who’s from, whose lifetime extends over a period

where the morality, even in his own world

and the circles he ran with, evolved past his opinion?

Well, look, Churchill was old-fashioned

even in his own time, and was a, you know,

made many, many, many, many, many, many mistakes,

was constantly behind the curve,

was in some ways living a sort of a strange,

slightly masochistic tribute act to his father.


Who nevertheless, in the 1930s,

or, you know, at the end of the 1930s into 1940,

at the point at which this person would,

in almost every other circumstances,

have just been written out of public life,

was there at the right moment,

and was exactly the right person for that role of leadership.

Now, that’s the story of Churchill,

and the correct historical thing to do is say,

look, what were the moral standards,

ethics, and mores of the day?

Put aside whether you agree with them or not.

What were they in that day?

What was right in that day,

and what was considered wrong in that day?

And how did that person fit into that moral world?

Now, you do that with Churchill,

you still don’t come out with super great guy.

You come out with a person who people thought was,

you know, many people had a problem with,

even in his own day,

who cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Everyone said, you know what,

actually, maybe this is the right person.

Now, that’s the grown-up way of doing history,

but, oh, dear, I’m going to sound like such an old man now.

But we’re in such a sort of childish cultural space

at the moment, and such an individualistic space

at the moment that many historians

and many non-historians sort of dipping their toes

in the water think that history’s all about them,

and that the practice of history is about going around,

telling people off for not having lived up

to an ideal moral standard,

and that that is really the most important thing

that a historian or someone engaging in history can do.

And it’s pathetic.

But I think the point in general is that we are in this moment.

And what I also didn’t mean to suggest with this

was a unique moment in human history.

It’s a cycle, you know?


There was a book that was, oh, la, la, la.

There’s a book about that transition

from the Georgian to the Victorian

called The Age of Kant.

And I think that there’s a similar sort of moralism

in its…

K-A-N-T, correct? K-A-N-T?

No, no, not the philosopher. C-A-N-T.

C-A-N-T. Okay. Thank you.

From Kant. So the…

It’s by Vic Gattrall.

And it’s about this sort of…

Well, the verb is this canting, pious rhetoric

which pervades public discourse

in which everyone is trying to say the most moral thing,

and that to slip up will be to invite ridicule, scorn,

and possibly, you know,

the disadvancement in one’s career.

There’s a similar sort of pious censoriousness

about public discourse now.

Now, I think it may be,

and I write about this in Powers and Thrones

at the end of the book,

I think it may be that it is connected

to new communications technology.

So let’s take a good medieval example

of an age of Kant, C-A-N-T.

From printing, the printing press in the 1450s, right?

Comes along and makes it vastly easier to communicate,

to communicate en masse, to communicate at speed.

And what do you see happening in public discourse

in the decades afterwards?

It becomes incredibly moralistic,

incredibly censorious,

people attacking one another all over the place.

And you have a culture war that emerges,

which is what we call the Reformation.

Now, there’s an analogy to be drawn there

with the age of the iPhone and social media,

the immediacy and the availability of publishing

and of publishing at scale.

And what do you see happening immediately

to human discourse?

It becomes very, very fractious

and very, very sort of pompous.

And that’s the moment we’re living in at the moment.

That’s the moment we’re living in right now.

So it’s definitely not anything new

in terms of the long view of human history.

It’s just, for me, as you can tell,

quite irritating to actually live through.

Well, let me validate what you said about cycles, too.

And I’m going to blame the British for this

since I have one of them.

But I mean, in the early history of the Americas,

when you have Puritans and all this sort of thing,

we were shunning, we were shaming,

we were banishing from the public sphere.

I mean, this is how things were done.

I feel like we’ve just taken that quintessentially

proto-American quality, added social media to it,

made sure that there is no…

See, at least the public shaming and all those things

that were going on in those Puritan communities,

there was one moral standard.

Now we have multiple moral standards,

and you can be shamed for any of them

by the groups that associate with those morals.

I mean, it’s public shaming on steroids with social media.

So, I mean, I feel like this is the same cycle

with some amplification involved.

So, we’ll blame that on the British and call it good, right?

All right, okay. It feels like we’re even.

You brought up Georgian stuff. I’m just going a little earlier.

Listen, is there anything I didn’t bring up that you want to…

I mean, first of all, the book is wonderful.

It is one of those books,

and I can hear my mother’s voice in my head,

who, if you read this book from cover to cover

and remembered it, you would have a giant chunk

of your Western historical knowledge completely filled in.

Is there anything, because it’s a thousand pages,

I’m sure I left out all the best parts.

What did I leave out that we should get into?

Oh, man. I mean, there’s just so much.

I had such a blast writing it.

Look, I enjoyed… I’ve written a lot of…

I’ve written dynastic history,

Plantagenet’s Wars of the Roses before this.

I’ve written religious military history

with Templars and Crusaders.

I’ve done some constitutional history with Magna Carta.

I actually really enjoyed getting into the architectural,

the literary, the…

Well, your stuff on the Carolingian script

was fascinating.

Ah, but even the sort of later stuff, you know,

I wrote… There’s a chapter in the book called Builders,

which is about… It’s sort of set in the 13th century,

and it’s about castle building,

which I’d, you know, made some TV shows

for Netflix about castles,

and it’s about Gothic architecture.

And I just got to pull into that all my experience.

I was running in lockdown, so I couldn’t travel.

I couldn’t travel a lot, but I got to pull in all my memories

and experiences and notes about…

about traveling to great Gothic cathedrals

in England and elsewhere.

And I… Man, I loved bringing in that aspect of it.

I loved doing the chapter called Renewers,

which is… goes from Petrarch and Dante and Tzatzarima

and this sort of new poetry of the 13th century

into… into the great painter van Eyck,

you know, moving oil painting somewhere it’d never been before,

to da Vinci, you know, the universal genius.

And as we’ve said already, this figure who connects

the medieval and the modern so brilliantly.

And so what… I suppose… What am I trying to say?

I’m trying to say that actually my takeaway

from the Middle Ages, or what I hope people will take away

from my book about the Middle Ages, is that there’s…

Yes, there’s a lot of dudes slaying each other.

And that’s a… that’s a constant in history.

But there’s also, I hope more than any book I’ve done,

this sort of… a much richer texture

to life in the Middle Ages, and a greater sense

of the legacy, the visual, artistic, cultural legacy

that this extraordinary age brought to us.

But, I mean, we could be talking another two hours,

and we’d still get nowhere near…

And Dan, let’s not be surprised that you come on this show

and somehow artwork gets the short shrift.

It was just going to happen, okay?

You knew there was going to be charging

through the walls of Babylon and not enough Da Vinci.

That’s just… That’s how it goes.

That’s how it goes. That’s how it goes.

But look, I could talk to you all day,

because, you know, I’m a huge fan of yours.

I think what you’ve done for history and the public…

You know, the way you’ve fed the public appetite

for history in this medium and with your books

is… it’s extraordinary, and you’re doing a great thing.

And I know that, you know…

Well, you know this, and I’m just flattering you,

but I’m not.

That’s when it’s time for the show to end, Dan.


No, that’s when we know it’s time for the show to end.

Once we start complimenting the host, it’s done, okay?

My friend, thank you so much. The book is fantastic.

Powers and Thrones. Everybody should get a copy.

I read the PDF.

I’m hoping to get a copy myself someday.

I will buy it. Don’t worry.

We don’t need any freebies around here.

It was worth it. It’s fantastic.

And ladies and gentlemen, Dan Jones has been doing

good work for a while. This is…

I have to be honest, and maybe it’s just because

the subject matter is so comprehensive.

It was… So far, it’s my favorite book

you’ve ever written, so…

Thanks, brother. That’s super kind.

My thanks to Dan Jones for coming on the program.

That was a lot of fun.

His new book, Powers and Thrones,

A New History of the Middle Ages,

is scheduled to come out November 9th, 2021.

So may or may not yet be out by the time you get this show.

His other books, of course, currently available

and worth getting if you’ve not been exposed to that.

The Plantagenets, Crusaders, The Templars, Magna Carta.

You know, if the Middle Ages and this region of the world

is something you really like or think you might,

Dan Jones is one of the really good people

to tell you all about it.

I’m being strenuously reminded, because I am,

and there ought to be a registered trademark symbol

after this phrase, the worst marketer in the world,

that I should probably tell everyone or remind everyone

that as the holiday gift-giving season approaches,

you know, if you can’t think of anything else out there,

or you’ve run out of time, or whatever it might be,

really hard, weird person to buy for, maybe,

that we do sell the archived Hardcore History shows,

either singly or in bunches, from the website.

I think we worked it out so that it’s priced at, like,

if you buy the whole catalog, it’s like a dollar an hour,

works out to you, content-wise, I hope that’s fair.

We also have some new merchandise on the way,

different design stuff, but I don’t know

when it’s coming in, frankly.

Hope it makes it for the holidays, not sure yet.

We do have gift certificates available.

And we have another method we just hooked up recently

that we’re trying out to give another option

to people who buy, again, you know,

as the worst marketer in the world, I’m told,

to make sure I explain this, but it involves another way

to get our premium feed, so that it works better

with, for example, people with certain kinds of pod catchers,

than our old system, or our current system on the website.

So, more options, we figure, is better for everyone.

So, check that out if that sounds good to you.

And for those who ask, because I know you always do,

we are currently working on the next big Hardcore History show.

I don’t know when it’s gonna be ready.

It’s the same old problem that it always is.

And I hope we can get these little, you know, appetizers out

to keep you from starving to death, you know,

between main courses.

But thank you for everything.

Everybody, as always, I’m very grateful.

Stay safe.

Support us with Patreon by going to patreon.com

forward slash Dan Carlin.

Or go to our donate page at dancarlin.com

forward slash dc-donate.

Thanks again for all your Bucca Show donations.

They’re the reason we’re still here.

At the end of the last HHA show, we mentioned, uh,

the folks over at Battle Guide Virtual Tours.

And I’m gonna continue to do that for a little while,

because I think you, if you’re interested in military history,

and not everyone is, so let’s just say that right off the bat.

But if you are, you know how difficult it is sometimes

to get your mind around what’s going on at some of these battles.

If you pull out a map, or you’re reading a book,

or you’re watching a documentary, or whatever it might be,

um, there’s so much going on at so many different levels

that even if you are on the ground at, like, one of these tours

that you can go on, uh, there’s still…

It’s hard to get a sense through the fog of war

and the terrain, what’s hidden from…

I mean, battles are complicated things, right?

So, the… During the pandemic that happened,

I was in touch with a group called Battle Guide Virtual Tours,

who were people that did real tours.

And like so many businesses around the world,

we’re trying to figure out how to pivot

and keep some sort of a business going.

Uh, when no one knew when there were going to be any tourists

or anyone who wanted to visit battlefields

in person anymore, right?

But the way that they figured out how to do this,

and this is just my opinion, I mean, I…

They may have a different opinion,

but I think it’s like the Hershey’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial.

You got your chocolate in my peanut butter,

and oh, it’s better than ever.

Um, I love what they did to create something

you could download at home.

And as I told them, I mean,

it’s wonderful to be able to take one of those

once-in-a-lifetime trips to a battlefield somewhere

that you’ve always wanted to go to,

but what if you want to go to another one

the week afterwards, or something like that?

I mean, this opens the door to people getting to see

lots of battlefields with this sort of approach.

And the approach is, you’ll have to see it for yourself,

and that’s what I’m really here to tell you,

is that you can do that for free,

and just see if you like it, and then if you like it,

you know, you can take it from there.

I’m not going to convince you one way or the other.

I just wanted you to get an idea from a perspective

of somebody who’s always trying to understand these things.

Without all these elements, it’s hard.

And the way that they’ve put it together

is something I think is pretty cool.

And if you’re into military history,

and if you feel like I do, that you’d really like

to better understand everything going on

at some of these battles, go see if you like

any of these battles that they offer.

Uh, go to battleguide.co.uk forward slash carlin,

battleguide.co.uk forward slash carlin,

and get one of the free shows that’s put aside for you,

and just see what you think.

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