It’s not the apocalypse, of course, it’s just history, but if you thought the shape of history was meant to be an upward curve of progress, then this feels like the apocalypse.
— Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project
It can always sound really glib when historians start dancing up and down and saying, “hey, my book is super-relevant today.” And, justifiably, a lot of historians get jittery or sour-faced at the word or the question “how is this relevant?” So, I prefer a slightly different term, which is resonant.
— Dan Jones, historian
We’re living in a time of high anxiety. Strange, given that — at least in the West — we are more secure and more comfortable in our daily lives than men and women have ever been in all of our history. Under the constant barrage of media, people regardless of political persuasion, have become convinced that we are facing an unprecedented crisis of misrule.
It is well to seek out a little perspective, and for that there’s nothing better than delving into history.
The welcome news broke this week that ace historian of medieval mayhem Dan Jones is turning his hand to fiction with a trilogy set during the Hundred Years War. According to his publisher:
Essex Dogs covers six weeks in the summer of 1346 when Edward III led 15,000 soldiers from the beaches of Normandy to the field of Crécy, where the cream of the French nobility was slaughtered, along – or so it seemed – with chivalry itself.
Jones explained: “The outcome of this battle — and the experience of the Normandy campaign that preceded it — would shape the course of European history for a century afterwards. It forged the shape of nations, and the fabric of human lives.
“The question was, how was I going to tell this story? The Essex Dogs provided the definitive answer… and this is how it went down.”
His second book will take the Essex Dogs to the year-long siege of Calais, while the third follows an ill-fated expedition escorting the Edward III’s 13-year-old daughter to Castile, where she was due to marry the heir to the throne.
Learning of this outstanding development set me to pondering on two of Jones’ excellent narrative histories: The Plantagenets and Wars of the Roses — and the timeless resonance of the tale they tell. It may seem perverse to take comfort from reading about a society wracked by centuries of crisis, but there it is. I am compelled to resist fear and hysteria and the sense of entitlement that tells us we should be exempt from the tides of history.
This is not to minimize the signs of trouble over the land. The entire premise of The Running Iron Report is that the civilization we have been born into has developed speed-wobbles, and we’d do well to be prepared to ride out the bucks and the spins. What is frustrating is seeing so many otherwise intelligent and well-educated people tearing at their hair and rending their garments, acting as though such things should never be.
Throw a dart at history and you’re likely to hit an age of upheaval, wrenching change… and high anxiety.
The history that Jones so vividly depicts reminds us that misrule is far more common than strong, capable governance. In a period that saw significant impacts from climate change, periodic famine and rampant disease, and nearly constant armed civil strife, England nevertheless managed to survive — and eventually become a recognizably “modern” state. It was by no means a pleasant time to live through and there were many, many terrible ways to die. But… it wasn’t the apocalypse. It was just history.
The perceived “upward curve of progress” may have flattened out, and by some measures it may be in decline. We’ve been sold a version of history that would lead us to believe that that shouldn’t happen. But it does; it has done over and over again. Think our political situation is a mess? Try living through Edward II’s reign.
Jones’ books are outstanding — excellent history, delivered as a cracking good yarn. How can you resist a historical tome that begins:
“The prince was drunk. So too were the crew and passengers of the ship he had borrowed.”
If you prefer a different mode of storytelling, Jones’ works are presented as well-crafted docudramas:
From The Plantagenets:
From Wars of the Roses: