Dan Jones: In Conversation
Dan Jones is a medieval historian, with best-selling books on the Plantagenets, Magna Carta, and the Templars. He is also a broadcaster, having worked on numerous TV programmes including The Secrets of Great British Castles, and Henry VIII and His Six Wives, as well as being an award-winning journalist who has written for newspapers and magazines in both the United Kingdom and the United States. His most recent book, Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands came out earlier this year, and we caught up with him to talk about it.
Can you tell me about your new book, Crusaders?
It's a history of the Crusades, but I have tried to take a different approach with it, because there have been tons and tons of big histories of the Crusades: Runciman in the '50s, and recently there's Tyerman, Ashbridge, Jonathan Phillips, Paul Cobb. So my new approach is reflected in the title, which is Crusaders, and that extra letter is quite important. It proceeds through what in historical fiction you would call ‘viewpoint’ chapters: each chapter borrows the eyes, if you like, of a certain character and walks you through a little slice of crusading history from that perspective. That does two things: firstly, it humanises in a very immediate way events that can seem quite distant and strange. And secondly, it has allowed me to cast a very wide set of characters – not just Richard the Lionheart, Latin Christian types, but Greek Christians, Syrians, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Jewish people, women as well as men – people who don't usually get a look-in in the crusading story except as fodder. I did that not out of some sort of earnest twenty-first-century mentality, but because I think you can't understand the Crusades without embracing plurality: plurality of experience, and view, and geography. So that's the essence of it: it's a human history of crusading.
Was the choice of people based on the availability of sources, or was there more to it than that?
It's a balancing act. The hardest thing in the book was casting it really. I arbitrarily chose to do three big sections of the book each with nine chapters, which gave me 27 slots. Of course you're governed by material, but I tried to be as broad-minded as possible when choosing the sources, and not just to tell the story of the Third CrusadeThe Third Crusade (1189-1192) was an attempt by European leaders to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin.The Third Crusade (1189-1192) was an attempt by European leaders to reconquer the Holy LandLands comprising of what is now Isreal and Palestine, including the holy land of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions. from Saladin., Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin, because we've already heard that. So, I went looking for new or under-used sources that would take us into stories from a different point of view. I use a lot of Islamic sources to give the perspective of crusaders coming towards you rather than you sitting with the crusaders. I've got a character called Margaret of Beverley, whose life was written down. She had a great adventure during the Third Crusade, and gives a woman's view of it, which is very seldom done. I make a lot of Sigurd of Norway and the Norwegian Viking sources to tell the story in the aftermath of the First Crusade. So, sources did drive the material, but it wasn't just a case of going, 'What have I got the most amount of information on?' More like, 'What's the most interesting angle into this story that I'm able to develop using the material that exists?'
As you said, there are so many really interesting characters in it; did any stand out for you as being particularly horrible, or particularly nice?
No one is particularly nice! That's not quite true: there were characters with whom I was particularly fascinated, but who I wouldn’t invite around my house for dinner. I liked best the characters who were the most useful to me: Sigurd of Norway was a great character because he physically travelled by sea from Norway all the way round continental Europe to Jerusalem, Constantinople and back home, and he's a slightly ridiculous Viking person. It's great texture on the page, but it's also very useful narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis.A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. . The Fourth Crusade is an incredible story that's not particularly well known, and I used Enrico Dandolo to tell it. He was a blind doge of Venice who ends up being the only person ever buried in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; he's sort of responsible for burning half of Constantinople to the ground and plundering the city. But he was an amazing character. Sometimes you come across these people who are so unlikely that if you wrote them up in a historical novel, people would say, ‘That's just silly’. And Enrico Dandolo was one of them. I loved Anna Komnene and used her a lot in the first part of the book, because we have a lot of source material in the form of the Alexiad.Anna Komnene was a Byzantine princess and eldest daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. She wrote a history of her father's reign, Alexiad, which is still a fantastic source for students of the early crusades. Also, what you can glean of her through her writings is a gift because you can really build depth to the character. So she's great. I also used Hermann von Salza, the foundational master of the Teutonic knights. He was very useful to get through a difficult part of the story, in the thirteenth century. So, it was a form of gratitude, I suppose, that I felt towards a lot of characters for helping me in this slightly difficult narrative task that I built for myself.
It's a humungous narrative task. Did you ever think, 'Oh no, what have I done? What have I committed to?'
Yeah, I did a lot! But mostly before I started; tasks are always scarier before you dig into them, and it's not my first rodeo, in a sense: this is my eighth book, so I know there will always be moments of 'I'm never going to be able to do this', no matter how small or large the task. I'm fairly adept at shutting up that little voice in my head that says, ‘You've chosen an impossible task’! It was structurally the most difficult book to put together, apart from maybe Hollow Crown, a book on the Wars the Roses I did years ago. I learned a lot more doing Hollow Crown than any other book I've written because of the difficulty of structure in it. But I can draw on a lot of experience now in analysing a historical story and constructing it in such a way that it can have momentum and be written in the way I like to write my books. A few chapters were particularly difficult. But really, once I'd written the first four chapters, I felt I had proof of concept and that the task I had set myself to write this book in this way was not going to be impossible. I sort of knew that anyway: I based the technique on the first chapter of my book about the Templars, which I'd set up using a character called Saewulf, who kept a pilgrim diary when he visited the kingdom of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the First Crusade. In Templars I used him to open up this vista of the kingdom of Jerusalem, and so I knew that it was possible to do this. What I didn't know was whether it would be annoying or boring over the course of an entire book to repeat this technique. But I think it turned out pretty well.
I got the impression that throughout Crusaders you disapproved of, pretty much, the Crusades. Would you say that's accurate?
Probably. I hadn't actually thought about that. It's very hard to come out in favour of the Crusades, or to say, 'Well, thank God that happened. Where would we be without that!' People have obviously tried that, saying they led to a great exchange of knowledge, and we got some sort of slightly better mathematics. Pull the other one! It has been a long, thousand-year disaster in terms of the greater good of humanity. And we're still living with the consequences of the Crusades. They're still alive; they're still causing people to murder each other today in relatively large numbers. And the more you dig into the history of it, the more a sorry waste of human endeavour it looks like. I feel slightly bad saying that because the stories themselves are extremely entertaining. But the cause is lamentable.
Are there are any redeeming features?
Like slightly better mathematics? I always slightly struggle with these sorts of arguments, about the First World War in particular. People say, 'Well, yes, it was terrible, but afterwards there were great advances for female suffrageThe right to vote in elections.The right to vote in elections.' or ‘It heralded the collapse of imperialism'. And I like to think we could have got there without that, don't you? I think we could have found another way to that without the death of tens of millions of human beings.
I suppose writing about the Crusades has given me something to do! Imagine if the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945.A global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. had not happened. I imagine the world would be a better place, but what would Antony Beevor, and Max Hastings, and Andrew Roberts, and James Holland and all that crowd be doing?! They'd be bored out of their minds! It's a funny sort of relationship: we love talking about these stories. Great human crises produce art and literature, some of which is great. That's not a claim I'm making for myself, but a general observation: no Trojan War, no Iliad. Maybe that's the redeeming feature.
What are your next projects?
I've got another book with Marina Amaral called The World Aflame: The Long War 1914-1945 coming out in late spring. I'm interested in the history of the First and Second World Wars, and I always learn a lot whenever I go 'on tour' in modern history. I'm really enjoying having this outlet that's away from the Middle Ages, and I love the collaboration with Marina, but her work is what drives it. I love working with her: she's a genius – such an amazing artist – and I’m endlessly fascinated. It will be in the same format as our last book together, The Colour of Time, and it’s looking great. The cover we've got already, which is a great Margaret Bourke-White shot from the Spanish Civil War.
I'm writing a new narrative nonfiction book of my own, called Powers and Thrones. That's for autumn 2021, and it’s a big history of the Middle Ages. It goes from the Sack of Rome in 410 to the Sack of Rome in 1527, so it's a massive canvas, but it looks at the development of the West in the Middle Ages through the great powers that rose and fell. So, the first part of the book looks at why the Roman Empire had survived and thrived for so long and then the next chapter is the 'barbarian migrations'; we'll have the first Islamic Caliphate, then the rise of the Franks. I suppose ultimately it will be a series of interlocking essays and I want it to do a similar thing that Barbara Tuchman did with A Distant Mirror, which is to take present preoccupations and look at them, played out in a different time. Just as A Distant Mirror was about the calamities of the twentieth century reflected in the fourteenth century, this will focus on twenty-first-century preoccupations, things like climate change, big migrations of people, big technological changes, the emergence of nations and the relationship between individual states and big dominant superstructures. It'll be looking at all of the things we think about now, in the Middle Ages. I also want to bring in more history of art and architecture than I've done in other books. So, it's a slightly different project. We could call this book ‘The Middle Ages’ and that would make it sound very boring, but I want to give it another angle. It is a big challenge, but it should be fun. I intend to spend most of next year gadding around in Europe for research, and I've already done a lot of Italian stuff this summer, and some in Greece and Turkey. Some of the research is done already for Crusaders, but some of it is new territory. This is one of the things I like, and what I'm trying to do as a historian is not get caught in writing the same thing: I could still be writing about the Plantagenets, I could be knocking out royal biographies, but I wouldn't be learning very much. What I like to do is use these books as an opportunity to go and learn a new part of history.
What about TV? Are you planning anything for that?
I've been working on little bits and pieces, but nothing substantial. I was writing and touring this year, so I didn't do anything. Normally I film something in the summer, and it’s the first summer for five or six years that I haven't done a series for Five. I'm working with a couple of companies at the moment on development deals, some in scripted and some in non-scripted, i.e. documentary.
As you get older, you have to accept that maybe production companies just stop calling you. Most people don't have TV presenter careers that last longer than five years. If you last longer than five years, you're probably Ant and Dec and you can go on forever! I would hate for television to be my main job: I can't imagine how stressful that would be. But I'm increasingly interested in TV production as well as presenting – the business or creative side of putting television programmes together. I've always written a lot of my own shows, written a lot of the scripts, so I should do a bit more of that.
What do you see as the issues in history at the moment?
From what I can gather from Twitter, which is never a safe barometerAn instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure, using either liquids, such as water or mercury, or springsAn instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure, using either liquids, such as water or mercury, or springs of actual public opinion, historians are continuing down a blinkered path towards self-extermination, by arguing about whether we should be using the word 'Anglo-Saxon', for example. In other words, they seem so concerned with taxonomyA scheme of classification.A scheme of classification. and 'woke' politics that they are determined to start speaking a totally different language from ordinary people. And that is a route to self-willed oblivion. I think that academic history and popular history sometimes diverge and sometimes converge and I think that they're diverging at the moment. There's better and better work being done outside the academy, and it seems there are more and more petty rows dominating discourse from inside the academy. I've been all over the country this autumn doing tour events, and I met hundreds, thousands of people who are totally fascinated by history. Ordinary people who glean their history from books and television programmes – that's where I live and that's the market I serve – and none of those people are interested in whether the term Anglo-Saxon is racist. They would just look in blank incomprehension and rightly so. But I suspect it's an academic disease at the moment; whether the patient recovers or not remains to be seen.
Who would be your ideal historical dinner guests?
Someone who could cook! Perhaps the bloke who made chicken Marengo for the first time! I think to create a guest list out of the entire population of the world that's ever lived is a challenge I can’t solve in the next thirty seconds, so let's narrow it to the Crusades and to the people I've been thinking about in this book. I would have the people I found most fascinating: Anna Komnene, for sure, and I'd bring Bohemond of Taranto, Prince of Antioch, because the two of them could flirt and then have a big row, which would be amusing for all! I'd bring along Frederick Hohenstaufen, Frederick II, as the polymathA person of wide knowledge or learning.A person of wide knowledge or learning., and I might have Margaret Beverley, with a saucepan on her head, and Boucicaut, the marshal of France, who was a late stage crusader. His biography was one of the last sources I drew upon when I was writing the book and it's like a French version of William Marshal's biography. The bit that stuck in my mind was this little passage about Boucicaut which says 'Boucicaut could do this, Boucicaut could do that; Boucicaut was so strong that he could do a somersault while in full armour, excepting only his helm'. So I would bring Boucicaut along to do that as the party piece.
Crusaders is available to buy in all good bookshops.