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Dan Jones and the Five-Minute Medievalist

By Danièle Cybulskie

Dan Jones - photograph from Dan Jones / Wikipedia
Dan Jones – photograph from Dan Jones / Wikipedia

Bestselling author and TV personality Dan Jones has two new history books out this month: an American version of his Magna Carta which has just been released today (October 20, 2015) and an international version of Realm Divided: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England. I caught up with Dan over Skype just as he begins his book tour in the United States (check out his author page and Facebook page for dates, or follow him on Twitter). Here’s our (condensed) conversation about Magna Carta, Russell Crowe, Radiohead, and the brand-new book he’s just started working on.=

DC: Thanks for joining me. Appreciate it!

DJ: Thank-you for having me.

DC: We’re talking about Magna Carta today, which is just coming out in the States (it’s been out in the UK and Canada for a while). This American edition of Magna Carta blends your two books – Magna Carta and the new Realm Divided.

DJ: That’s right. So, there was a short book about Magna Carta which came out in the UK and Canada last December. And in the UK this autumn, there is a book called Realm Divided, which is kind of like a social history of the year 1215. The American book combines the two elements, really. It’s partly the short book on Magna Carta, but it brings in elements of the social, as well, because the more I looked at Magna Carta, the more I thought it was important to place it in its social context, really. [Magna Carta] is so much about Runnymede, June, 1215, and quite often the context is lost: what the rest of the year was actually like, and particularly the latter half of the year when the consequences of Magna Carta and its failure played out.

DC: I think it’s really important to put it in context, and that’s what I like about the book. For example, your timeline starts at 1100, instead of 1214. Why was it so important to you to put it in context all the way back to Henry I?

DJ: Well, everyone’s understood for a very long time [that] the idea that Magna Carta was a protest against John, but also it was concerned with issues that had been around for the previous sixty years at least, going back to the succession of Henry II – John’s father – in 1154, and really its roots go back even further than that. If you look at something like the Coronation Charter of Henry I, you start to see these precedents for English kings granting, in a very loose sense, charters of rights, and establishing what the rights and customs of England are. So, on that side, it’s very important to look at the longer term historical context in order to understand why it was that things went so badly wrong in John’s reign.

DC: In Magna Carta you’ve actually listed the barons and given them short biographies, which I haven’t seen in other Magna Carta books. Why did you decide to include those?

magna carta dan jonesDJ: Well, one sort of feels that there are just a lot of people involved in Magna Carta who really are reduced in normal tellings of the story to kind of “second baron standing beside the oak tree, looking stern” if we’re thinking of those classic Victorian renderings of Magna Carta in which Robin Hood is often sort of gazing round the corner, and there’s a Templar kind of smoking a fag. And there are so many people involved in Magna Carta. So many people. [There are] twentysome names of John’s advisors, lots of them bishops, but also people like William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who are listed in Magna Carta. And on the other side, we know from Matthew Paris the identity of the twenty-five barons who were named as “The Twenty-Five” – the enforcers of Magna Carta. And it just seemed to me that it’d be very nice to have an easy, very potted biography of each of them. Otherwise, they’re just names, really. And I think it adds something to the book. And I sort of believe in books – in history books – as things that you want to treasure and keep and come back to. And I felt like it was rounding out the book, and making it something that people would want to buy.

DC: Well, it’s beautiful. It’s a gorgeous book.

DJ: Thank-you.

DC: And the appendices are certainly very helpful.

DJ: Have you read the whole text of Magna Carta?

DC: Um… no. [Laughs]

DJ: It’s interesting. And very few people have. Because, I mean, why would you? It’s boring. Let’s be frank. It is boring.

DC: Well, okay. I have read it… skimmed it.

DJ: And so you sort of skim it and you go, “Oh, what’s this bit about a fish trap and whatever – on to the next one….” I read it aloud from start to finish when we were recording the audiobook. [Editor’s note: Jones is the reader for both the international and American audiobook versions of Magna Carta.] And it was only when I did that – read it aloud – you suddenly get hit by the realization that Magna Carta was designed to be read aloud. That was to be its primary, or certainly secondary, method of distribution after the creation of the charters, themselves. And you get this wonderful feel for how the ideas flow – or don’t flow – one to the other. And what you also sense when you read Magna Carta aloud is that effectively it’s a work in progress. It’s a deal in which the time ran out and they just sort of stopped. As happens in deals, right? Anyone who’s ever made a deal with a film company or whatever will know that eventually “deal fatigue” sets in. And that’s what you get from Magna Carta as well. It is a messy, slightly raggedy round the edges, unfinished piece of negotiation. It was a peace treaty.

DC: Yeah. It occurred to me that, for John, the vagueness [was] something that was useful to him, as well.

DJ: Well, there were certainly areas where John left himself wriggle room. Particularly with regard to his crusade obligation. I mean, very, very smart of John to take crusader vows. I don’t think we really believe for a second that he had any intention of going to annoy “the Infidel” as he would’ve called them, and jolly good for “the Infidel” that he didn’t, although actually, I doubt he would’ve put up much of an annoyance at any rate if his military record is anything to go by in France. But yeah, you’re right, there was wriggle room there. It’s a deal. It’s a peace treaty, and it’s designed… It’s not the finished article: it’s the basis for something else.

DC: And that’s what I liked about the way you wrote this book. I think that many people who are writing the books on Magna Carta right now come at it from this view of “we’ve already accepted that it’s this great document, and it’s going to be a great document, and it’s always been a great document” and especially if you read your introduction, it’s almost as if you’re coming at it from this place of astonishment, when you think about how it is rough, and it was a peace treaty. I liked that you were quite honest about it. Is that how you feel about it?

DJ: Yeah, I do. You have to detach. You have to sort of separate Magna Carta in your mind from the myth and the legend and the post-history of Magna Carta and see the two things as separate and actually not enormously connected. The myth that has grown up around Magna Carta is astonishing, and I think no one at the time could possibly have foreseen that we would be sitting here talking on Skype eight hundred years on about this charter. And in fact, I think I said this in the podcast you listened to with Helen, if you had been drawing up your list of all the important things that happened in 1215 at the end of 1215, I don’t think Magna Carta would have been number one. I think if you were taking sort of a global view, you might’ve said Fourth Lateran Council, probably more important. If you were taking sort of a super global view, you might’ve said that the burning of Beijing – as it is now – by the Mongols was probably more spectacular than anything that happened in England. I would probably say that, in English, terms, the civil war that had erupted following the failure of Magna Carta was more significant in practical terms at any rate than the charter, itself. And it’s also unlikely that we’ve attached a set of “liberal” values to Magna Carta, and comb it for evidence of the origins of democracy and liberty, rather than anything else because actually, if you look through the charter, you can read it both ways. You can read it as the sort of origins of habeas corpus, and the right for a trial in front of your peers, for equality beneath the law – for all of that. Or you can say it’s the most ultra, sort of right-wing document of all time, that it’s total freedom from regulatory oversights for the Catholic Church, for the City of London… It discriminates heavily against Jews, against women, it demands that you kick all the foreigners out of the country. Top of its agenda after freedom for the Church is enormous tax breaks for the aristocracy (inheritance tax breaks). This is not necessarily a holy, liberal-minded piece of political bargaining. I’m not saying it is the most right-wing document. I’m saying that you can read it both ways. It’s very much what you make of it.

DC: Absolutely.

DJ: That’s why it’s still important. Why we’re still talking about it.

DC: We love controversy, right? Reading things two ways. You were mentioning Robin Hood standing in the wings earlier, and obviously, he’s become enmeshed with the Prince John – King John – legend. Did you see the Ridley Scott Robin Hood?

DJ: I might have done. It seems like something I’d have watched, but I can’t remember a single detail. It’s the one with Russell Crowe.

DC: That’s the one. Where Magna Carta was drawn up by Russell Crowe’s dad, who was a stonemason, and it was hidden away for years. What I liked about this idea of Magna Carta being written and hidden away is that it kind of gets at what you’re saying. If it’s been hidden away before John comes to power, then it gets at the rules that would have been under Richard, under Henry, so that’s kind of interesting. But, in the film, of course, Russell Crowe gets up and starts talking about freedom and liberty for all men. But what would it have meant at the time when they said “free men” are to be bound by this?

DJ: Well, it’s not available to everybody, right? So, in fact, as you allude to, Magna Carta was granted to “free men” in the first instance (in 1215, at any rate), which did not comprise manifestly half the population, because they weren’t men, and didn’t comprise probably even half the men because they weren’t free, so we’re talking about something that is, by its very nature, in that sense, limited to about a quarter of the population. Then add in to the fact that, at the top of Magna Carta, it is granted explicitly to John’s faithful subjects, and the faithfulness is important because the terms of the agreement were not available to those who remained in rebellion against John and the barons who refused to renew their renounced homage to John. Some of them did on the 19th of June. So, even from that position, Magna Carta’s not available to everybody. And then add in to the fact that Magna Carta specifically limits the rights of a number of people. It limits the rights of Jews, who’d had a relatively rough time in England in any case, under Richard (think about the sort of pogroms – the mass killings that accompanied Richard’s coronation) and a very bad time under John, who decided to milk the Jews for as much money as he possibly could, while he was milking the Church and the barons and everyone else. The few clauses of Magna Carta that touch on women, well one of them grants widows the right to remain in their family after their husbands’ death for a certain period of time, but then another says that no one can be [arrested or imprisoned] on the say-so of a woman, except in the case of her husband’s death. So, Magna Carta is not wholly friendly towards women. Magna Carta wants to throw foreigners out of the country, although it has a pretty good reason because a lot of those foreigners were mercenaries. Some of the foreigners are people around John who seem to have been misleading him. Leading him astray, I mean, particularly. But as we know, Hollywood is Hollywood, and has to do Hollywoodish things. You know, we don’t watch Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as a documentary.

DC: No, fortunately.

DJ: It’s interesting. How do you tell interesting historical stories on the screen? Is it possible to do it and remain historically faithful? That’s something we’ve been doing a lot of with the TV programs in the last couple of years. In the UK, we made a four-part series about the Plantagenets, we’ve just made a four-part series about the Wars of the Roses which hasn’t been screened yet. And they’re documentary-dramas. And you do have an interesting job where if you want to present history in TV format – I think, to make exciting television – you have to obey the laws of television as well as obey the laws of history and try to fit those together so that your story has this traditional screen shape, but your facts remain facts. I’m not talking about Hollywood things. You don’t have to stick to the facts in Hollywood, do you? But, in terms of documentary-making, it’s a big, and a very interesting philosophical question.

DC: So, how do you balance it, then? Making it so that you get the blood and the guts and the T&A and all that stuff, for the people who are expecting it, and still get them the facts. Is there a way that you come at it when you try to design your docudramas?

DJ: Yes. You look for stories that are going to fit, first and foremost. The first episode we made [of The Plantagenets: Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty] was about Henry II and the rebellions of his sons and the murder of Thomas à Becket. And you know, if you know that story, that actually, naturally it has this sort of nice, dramatic shape to it because here you have two friends, in Henry and Becket, [who] fall out – one of them gets whacked. The consequences of that, so people thought at the time, included a great rebellion against the king; the king sorts it out by making atonement for the murder of his friend. I mean, that is a classic, dramatic story. It also happens to be true.

DC: It’s perfect.

DJ: And it also happens to have people getting their heads bashed with swords, and charging around on horses, doing kind of war-y things, all of which we know work well on television. So, story selection is very important. There are different techniques to what you include in a book as to what you include on the screen, and it’s just about saying, “which bits of this story fit a sort of dramatic shape?” And “which bits do we normally tell when we’re giving the historical version of this story – which are actually irrelevant to TV storytelling?” And so it’s a different way of sifting your material. All history is essentially sifting vast amounts of material and coming up with a story, but you just have different criteria, I think, according to how you’re projecting that story.

DC: If I can just compliment you for a second, I like the style you’ve taken in the storytelling of the whole range of your books.

DJ: Thank-you.

DC: Do you have any other plans in the works? Do you think you’re going to stick with the Plantagenets?

DJ: I’m not done with the Plantagenets, per se, but I think I’ve run out of Plantagenets. Certainly for the time being. I’ve just finished the first chapter of a new book about the Knights Templar.

DC: Oh, nice! That’s good. That’s a challenge, too, because there are lots of people writing about the Templars all the time.

DJ: Yes, there are, aren’t there? There’s a similarity to the Magna Carta in that the reality of the Templars and the sort of post-life myth of the Templars – you have to separate them out. I suspect it’s going to have parallels with bits of writing about the Wars of the Roses, particularly bits about writing about Richard III in that, like Richard III, the Templars tend to send people a bit mad, I think. That’s sociologically interesting. It’s also great, because people are enthusiastic. It also means there’s a lot of white noise around that you have to try to shut out when you’re approaching history. But, I’m really enjoying it. I’ve written all these books about England and France, mainly England, and now, the first chapter of this book is all about Jerusalem. It’s fantastic. You know, spreading one’s wings and writing about different places. Same time, but the geographical spread is different. And I love it. I really love it. I’ve got such a good feeling about it – it probably means it’s terrible. But, yeah. I’m loving it. I’m really digging the writing. But that’s going to be a little while. It’ll probably be out in 2017.

DC: That’s great. That sounds really good.

DJ: Yeah, I’m kind of excited about it. It’s a challenge. Doing the work on Magna Carta was interesting because the first book I ever wrote was about the Peasants’ Revolt [Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381]. It was a little, short book about a short time. Magna Carta is like that. And now I’m going back to what I was doing with The Plantagenets with this big, epic, sweeping time and place, and people. And it presents different challenges in the writing and the framing of the story. I think a lot about storytelling, and story architecture, and story shape is really important to me. Really very important, as a writer. And [with] the Templars, you have this great story at the beginning (Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the First Crusade), you have this great story at the end, about France, on the thirteenth (that terrible day when they were all rounded up and shut down) and then in the middle, what do you have? A lot of books about the Templars just tend to get a bit saggy in the middle. But I don’t want my book to be like that. I want my book to be really robust and just fire you through. And the questions I’m working on and the architecture at the moment are how you do that.

realm divided dan jonesDC: I’m really looking forward to Realm Divided [available in Canada in January]. You end up talking more about daily life in that one, is that right?

DJ: Yeah. We’ve published a few books at Head of Zeus about a single year. Microhistory, I suppose: social history through the story of a year. And I thought 1215’s a very good way to study society top to bottom, but it also has a story. You start in one place and you end in another place and things happen, and obviously, you’ve got Magna Carta in the middle. This is sort of the story of the year in political terms, that’s the thread that runs through the middle, but it’s really about life; real, everyday life for people of every social station. So, each chapter (as well as telling the story) has a theme, or is about a certain type of people, whether it’s barons or bishops or knights or peasants. In between are some shorter, mini-essays, really, on aspects of life: clothes and food and swearing and sex and whatever. Make-up – that’s my favourite one, as I said to Helen.

DC: The Trotula!

DJ: Love that one. So, it’s kind of an experimental book in a way. I’ve been saying jocularly to people that if you like the band Radiohead – you must be familiar –

DC: Yeah.

DJ: You remember Radiohead when they recorded Kid A and Amnesiac and went very electronic and kind of experimental. I feel a little bit like that. That must be grand, but, you know I wanted to see if it was possible to write social history the way I write and keep it about storytelling. Because most social history – it just becomes sort of, like I said, a list of stuff. Some of it’s good lists of stuff [but] I’m not going to write a book like that. So, I’ve treated it like an experiment: can I write and produce a social history book? And I think I can – I mean, I have.

DC: It’s done, so…

DJ: It’s done. It was possible. Whether it’s good, I don’t know.

DC: I’ll tell you in a couple of weeks!

DJ: Yeah, you be the judge and tell me. I loved it. I really liked writing it because I have a penchant for weird stuff. And I don’t mean that in a sort of fetishistic way, I mean it like the bits of history that kind of push my buttons, like –

DC: Like swearing. Yeah. I mean, that’s where we live at Medievalists.net. All the weird stuff.

DJ: You like weird stuff. Right, okay. There’s loads of weird stuff in Realm Divided. I mean, knock yourself out with weird stuff.

DC: I think there are lots of us that do! So, you wrote your first book on peasant rebellion, and you’re back to rebellion again – Magna Carta, Realm Divided – did it seem familiar coming back to the same themes?

DJ: They’re not wildly different. And I remember when I was writing Peasant’s Revolt book that I did sort of feel as though this was 160-odd years on from Magna Carta. This was peasants having a go at the same thing and that what there certainly was was a sense over that hundredsome years between that divides Magna Carta and the Great Rebellion of 1381, the sort of “political class” has broadened. This was a realm now in which the rebels weren’t just a handful of rich men; they were ordinary people from villages in Essex and Kent. And in spirit, they’re probably really asking for the same thing, really, which is justice.

DC: Yes, absolutely. Although, they had more of the Russell Crowe idea later on. Maybe they need to make a film about that.

DJ: About the Peasants’ Revolt? I think you’re quite right. I think they should make a film about it. Melvyn Bragg has written a very nice novel about the Peasants’ Revolt [Now is the Time]. Maybe someone will make that into a film.

DC: I would watch it.

DJ: I think I’d watch it, as well. But what you’d have to do – you’d have to “Russell Crowe” it up because The Peasants’ Revolt doesn’t really… it sort of has a shape to it. You’d have to think carefully about which characters were interesting or important. Whose eyes you see it through. I found, writing the book, there was sort of a multiplicity of perspectives that made it quite hard to give the story true focus. If [you’re] going to write a screenplay about a novel about the Peasants’ Revolt, it’d be interesting picking whose eyes you saw it through. Who’s the most interesting?

DC: That’s a tough one. Russell Crowe as Wat Tyler… I don’t know because not everybody – not even most people – could be sympathetic in a modern sense when they’re going around cutting off the heads of people who are cowering in the Tower. And then you have Richard (II) who’s always controversial on his own…

DJ: Yes, Richard is an interesting character, isn’t he? None of the characters are enormously sympathetic. I mean, Melvyn, obviously, loves John Ball. You can tell that Melvyn’s sympathies lie with him. He is a very interesting figure. But I don’t know. I think if I was to do it, I’d sort of invent a character who’s… I don’t know. I thought about, for a while, [that] you could use the Peasants’ Revolt as the backdrop to create a sort of nightmarish, James Ellroy-style [L.A. Confidential], conspiracy thriller about medieval England. He works with characters that sort of sit just below the level of power. And so you have an enormous amount of freedom to do portraits of the big players, but you don’t have to live with one of the big characters as your primary view on the world because I think it’s a very difficult challenge for a novelist and a writer.

DC: I think that’s kind of the appeal of watching your barons get profiled in Magna Carta. You have these characters that obviously had a huge impact on history, and you actually want to know a little bit more about them, and here they are.

Clearly, Dan Jones is up to the challenges of both books and television, and we’re definitely looking forward to his upcoming book on the Templars. For an informative and infinitely readable look at medieval history, pick up any one of his books (I especially love The Plantagenets), and catch him at a book stop near you.

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