A Brief History on the Importance of ... Well, History, With Dan Jones
Once dubbed "England's edgiest historian," author Dan Jones delights in finding new ways to make history come alive for everyone - whether you thought it was for you or not.By Christina HarcarNov 7, 2017, 10:17 AM
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We had the great pleasure of chatting with one of the coolest historians around, Dan Jones, about everything from his latest book, The Templars, to the role of historical fiction as an entry point to history, to “fake news” throughout the years. Prepare for one of our favorite geek-outs ever.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Christina Harcar: So let’s start with The Templars because I read the book and I loved it. And one thing that surprised me that I didn’t already know was how many different types of diverse people were involved with Templar Corp. That there were people all over Europe and that they weren’t just knights and military knights, that there were people doing what we would consider to be support work in banking, in farming, and lots of people made their livelihood through the Templars.
Dan Jones: Yeah, that’s right. I guess if anyone has an image in their mind of what the Templar, the sort of classic Templar, looked like, it would be of a Templar Knight. You know, white robes modeled on the Cistercian Monastic robes, a red cross to symbolize the blood that they were prepared to shed and the blood that Christ had shed for them. And that was their sort of equivalent of the Nike Swoosh or the Apple Logo or the McDonalds Arches of the day.
DJ: But once we start scratching beneath that stereotype or that that mental picture of a Templar, we see an enormous range of people involved in this extraordinary organization over the course of the best part of two centuries. For a start well, I mentioned the uniform, but let’s think a little bit more about that. There was, of course, this Templar uniform white and red but there was also a Templar Sergeants uniform for those who were not of knightly status, which was black with a red cross on it. There was a Chaplain’s uniform, which was black with a red cross on it or brown, which also permitted the Templar Chaplains who were the ordained priest, who could lead religious services, it permitted them to wear gloves, that was a special perk of being a Templar Chaplain.
Who was wearing the uniforms? Well, that’s another excellent question because again, we might think of the Templars as the kind of the crack troupes at the sharp end of the crusade fighting in huge Crusader Armies as the elite special forces, the Navy Seals of the age. But in fact, this was only the tip of the iceberg. What if you think to use a slightly trite analogy of the Templars as an iceberg, then above the waterline we see the fighting units?
CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DJ: We see the men deployed in a military capacity in the Holy Land, Syria, Egypt, modern Israel, modern Lebanon, modern Palestine. You know the other crusading arena of the time was the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. But as you rightly said in your question there’s a huge amount to it. Below the waterline, to continue the analogy lies the rest of the organization, which is numerically far larger than the fighting force. And this is the part of the Templar organization which was established to fund the military mission.
So all across Europe during the Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries you had Templar houses known as preceptories or commanderies. They wouldn’t have looked like military installations. They would have looked very much like small monastic houses, monasteries. And in these lived Templars of all sorts of status, mostly below the knightly status, mostly of sergeant status, who were engaged in agriculture, in farming, in business management, estate management, in renting out commercial property, in shipping, in commodity trading, in producing commodities themselves, salt or wine, a vast and complex array of business and financial services running accounts for the French crown or collecting taxes for the Pope. The overwhelming sense I got when I was writing this book was diversity, the sheer diversity of this organization.
CH: Yeah, I mean I got that sense reading the book. It was really astonishing. And to realize that anyone of us could go back to the 12th century and find a job with the Templars really opened my eyes a lot.
DJ: Well, yes. Literally any one of us because it wasn’t just men. Although the Templar rule forbade contact between Templars and women, as a sort of corrupting influence that would lead men away from their vows of chastity. Actually, there were we know a few places where women were allowed into the organization. We know of a house of nuns in Germany at the time the Templars were shut down, that was living under Templar management. We know for example, in Spain that women were admitted to the order as sisters. Now, the reasons for that were pragmatic because as well as being principled the Templars were nothing if not pragmatic.
In the Spanish kingdoms, it was much more possible for women to transfer property on their own say-so rather than relying on a man to hold the property. Now, the Templars were in the business of collecting property through pious donations and bequests in wills so it made perfect sense in the Spanish Kingdoms where women had much more control over property to allow women into the Order of the Temple and whatever the rule might say.
Although the Templars were, in essence, a militant Christian organization, they were perfectly happy to employ Turcopoles, Syrian, light cavalry who were in the majority Muslims.
CH: Well, yes. And I became strangely fond of the Templars. And I was really, astonished that despite their power, their influence and this incredible reach and diversity that you’ve just mentioned, how swift the end was and that it took less than a decade for Philip IV and friends to kind of eradicate them. So I wanted to chat about that a bit…
CH: … because you really shine this bright light on how their refusal to compromise contributed to their ultimate destruction.
DJ: That’s right. And I mean, so let’s unpick just very briefly how the Templars came to be destroyed when other military orders of the time, their contemporaries let’s say the Hospitallers of the Teutonic Knights, survived. I’ll set the scene very briefly because I know that we go into quite a lot of detail in the book and I don’t want to repeat that wholesale here.
But very briefly, at the end of the 13th century, in 1291 the Crusader States, the- the states that had been set up in greater Syria Palestine by the Western Christians in the Crusades and had existed for nearly two centuries, were wiped out by an Islamic army led by and known as the Mamluks. The last stand was in Acre, a town on the coast, which was evacuated by boat from the Templar fortress. The Templars were literally the last line of defense of the Holy Land. And the evacuation of Acre was a somewhat heroic episode in their history, which in modern terms mostly closely resembled the fall of Saigon.
You know, people piling into boats as the enemy closed in all around them. Boats rather than helicopters in this case. Fifteen years later the Templars had- had been on Cyprus as their last forward base in the Eastern Mediterranean. Back home in Europe, where they were still very wealthy and possessed of a great deal of property, they were copping a lot of blame.
“The Templars were tortured and forced to admit at what amounted to public show trials that they’d done all these things. This was mostly grotesque fabrication, but it was repeated again and again, and again and again, and again in trial after trial, after trial, after trial. This was the definition in a sense of medieval fake news.
There was a lot of call for reform of the military orders. And some of it you have to say in historical retrospect was entirely justified because there were many military orders. And whilst there had been Crusade Estates in the East there was fairly good reason for the military orders. You know the arguments made by members of the military orders against reforming them and rolling them up into one new super military order was that they’d done actually rather well through competing with one another to be the most valiant on the battlefield, through competing with one another to build the most secure fortresses to hold off the enemy, and so on competing for the best quality recruits and so on, and so on, and so forth.
By the early 14th century there was this clamor for reform. But the Templars were led by their master Jacques de Molay, James of Molay, were adamantly resistant to any form of change. And we see this with organizations throughout history, don’t we?
CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DJ: If an organization has been successful they tend to focus on the reasons for the success and not really to pay much attention to their points of weakness. Well, the Templars’ argument for staying exactly as they had been for nearly two centuries was that it’s worked well enough up until now and we’re sure it’s going to work again in the future. Well, that didn’t wash and there were grumblings across Europe. Resisted by the Pope, who’s the ultimate overseer of the Order of the Temple as head of the Catholic church on Earth. The Pope was protecting them but that was really their last bastion of defense from attack.
Now, cut to Paris, France in 1306. You come up against a French king called Philip IV. Traditionally the Templars have been close to the French King, so in Philip IV they found that that close relationship was about to be broken quite dramatically. Philip himself had financial problems, economic problems. He’d been funding three expensive wars against his neighbors Aragon, England, Flanders. He had a terrible shortage of coin. He needed to appropriate wealth from whomever he could. In 1383, he tried to attack the church. It had led to an enormous row with the papacy. In 1386, he’d expelled 100,000 Jews from France and appropriated their wealth, it hadn’t been enough. In 1387, he turned his attention to the Templars as an organization whose reputation as defenders of the Holy Land was under question but, which was extremely rich and particularly within France, which was their traditional heartland of recruitment and of donation.
Philips ministers went about drawing up a dossier of charges against the Templars, almost wholly fabricated. The charges included pushing every button that could be guaranteed to disgust and appall good thinking early 14th century Christians. They were accused of kissing one another in lewd induction ceremonies. They were accused of having sexual relations with one another. They were accused of spitting on the Cross, of denying Christ, of trampling on images of Christ and on the Cross, of worshiping false idols, you know, the list goes on. And it did go on to some 80-odd charges. On Friday the 13th of October 1387, Philip’s ministers put their plan into effect.
Royal agents were sent out to every Templar house in France, knock-knock on the door at dawn, they walked in they said, “How do you answer these charges? We’re arresting you all, we’re putting you on trial for… ” the charges I’ve just listed and more besides. The Templars were tortured and forced to admit at what amounted to public show trials that they’d done all these things. This was mostly grotesque fabrication, but it was repeated again and again, and again and again, and again in trial after trial, after trial, after trial. This was the definition in a sense of medieval fake news.
DJ: It was repeated until it was believed. Or until people started to disregard the whole concept of what was true and what wasn’t true and just assume that something must be going on, but they couldn’t really be bothered to work out what. The church, in trying to stop Philip from seizing Templar property, took command under Pope Clement V of this process and it then spread to every other realm in Christendom. And after five years of it in 1312, they decided enough was enough. The reputation of the Templars had been shredded, ironically, by the very process of stitching them up that had begun by Philip IV, and the order was disbanded. Now, if that’s not a, sort of a modern story of dark propaganda and great forces moving against one another where geopolitics meets personal politics, I’m not sure what is. It was certainly a great deal of fun to write.
CH: It was very sobering to read (laughs).
DJ: But it’s quite pertinent to the moment, isn’t it? I mean it’s quite resonant.
“That’s why issues like fake news, the information wars are gaining so much currency because I truly believe that people are overwhelmed by the amount of information out there.”
CH: Yes, absolutely. I mean I definitely read it as an American in the American news cycle. But I’m also a woman in tech and tech is a big thing. And it kind of made me realize that the Templars were also the first innovators, and they were great at innovation. And as you described, they made up whole industries that they needed to keep themselves going, much the same way that the tech titans do now. And I’m wondering with hindsight, what is the single most important thing, and at what inflection point could they have done the most impactful thing, to correct their course so that this stopped? Would it have been paying off Philip or changing earlier through that?
DJ: Well, I think there’s two parts to your very insightful comment there. One is the- the likeness with modern tech companies. And I absolutely agree with you. I think the Templars were a disruptive organization. They took a new idea back in the 12th century, which was to combine knightliness with holiness. Two things which had previously been assumed to be totally at odds, they bound them together, they gave it a brand, they went round and sold it. I mean you see them going around the Pope and the King of Jerusalem, the Kings of England and France, and pitching. Pitching for investment and constantly getting investment, getting investment from high-end investors, getting crowdfunding-type investment, small contributions from ordinary men and woman, but thousands and thousands of them. Which until eventually they became rich, that’s part one.
Part two, what could the Templars have done to arrest or disrupt their process of their dissolution? Well, firstly, I think they should have been more open to the idea of change earlier. The idea of rolling up the Templars with the Hospitallers was not a bad idea.
CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DJ: In fact, it was probably a very good idea because you had two companies as we’d now think, two orders in medieval terms, competing in the same space, indeed in a space that had just vanished. There were no more Crusade Estates to be defended. The task was now no longer defense, which was what had always lain at the core of Templar purpose and ideology in a sense. The goal was now conquest. They had to somehow get out of Cyprus, to which they’d retreated, to try and build a bridgehead in the Holy Land, and try and reconquer what in the First Crusade, back in the end of the 11th century, had taken tens and tens of thousands of men to do. Well, the Templars’ fighting force in the East numbered in several hundreds, forget tens of thousands. So reform was absolutely vital.
I think the second point of defense, which might have helped them, would have been about 100 years before, unfortunately, Philip IV attacks, but we can look back at medium- to long-term movers of history. They had the chance to buy Cyprus. They were sold Cyprus by Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade but only held it for a matter of 20 some months, not even that. If they’d owned Cyprus much as the Hospitallers were known to own Rhodes, much as the Teutonic Knights were known to own Prussia, their two rivals, which was a military state effectually ruled by them that inured them somewhat to attacks from outside. The Templars, for all their wealth spread through numerous jurisdictions, for all their tax breaks, for all their expertise, for all their reputation, they lacked the hard entity of a state to which they could retreat once attacked. They were always in someone else’s backyard.
And thirdly, I suppose what I’d say is that the leadership of Jacques de Molay, their last master, was incompetent. Personally incompetent, he dithered, he wavered, he never got a grip on what was actually about to happen to the order. When he was questioned, he flip-flopped, he went back and forth, he provided very little leadership. Leadership was taken over de facto by a man called Peter of Bologna, who was a lawyer who worked at the papal court and took over the legal fight against Philip IV, although it was futile in the end. Philip sort of steamrollered the legal challenge the Templars put up by burning 50 of them alive in a show of terror, and the legal process the Templars were mounting sort of fell apart. But Jacques de Molay was nowhere near that process, he wasn’t owning it.
And to the end he said one thing and then he said another thing. I mean, but then how could any of us could say how we would act if suddenly arrested, tortured, and forced under great pains to do as we were told by our captors? I don’t know, we can’t say for certain.
CH: Well exactly. I really admire in your work the way you foster my imagination. When I read your books I can see myself in these places and ask myself what I would have done at these times, and so to me your mission feels like what Carl Sagan did with his Cosmos show, the idea that science and civilization go hand in hand and he unfurled that for people. Or the way Neil deGrasse Tyson makes astrophysics seem like it is somehow graspable by our puny selves. So I wanted to ask you, do I have that right that that’s how you see your work? And if I do, what single idea would you like to transmit to your readers now across all of your books that you think is the most important takeaway from the study of history?
DJ: Well, first of all, I’m incredibly flattered by the comparisons with great writers of the current day that you’ve made. I admire both of those guys and I think that the work they’re doing to bring sort of scientific and that sort of knowledge to a broader audience is important. It’s particularly important today because in a sense we’re exposed to more knowledge and certainly more information than any time before. In fact, we’re awash with information. And what we lack as we go through this sort of tech and communication revolution, which I believe is on a scale in the order of the industrial revolution frankly, is the ability to navigate effectively. That’s why issues like fake news, the information wars are gaining so much currency because I truly believe that people are overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. Now, as a historian in a sense that’s always been the bread and butter hasn’t it, because what is a historian’s raw material? What is the rock from which he or she sculpts? It is the vast accumulation of record written, physical, and otherwise left by the entirety of human civilization (laughs) dating back about 10,000 years. So as a historian, my first duty is to produce works, be they my books, shorter-form journalism, television shows, podcasts, whatever, that speak to ordinary people. That speak in a vernacular that is not dumbed down, that is not sort of feeding sugar to a patronized audience. That is conveying serious information in a way that is digestible, in a way that is entertaining. God forbid, we could, blend together information and entertainment. You know I try and write books that are great stories and I think I would be utterly failing if any of these books that I wrote were unreadable. If you couldn’t sit down and turn the pages with the same delight and enjoyment that one would get from reading a novel. And if there’s one thing I’d like to have in common with Dan Brown, apart from the bank account I suppose …
DJ: … it’s that people got into the Templars by reading The Da Vinci Code, and they read the Da Vinci Code because it was a page-turner.
“I’ve become quite philosophical about it, to the point that I think the genre of historical fiction, both in books and on the screen is what is people’s first point of access often today once they’ve left high school to history.”
CH: Uh-huh (affirmative).
DJ: I thought when I sat down to write this book … gosh, if I could make the Templars, the real history of the Templars, even 25% as entertaining as The Da Vinci Code, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to because the real history is extremely extraordinary and entertaining in itself, then I’ll be doing the right thing.
What’s the one thing I would like to transmit through all the work? Well, I suppose it’s the sense that as I’ve been saying — be alive to what you’re being told and why you’re being told it. When I talk to younger people, school kids, people who are embarking on the history at an earlier stage in their lives and careers than I am, and they say, “What’s the biggest skill that you need as a historian? Or what is the thing that studying history gives you?” And I say and I apologize slightly for the mild profanity, but I say it gives you a bullshit radar.
DJ: It lets you sniff out when you’re being told, something that doesn’t seem like, an overt messaging. And it makes you question why am I being told this, who’s telling me, and what could their purpose be? Or what could their conscious purpose or their unconscious purpose be in telling me this thing? And to circle back to where I started this slight diatribe, that’s so important now.
CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DJ: It’s more important now than at any time in my short life.
CH: I completely agree. And in fact, if it’s okay with you, I’m going to tell all of my coworkers that in this interview you said that history was a vaccine against propaganda (laughs).
DJ: I think that would be an adequate and indeed a brilliant summary of, um, the sort of four minutes I just spent circling around that- that very precise point.
CH: No, it was really wonderful. So I’m going to skip over my specific questions about the Plantagenets and hopefully lighten this by talking a little bit about you. So I guess my first question is, you mentioned history as entertainment, and it has definitely furnished my mind in a wonderful way, so I’m curious, which book of history or historical fiction is your personal pick for just sheer most fun? I mean, when you have a moment to indulge yourself, what is your guilty pleasure history read?
DJ: Oh, I’m not guilty about this at all.
DJ: You’ll have to shut me up because I won’t stop talking about it but for me the greatest work of historical fiction I’ve read in the last 10 years is James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. Ellroy obviously built his career as a crime writer, as a provocateur, as a kind of a kind of schlocky Hollywood underworld bad-boy, demon-dog. But when he turned his attention to history, which I believe he did when he started writing his American Underworld books, starting with American Tabloid, Cold 6000, Blood’s a Rover,Perfidiahe took hold of history in its granular aspect, he took hold of history in its grandest aspects. He fused them together. He sprinkled them with his unique approach to sentence construction, to slang, his obsession with the scatological, with the sexual, with the racial, with everything that lies on the underbelly of America. And he created this vision of America before and after the Kennedy assassination, which I remember reading for the first time and my jaw just hanging open at the audacity but also at the brilliance of this and at the craft of the writer and his absolute devotion. I think in Ellroy’s case of near psychosis …
DJ: … of his obsession with a particular period in which he lives, in the 1950s and 1960s in Los Angeles and in America, and he pours every ounce of that into the book. And I know people don’t consider him to be a historical fiction writer and certainly I don’t think there’s very much, on the surface of things that he has in common with somebody like Hilary Mantel, whose work I also think is very good. But I don’t read Manteland get the urge to howl at the moon, which I do whenever I read Ellroy.
CH: I really thank you for that because you’ve just mentioned two of my favorite books ever. But also that they’re very classy picks, I’ll compliment both of us. But that was a truly inspiring appreciation of them and makes me want to go back and reread them immediately, American Tabloid and also Bringing Up the Bodies.
CH: Thank you. So, let’s talk about history as story and reading. I am glad and impressed that you narrated your own audiobook for The Templars.
DJ: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CH: Would you like to comment upon that experience? I know it could not have been easy, but I hope it was also gratifying. And I’m wondering if you saw anything in your own words when you read them aloud that you hadn’t seen on the page.
DJ: I’m glad you enjoyed the narration because it’s hard. It’s much harder than you’d think.
DJ: Maybe not you, but it’s much harder perhaps than people would think. I do a little bit of voice work in that I make documentaries. I write and present and exec produce documentaries, and that often involves some time in the studio laying down voiceover tracks. But it’s nothing on the scale of the 30-odd hours I spent in a studio in London earlier this year in the late summer recording The Templars. I’d recorded an audiobook before. I’d recorded my book about Magna Carta, but that was a much shorter book and only took really about three days studio time. Whereas we were talking a full seven to eight days of recording sessions for this book, which I did over a relatively short period of time.
CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DJ: It’s hard on the voice, I mean that’s the obvious point. It requires a level of mental stamina, which isn’t tested by many of the other aspects of writing. There’s a technical skill to it, which I now admire much more greatly in those voice artists who do it day in, day out as a profession.
I find as a writer it’s important and I would do it again. And I will do it again if asked because I believe that there is enormous merit in being forced to read every word you’ve written aloud in sequence the way you wrote it. It illuminates your ticks, your foibles, your faults, to you. The listener may not hear them, but I imagine some will.
As a writer, you become acutely sensitized to the things you do too often, to the ticks you have, to the words you overuse, to the stock phrases you fall back upon, to the structural architectural devices that, uh, that you rely upon more often than you realize. And I find that it creates a sort of frustration and a revulsion actually in one’s own work that is very important and necessary to the creative process. It doesn’t last forever. I don’t hate this book at all. And in fact, within an hour of leaving the studio I’m feeling sort of … I’m whistling as I walk down the street as usual. However, I do find that intense deep word-by-word exposure to your own work is an immensely improving act as a writer. When I first started writing I use to read each chapter that I’d written aloud to my then-girlfriend and now-wife after I’d finished writing it. But she found my subject matter both boring and gruesome.
DJ: Not to her tastes, so I stopped doing that after a while. And reading the audiobook always reminds me that it’s quite a valuable process and I might have to find someone else to do it to, either the dog or perhaps the children.
CH: (Laughs). I’m delighted to hear within all of that that you would read again if asked. And I’m just wondering if you have any idea of what you’ll be working on next?
DJ: Yes, I do actually. The next book I’m going to write in this field is a bigger book, which will take even longer to narrate, and will expose me to even more of my foibles alas.
DJ: But it is The Crusades. There have been lots of books about The Crusades, none better than Steven Runciman’s enormous three-volume history, which was one of the great historical works of the modern age. I shall not be trying to redo or rewrite that.
I want to look at The Crusades through the eyes of the people who lived them. Having written The Templars, I got a real taste for this because one of the ways that I like to carry narrative through the books is through selection of character and through viewpoints. And it’s a technique, which I’ve developed through studying screenwriting technique and through thinking about the way that stories are presented on that medium.
And I want to take it a step further and write a book that’s about The Crusades, in which we follow characters through The Crusades. And they rotate somewhat in the way that George [R.R.] Martin actually has rotated his characters in his fictional work about that ultimate evil land Westeros in A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire.
DJ: To take a version of that and to see The Crusades through characters’ eyes. I began to develop this in Templars and it’s most clear in the first chapter actually, which follows a pilgrim called Sayerwolf as he journeys. He’s a British pilgrim, probably. He journeys from Apulia in the south of Italy by sea to the Holy Land, stopping in many different parts of the Greek Islands, what’s now the southern coast of Turkey, Cyprus, Rhodes on his journey. Then he pitches up in Jaffa, walks overland to Jerusalem and then travels around the Holy Sites. And he kept a tour diary effectively of this. And that was a source I drew upon to recreate his journey.
I felt when I was writing that I needed to set the scene, to explain how dangerous the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in its early years and therefore why the Templars were required. But I felt that that could be a very boring introduction to a book unless it were humanized in some way, which is why I lighted upon Sayerwolf as a vehicle and a pair of eyes through which to see the world. I think that technique, having now had the experience (A) of trying it out in Templars and (B) of familiarizing myself and my readers with the world I’m about to take on, that technique is scalable. And when we start to look at The Crusades through the eyes of people on every side, on the Christian, Greek Christian side, the Latin Christian side, the Muslim side, the Mongol side, the Sunni side, the Shia side, the Mamluk side, once we start to do that the world is gonna come alive in a way that no one has managed to make it do. And they’re very fine but I find often overly broad surveys of The Crusades that have been written by other very fine scholars.
CH: Well, I think it already sounds fascinating. I’m already hooked and I wish, strangely even though I asked the question, that I hadn’t heard about this book until it were written so that I could go get a copy.
DJ: (Laughing). I’m worried. My editor is whipping me so it’ll be coming along soon enough.
CH: (Laughs). Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m also glad. But thank you for saying that because the comment that you made about setting the scene and screenwriting, because I’ve also enjoyed your television shows though I’ve spent more time with your books. I was wondering if you could comment, we know that there’s a lot of bad history in film, can you think of a time when film or the TV or the film industry gets history right? And what does it mean to get the history right on screen?
DJ: That’s a very good question, and it varies according to the medium. And I think that, without wanting to get to sort of abstract and philosophical about it, although I will a little, the business of creating history has to be medium appropriate. So what is appropriate to an 135,000-word book or a 400-page book like The Templars, it’d be inappropriate to the screen. Because screen is a medium that has its own pace, its own vernacular, its own grammar. Now, I say screen liberally as though that were just one thing. We’ve got the documentary making over 45 minutes for a network in the UK, which is one medium that I’ve worked on for the cut show I made about great British castles, which goes out in the rest of the world on Netflix.
Then we’ve got something like think about the way that Ken Burns works over his most recent PBS series on Vietnam, I mean a totally different style of documentary making. And then we have the big one, which is all in vogue at the moment, which is telling historical stories through the medium of drama. Mostly in long-form drama now such as The Crown or I mean [Wolf Hall] was done on a reasonably long for maybe six hours, wasn’t it? For two books.
Once you get into making historical drama and I have a little experience with this because I worked as a historical consultant last year on a Templars drama produced by A&E studios. I can’t at the moment go into a lot of detail about the show, but I can tell you the learnings of my experience.
You need to start making decisions that are compromises. That are compromises between the history as it really happened, the needs of the story, and the grammar of television. And the grammar of television by implication means what viewers actually expect and what they’ll swallow without it dis- disrupting their experience. So take an example, let’s take a film like Kingdom of Heaven. Ridley Scott movie about the Crusader period in which the battle of Hattin looms large, in which the Templars appear. I think by the standards of Hollywood people would agree that was a reasonably faithful attempt to recreate what it might or must have been like in that period. But it’s fiction.
It’s fiction. It’s dressing up as fact and that gives it a sort of frisson and it’s playing with history. But it’s not accurate in the sense that we would use that word when we’re talking about a history book, a footnoted, annotated scholarly history book for the orderly apparatus. So but I don’t think that’s inappropriate because the main goal of that movie and of The Crown and whatever else you have is entertainment first. An entertaining version of something that really happened. And so as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve learned more about the process particularly and the high demands coming from all different directions of producing historical fiction on screen, I’ve become a lot more chilled out about it. I certainly don’t sit there shouting at the television if I’m watching a historical drama about things that they got wrong, unless it’s egregious and it makes the show bad in an entertaining sense because you have to understand what these things are for.
And actually, I’ve become quite philosophical about it, to the point that I think the genre of historical fiction, both in books and on the screen, is what is people’s first point of access often today once they’ve left high school to history.
DJ: It is like the gateway drug and it can get you into the harder stuff, which is actual history books. But to sort of dismiss the genre as light or inaccurate or un-factual or untruthful, is to miss the trajectory of most people’s journey into consuming history as a product. And so yeah, I try to chill out these days is what I’m saying.
CH: (Laughs). Well, while you’re chilling out then I’m going to go back to a question I have really been dying to ask …
“I’ll go back before the Internet. I’ll go back before reality TV gladly. I mean take me there tomorrow. But I’m not going back before widely accessible painkillers because actually, that’s a game-changing technological advance.”
CH: … and I thought we wouldn’t have time for. It’s sort of a Dan Jones question and it’s sort of a Plantagenet question. But now I’m going to include the Crusaders too. Which Plantagenet would you have wanted to be, and why?
DJ: I don’t want to be any of them.
DJ: You know, I was having this conversation with somebody the other day, which was to say what’s the … I don’t mean to rephrase your question, but …
CH: Go ahead.
DJ: … uh, I’ll answer yours slightly with a question. And make a point off the back of it, which is to say, someone asked me what’s the terminal date that you wouldn’t go back any further in time? Do you know what I mean? Like would you be happy to go back to the 14th century …
DJ: … but not the 13th, or the 13th but not the 12th, the 12th but not the 8th? And I said, “I’m not going back any time before they have general anesthetic,” because that’s really my cut off period. I mean I’ll go beyond cell phones. I was born beyond cell, you know.
CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DJ: I remember not having a cell phone as a child. I’ll go back before the Internet. I’ll go back before reality TV gladly. I mean take me there tomorrow. But I’m not going back before widely accessible painkillers because actually, that’s a game-changing technological advance.
Now, let’s say you’re forcing me and you’re not going to let me off the telephone to go and eat my lunch until I give you an answer. Well, if we’re going to have to be a Plantagenet I’ll be the best. And I’ll actually be the one I haven’t written about, uh, because there’s a slight gap between my book and the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses and it falls mostly over his reign. It’s like I’m saving it for last and that’s Henry V.
CH: Uh-huh (affirmative).
DJ: And Henry V was the sort of acme of Plantagenet Kingship. He had it all. He achieved it all. He lived fast, died young, and left, if not a beautiful corpse, because he had a gigantic scar under one of his eyes where he’d had an arrowhead removed after the Battle of Shrewsbury, he certainly left a dual kingdoms of England and France, which was something no one else achieved before or after him. A legend in his own lifetime and thereafter. I mean also a war monger, let’s not pretend he was a nice guy but certainly my sort of favorite of the Plantagenets for his great achievements. And the subject of probably my favorite fact about the Plantagenets, which is Shakespeare’s great speech that he gave to Henry V on the eve of battle, “Once more unto the breech” and so on. We know actually from the historical record that before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V said nothing of the sort.
DJ: He simply said to the men following him, “Fellas, let’s go.”
CH: (Laughs). That’s a great anecdote, and thank you for answering my question. You actually answered the question I meant to ask, which is just in a blood-soaked violent time that we’re not suited for, what would you prioritize as the “up side” for having lived there, so thank you. You did do that.
DJ: I have a feeling I’d go into monastic orders. You know I have a feeling I might just run off to a monastery.
CH: My last question is Game of Thrones, and as preamble to that I’ll say whenever people say to me, “What would you be in Game of Thrones?” I’m like, oh, sign me up for Maester. I’d be there forging my chain.
CH: Don’t … Please don’t put me anywhere else (laughs). So I will let you go get your lunch, but first I just want to ask you one closing question, which is-
CH: … enough about history and the future of history in the state of the world. I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones, as much as I am with real history and it’s because at one point George R. R. Martin said, giving a teaser to his fans that, “dynastic battles always boil down to the question, who’s got a viable heir?” If the teams that win have a deep bench of heirs, which is certainly true of the Plantagenets, so I was wondering as a historian if you could share anything about what you think might be happening in Westeros next season from a historians point of view (laughs).
DJ: Well, well, well, well.
DJ: Well, of course I’ve taken a great interest in history versus Game of Thrones over the years. And I’ve written numerous essays. Every year the new season comes out and a newspaper editor rings me up and they say, “Dan, I’ve got this great idea. You know A Game of Thrones is coming out. I don’t know if you’re a fan.” And I say, “And you want a rare essay about the real history behind it.” And they go, “How did you know?” I said, “Because, actually, you rang me up four years ago and asked this very same question.”
DJ: I watched HBO on the official film about it so I do take an interest. And I think it’s done amazing things for history. And I think George Martin is an extraordinary historically literate individual, as well as a great creator of worlds.
DJ: What’s going on in Game of Thrones now as of the most recent series, is far beyond the wit of the historian to predict because now I think, to use that old TV phrase drawn from Happy Days, they’ve jumped the shark somewhat.
DJ: And the minute the Night King is flying around on a demon dragon I think, the value of history as a predictive tool for Westeros is sadly lost to us, which is not to say that I’m not enjoying it. But I’m enjoying it on a completely different plane of engagement to that which (laughs) I used to enjoy it when …
DJ: … it was quite a gentle, if slightly bloodthirsty metaphor for The Wars of the Roses.
CH: I completely understand. And if in your Crusades book you put those Crusaders up on a wall, I will know that it is a wink to Westeros at some point.
CH: Well, I am really a fan and I look forward to the next book and I wish you luck on this tour. Stay strong. (Laughs). Have fun.
DJ: I’m looking forward to speaking again next time.