Title: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made
Author: Norman F. Cantor
The Black Death was the fourteenth century’s equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe’s population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren—the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure—are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths. Now, Norman Cantor, the premier historian of the Middle Ages, draws together the most recent scientific discoveries and groundbreaking historical research to pierce the mist and tell the story of the Black Death as a gripping, intimate narrative. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: This book is one hot mess. This book purports to be introduction to the story of the Black Death and how it affected society. In truth this book is anything but that. It is disjointed, full of tangents, information is repeated over and over again, the research is sloppy, and there is no focus or structure to speak of. This is especially disappointed as Cantor was a great populizer of the Middle Ages to the general public and his The Civilization of the Middle Ages is considered a classic and the go to book for those just beginning their studies of the Medieval era.
This book desperately needed an editor. I can’t count the number of times that I was told that the mortality of priests due to the plague was 40%, the same percentage as the regular population. Facts were stated, only to be repeated a page and a half later. In the section on Jews, about two entire pages were just quotes from a document and the last 5 pages or so of the chapter was the history of Jews in Europe after the plague up to modern times which has nothing to do with the supposed topic of the book. Cantor also seemed strangely obsessed with alcohol. Several times when he was talking of Bordeaux and the Gascony region of France he would randomly start talking of their wines and vineyards and how much wine from their more famous brands cost and the sell of wine at auctions and the fact that a bottle of Rothschild cognac costs $300. What?
There were a lot of strange comments in the text that just shouldn’t have been there. In talking about how in the past most viruses and infectious disease came up the Nile to the Mediterranean and on to Europe, he suddenly starts talking about the discovery of Lucy and calling her ‘the black mother of us all.’ …are you serious here? He briefly mentions St. Anselm to say that when he was Archbishop of Canterbury he turned the monks of Canterbury into ‘an ingroup of young gays.’ What? He then goes on compare medieval London to modern day Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America because after the plague criminals, beggars prostitutes, and other ‘misdoers’ flocked to the city….ARE YOU KIDDING ME- I couldn’t believe it! Also, disturbingly, he comes dangerously close to blaming the Jews for the horrible persecutions they endured from European Christians who thought that they had poisoned the wells and thus caused the plague. He also blames medieval intellectuals for ‘wasting time’ in making theological and philosophical advances instead of developing science and medicine and making discoveries that could have repelled the plague, when he had just acknowledged that without tools such as the telescope, algebra and other future scientific discoveries they were helpless to do anything to prevent the Black Death! He also vilifies the rich landowning class saying that they were incapable of reflection and inward thinking, and compares medieval peasant women to the down-trodden women he saw growing up in rural western Canada! …. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!
The structure of the book is truly terrible. In fact, there is none. He jumps from topic to topic, none of the chapters are connected, he gives us pages of information about individuals (in one case an entire chapter is virtually a summary of another historian’s research) but fails to connect their experiences and lives to the larger context of the times. In the last chapter of the book he tries unconvincingly to link the Plantagenet ’empire’ to the Roman empire and that the cause of both their downfalls was plague. Information regarding the Black Death that is relayed in the first few chapters is retold towards the end of the book as if it was new information. This book was all over the place, there was no central theme, he ignores the actual occurrence of the Black Death to instead include chapters talking about medieval inheritance issues and the state of the Church and its philosophy at the time. Everything about this book was a disaster.
Further more, his research is shoddy. He relates the well-known story of King Edward II being killed by a hot poker shoved up his backside as if it were a historical fact when the vast majority of historians reject that this story has any basis in reality. ‘ This made me doubt everything else he said. He says that there are almost no records of the great landowning families’ finances so there is now way of knowing exactly how rich they actually were but then in the next sentence claims that their income would have been ‘well over a billion dollars’ in today’s money! In fact, I doubt that there was very little research done for this book at all. It seems as if Cantor just used what he knew about the era from his years as a professor and just dumped it all on paper. It’s like the entire book was composed in one sitting and then was immediately sent off and printed. WHERE WAS HIS EDITOR? How was this book approved for publication in its current state? HOW???
This book is terrible, only vaguely related to the subject at hand, is not well-researched or well-written, seems not to have been edited at all, and whatever information given relating to the Black Death is lost in Cantor’s ramblings about whatever he felt was interesting about the time period and whatever else popped into his head.
If you’re looking for a book on the Black Death in Europe do not read this book. Just don’t.