In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

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9780060014346: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, takingmillion 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.

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Review:

One-third of Western Europe's population died between 1348 and 1350, victims of the Black Death. Noted medievalist Norman Cantor tells the story of the pandemic and its widespread effects in In the Wake of the Plague.

After giving an overview, Cantor describes various theories about the medical crisis, from contemporary fears of a Jewish conspiracy to poison the water (and the resulting atrocities against European Jews) to a growing belief among modern historians that both bubonic plague and anthrax caused the spiraling death rates. Cantor also details ways in which the Black Death changed history, at both the personal level (family lines dying out) and the political (the Plantagenet kings may well have been able to hold onto France had their resources not been so diminished).

Cantor veers from topic to topic, from dynastic worries to the Dance of Death, and from peasants' rights to Perpendicular Gothic. This makes for amusing reading, though those seeking an orderly narrative may be frustrated. He also seems overly concerned with rumors of homosexual behavior, and his attempt to link the savage method of Edward II's murder to a cooling in global weather is a bit farfetched.

Cantor wears his considerable scholarship lightly, but includes a very useful critical biography for further reading. While not an entry-level text on the Black Death, In the Wake of the Plague will interest readers looking for a broader interpretation of its consequences. --Sunny Delaney

About the Author:

Norman F. Cantor was Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University. His many books include In the Wake of the Plague, Inventing the Middle Ages, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages, the most widely read narrative of the Middle Ages in the English language. He died in 2004.

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