The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era

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There may not be a more fascinating a historical period than the late fourteenth century in Europe. The Hundred Years' War ravaged the continent, yet gallantry, chivalry, and literary brilliance flourished in the courts of England and elsewhere. It was a world in transition, soon to be replaced by the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration -- and John of Gaunt was its central figure.

In today's terms, John of Gaunt was a multibillionaire with a brand name equal to Rockefeller. He fought in the Hundred Years' War, sponsored Chaucer and proto-Protestant religious thinkers, and survived the dramatic Peasants' Revolt, during which his sumptuous London residence was burned to the ground. As head of the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet family, Gaunt was the unknowing father of the War of the Roses; after his death, his son usurped the crown from his nephew, Richard II. Gaunt's adventures represent the culture and mores of the Middle Ages as those of few others do, and his death is portrayed in The Last Knight as the end of that enthralling period.

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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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John of Gaunt (1340–1399) was one of the wealthiest men of late–14th-century Europe and an exemplar of the rough and refined values of his class. He fought in the Hundred Years War, was targeted in the 1381 Peasants' Rebellion and was a patron of Chaucer. By his first wife, he became Duke of Lancaster and founded the Lancastrian branch of the English royal family; by his second, he had a claim to the throne of Castile; and by his third, he founded another family line that married back into the royal Tudors. Cantor (In the Wake of the Plague), a widely read authority on medieval Europe, traces these connections and demonstrates how several strands of European history cross through Gaunt. Thoroughly dismissing Annales emphasis on the continuity of peasant life, he argues that it is aristocratic life that has remained unchanged. In modern terms, Gaunt was a multibillionaire with free rein to live his life as he pleased, whether bullying members of Parliament, marrying his mistress or dabbling in the heretical teachings of John Wycliffe. This provocative argument is undermined by simplistic writing and the making of points by assertion rather than proof or argument. A remarkably anachronistic imagined defense of slavery is put into the mouth of Henry the Navigator (Gaunt's grandson), the Portuguese patron of exploration, and stretches the limits of what might be considered Gaunt's heritage. Assumptions about personal motivations based on fragmentary evidence are not sufficient to validate the intimate portrait Cantor claims to present.
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