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

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9780684857350: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

Much of what we know about the greatest medical disaster ever, the Black Plague of the fourteenth century, is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren -- the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the final, 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.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 afresh, as a gripping, intimate narrative."In the Wake of the Plague" presents a microcosmic view of the Plague in England (and on the continent), telling the stories of the men and women of the fourteenth century, from peasant to priest, and from merchant to king. Cantor introduces a fascinating cast of characters. We meet, among others, fifteen-year-old Princess Joan of England, on her way to Spain to marry a Castilian prince; Thomas of Birmingham, abbot of Halesowen, responsible for his abbey as a CEO is for his business in a desperate time; and the once-prominent landowner John le Strange, who sees the Black Death tear away his family's lands and then its very name as it washes, unchecked, over Europe in wave after wave.Cantor argues that despite the devastation that made the Plague so terrifying, the disease that killed more than 40 percent of Europe's population had some beneficial results. The often literal demise of the old order meant that new, more scientific thinking increasingly prevailed where church dogma had once reigned supreme. In effect, the Black Deathheralded an intellectual revolution. There was also an explosion of art: tapestries became popular as window protection against the supposedly airborne virus, and a great number of painters responded to the Plague. Finally, the Black Death marked an economic sea change: the onset of what Cantor refers to as turbocapitalism; the peasants who survived the Plague thrived, creating Europe's first class of independent farmers.Here are those stories and others, in a tale of triumph coming out of the darkest horror, wrapped up in a scientific mystery that persists, in part, to this day. Cantor's portrait of the Black Death's world is pro-vocative and captivating. Not since Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" have medieval men and women been brought so vividly to life. The greatest popularizer of the Middle Ages has written the period's most fascinating 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 is Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University. His academic honors include appointments as a Rhodes Scholar, Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University, and Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University. Previous books include Inventing the Middle Ages, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages, the most widely read narrative of the Middle Ages in the English language. He lives in South Florida.

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