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In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made 1st Edition

245 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0684857350
ISBN-10: 0684857359
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Editorial Reviews 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

From Publishers Weekly

The author, currently an emeritus professor at New York University, has had a distinguished career as a medieval historian, and his textbook The Civilization of the Middle Ages has been popular with many students over many years. Here Cantor produces a popular account of one of the greatest disasters ever to befall the people of Europe. The great plague that struck in the mid-14th century, and returned intermittently for centuries thereafter, had a mortality rate of perhaps 40% and consequently ushered in several profound changes. Beginning with a biomedical survey of the disease, the author points out many problems with current beliefs about its origins, transmission and nature. He suggests that in many instances the likely cause of death was anthrax, which has the same initial symptoms as plague. The plague fell on all classes and regions, and the author uses the stories of several individuals to personalize the devastation and its consequences. He makes a particularly compelling case that the death of Thomas Bradwardine, newly consecrated archbishop of Canterbury, had deep repercussions for the development of both science and religion. In some instances the book raises points that deserve fuller treatment, such as the possible role of serpents in the transmission of plague, but the final chapter neatly summarizes the consequences of this calamity. This book will be welcomed by anyone who wants a good introduction to the topic.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 245 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (April 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684857359
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684857350
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (245 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #913,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

91 of 100 people found the following review helpful By Chris Laning on September 5, 2005
Format: Paperback
I have never understood why Norman Cantor seems to think the public only wants the "movie version" of history instead of the real thing. But the movie version -- including outdated ideas, sensational assertions and gross misunderstandings -- is what this is. After reading this book -- which, fortunately, I didn't pay full price for -- I am happy to see from the reviews posted here that others have spotted its many flaws.

Quite a few people who come to this book WITHOUT much background in medieval history or medicine find it fascinating, and feel they have learned a lot about history from it -- though admittedly it's also rambling, repetitious, VERY poorly edited and sometimes difficult to keep track of. (I'll second all those criticisms but won't address them here.)

On the other hand, people who actually KNOW something about biology, anthropology, genetics, epidemiology, demographics or material culture will be brought up short by Cantor's sloppy thinking and downright inexcusable ignorance.

One reviewer comments, "Cantor's research for this tome must have been incredibly extensive, since he provides excruciating details for every topic..." But in fact, it's those very fascinating details that are often wrong. Just about any time I found myself saying "Wow, I never knew THAT," it turned out later that Cantor was wrong. For instance, he clearly didn't even bother to verify his facts on the old "Ring Around the Rosy" legend -- check it out on the Urban Legends Reference Pages; the song seems to hve come into existence in the 1880s.

As for demographics, he confuses the statistics on life expectancy badly, saying that a modern actuary would have given the 15-year-old Princess Joan "just about ten years to live", based on an *average* life expectancy of 25.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Richard R on February 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book reads like it was written on a deadline without any serious research. Don't be intimidated by the 230 pages. The large font and small pages disguise the fact that it is little more than a brochure. In the early pages the reader gets hints that it will be a wide-ranging review of causes and consequences of the great European plague of 1348. Suggestions that the labor shortage created when 40% of the population perished led to the destruction of ossified social institutions and paved the way for the Renaissance while fundamentally changing land ownership patterns and the Catholic church. Now that would have been an interesting book.
Unfortunately, it's not this book. The next chapter is little more than an ad-libbed 33-page anti-royalty sermon. The English Princess Joan dies of plague in Bordeaux on her way to Spain. The book's peculiar approach to this event is not to separate and examine the historical strands of consequence so much as to provide an outlet for a strange loathing for medieval nobility. "Joan was a top-drawer white girl, a European princess"; "Most kings filled their roles weakly and uneasily, like third-rate actors playing Hamlet on road circuit in the boondocks"; "Three flunkies of the royal household were dispatched to purvey (that is, extort) food from Devon". Two pages describing Joan's baggage and another four on chapels that English nobles built for themselves. No depth, just a silly down-with-the-crown sensibility while discussing nothing but a string of English kings, and even then without drawing any connections to the plague.
Next come long bios of two Oxford intellectuals, both interesting fellows, but there is no serious analysis of consequences, just that they were smart and they died of the same disease.
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116 of 132 people found the following review helpful By John McWhorter on April 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I have rarely read such a poorly edited book. The text is extremely repetitious. Points are strung across lengthy asides about people and their obscure lineages which make throughline often hard to follow. Large claims are constantly made about the impact of the plague that the text did not remotely back up.
In addition, there are frequent stray references to men being gay which are usually tangential to the argument, and even a section that verges perilously on blaming Jews for their own persecution which I found offensive despite 1) not being Jewish and 2) being extremely chary of the Political Correctness brigade.
The only really useful point is that anthrax was probably as important a factor as the bubonic one, but that point is made long before the halfway point. Beyond that, I learned nothing of value that was not in Barbara Tuchman's masterful A DISTANT MIRROR. With his imposing credentials, I am sure Cantor has done great work in the past, but this particular book is a major dud -- as much as I hate to say this about anything an author put work into, this book is, sadly, not worth the money.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By James Rawson on April 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book reads more like a collection of randomly assembled notes than a historical treatise. The narrative wanders over more than a millennium and tries to embrace cultural, religious, and biomedical history within the space of 200 pages. It does not succeed in any aim. I was frankly astounded that the author, who enjoys a good reputation as a historian of the Medieval period, would put his name to such a poorly executed effort.
This was not worth the time nor the money.
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