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The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era Paperback – May 31, 2005

2 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Although the name suggests a fairy tale, this historical narrative is in fact an attempt to demythologize John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340-99), characterizations of whom readers may remember from Shakespeare's Richard II and Anya Seton's Katherine.^B Cantor is a historian and sociologist, however, and sees in Gaunt the last great aristocrat of the Middle Ages, a Plantagenet warrior-playboy steeped in notions of Arthurian chivalry even as that world began its charge into early modernity. Besides capturing the whimper uttered by the knightly classes as they suddenly found themselves surrounded by Renaissance humanism, Cantor paints an engrossing portrait of a complicated figure: a violent, military-oriented man with little compassion for the poor; a dedicated ladies' man; and, of course, patron of Chaucer, whose works would represent the very downfall of his master's age. Cantor is understandably ambivalent about what Gaunt tells us about wealth, power, and inherited privilege today. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to mourn for Gaunt's world or not. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (May 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060754036
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060754037
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #331,838 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I'm afraid that this book is so appalling that I just had to add my voice to the chorus of disapproval for it. I have read many, many texts on this period and this is far and away the worst I have ever encountered.

The text and style are simplistic - almost in the style of a "Children's book of the Middle Ages". The arguements and assertions are so sweeping and general as to be next to useless, and are made with no reference to geographical differences (of which there were myriad). Much of the work moves from the period 1100 to 1600 and not the period he initially states that he is covering. Finally, the book is riddled with historical inaccuracies from errors on heraldry, to errors on dates (he doesn't even get his dates on the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem right), to errors on armor. Indeed, his lack of knowledge on armor and the timing of innovations and trends would be laughable if I hadn't actually paid for this book.

This book has no redeeming features at all, and can only be considered a waste of precious trees. If it were possible, I wouldn't even have given it one star.

There are far superior works on this period to be had. While most are quite academic, if you want a broad sweep of the middle ages that is easy to read and accessible to the lay person, then try "Terry Jones' Medieval Lives". You'll learn a lot more about the period (as it relates to Britain!!) and have a smile too.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
John of Gaunt and his brother Edward the Black Prince have intrigued me since I first took an English History course for my MA, so I purchased this book despite the negative reviews. While it contains at least something on each and their relationship, the book is really not very informative. In fact, you might intuit most of what the author says from just a little knowledge of the period, so general are the author's remarks.

The book was written by a popular although somewhat controversial medieval historian, Norman F. Cantor, during his twilight years. His earlier works were lauded as accessible to the reading public and enjoyed considerable commercial popularity, but according to the Wickipedia entry, his original research was scant and often at variance with other historians, receiving mixed reviews in the journals.

This book is almost sad. The professor died in September of 2004 at the age of 75, and the book was published that same year. One presumes that it was an attempt to recreate something of his earlier success with one last book. I have read other books written by professors at the end of their lives and have been far more impressed. It is a nice way of summarizing the knowledge of a lifetime career and leaving a legacy of what was known and contributed by the author up to that time. I have read a couple of books of this type, including The New Catastrophism: The Rare Event in Geological History by Derek Agar and
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Format: Hardcover
I agree with the revewer who said this book is amazingly bad, in fact it truly is awful. For example the following comes from pages 41-42: "The members of the great families did not like to be alone. They traveled and dined with companions drawn from noble families. They always were accompanied by an armed body-guard of at least a half-dozen mounted soldiers, called knights."
This sounds like a childrens book not a serious history book. It contains almost nothing about John of Gaunt and rambles on about nothing in particular. It must have been written by Cantor when he was in his dottage and printed on the basis of his reputation. I too wish I could get my money back or at least sue the publisher for inflicting such a terrible book on the reading public.
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Format: Paperback
This book is somewhat entertaining, but it could've used an editor. Unfotunately, it not only lacks a great deal of facts, but it often gives the opposite. The author frequently falls into tired, false cliche about his opinions of the era, which often contradicts his more factual claims, and speaks about it's figures as if he had known then inside and out, and disliked them. The ridiculous Mark Twain-esque cliches he claims as facts are enough to drop the book, making it just another in the 100 year long pile of falsified, biased histories of the middle ages.
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Format: Hardcover
I find the subject matter of the transition between the middle ages and the renaissance as a fascinating period. This book focuses on the life and times of John of Gaunt, prince of England and the Duke of Lancaster. One of the most powerful English Dukes who never became King, he is indeed an interesting figure and there is much of the book that is interesting in that regard. I found the portrayal by the author of Gaunt as a pragmatist quite convincing in the context of the turbulent times that Gaunt dominated English politics. His flirtations with the heresies of Wycliff and the patronage of the budding English humanism you find in Chaucer contrasts sharpely with a man devoted to English institutions and the well being of the Plantagenet dynasty. There is much to recommend in this book that I enjoyed reading.

However, I found the author's writing style labored and difficult. Some editorial comments meant to sound witty seemed out of place and detracted rather than added to the enjoyment of the book. There were also some sentences that needed a good editor to correct some structure problems and even correct some spelling errors. Unsupported assertions were also rife in the book. Most disturbing was the fact that there were some significant historical inaccuracies in the book.For example, the author mentions a daughter of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford, Margaret Beaufort, who married Edmond Tudor who was the mother of Henry VII. A little genealogical research shows that Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII was the daughter of John Beaufort, who was the son of John "Fairborn" Beaufort who was the son of John of Gaunt. That makes Margaret Beaufort the great grand-daughter of John of Gaunt, a two generation discrepancy.
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