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

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

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

3/5 (57 ratings)
263 pages
4 hours
Oct 14, 2014


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 Death heralded 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.
Oct 14, 2014

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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In the Wake of the Plague - Norman F. Cantor



1. All Fall Down

2. Rodents and Cattle


3. Bordeaux Is Burning

4. Lord and Peasants

5. Death Comes to the Archbishop

6. Women and Men of Property

7. The Jewish Conspiracy


8. Serpents and Cosmic Dust

9. Heritage of the African Rifts

10. Aftermath


Knowing About the Black Death: A Critical Bibliography


About Norman F. Cantor



Graham Twigg, The Black Death, 1984

To my family


Biomedical Context


All Fall Down

IN THE SIXTH MONTH OF the new millennium and new century, the American Medical Association held a conference on infectious diseases. Pronouncements by scientists and heads of medical organizations at the conference were scary in tone. Infectious disease was the leading cause of death worldwide and the third leading cause in the U.S.A., it was stressed. The situation could soon become much worse.

As the world becomes more of a global village, said one expert, infectious disease could by natural transmission become more threatening in the United States. Here monitoring is lax because of a mistaken belief that the threat of infectious disease has been almost wiped out by antibiotics.

Bioterrorism presented a further and much greater possibility of terrible outbreaks of pandemic in the United States. The New York Times reported: A speaker at the meeting warned that the healthcare system in the United States was not prepared for a bioterrorist attack, in which hundreds or thousands of people might flood hospitals, needing treatment for diseases: anthrax, plague, or smallpox, which most doctors in this country have never seen.

In the same week as this AMA conference and its Cassandra-like speeches, the NBC Nightly News featured a brief segment showing American biochemists helping their Russian counterparts clean up and close down a large germ warfare factory. The TV correspondent remarked that the Russian plant had been capable of producing far more than the minimum required for effective biochemical warfare. He did not pursue the obvious questions of whether the Russians had been exporting the plants’ surplus to Iraq, or if this was only one of several Russian germ warfare factories and whether the others may still be operating.

That The New York Times report was tucked away on page fifteen of its National Edition and that NBC News devoted all of four minutes to the Russian disease factory indicate that the problem of infectious disease and its pandemic threat to American wellbeing is still regarded as a marginal matter. By the time the next president of the United States finishes his term, it could be the most visible problem facing American society, similar to the biomedical crisis of late medieval Europe, England in particular.

In the England of 1500 children were singing a rhyme and playing a game called Ring Around the Rosies. When I grew up in Canada in the 1940s children holding hands in a circle still moved around and sang:

Ring around the rosies

A pocketful of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down

The origin of the rhyme is the flulike symptoms, skin discoloring, and mortality caused by bubonic plague. The children were reflecting society’s efforts to repress memory of the Black Death of 1348–49 and its lesser aftershocks. Children’s games were—or used to be—a reflection of adult anxieties and efforts to pacify feelings of fright and concern at some devastating event. So say the folklorists and psychiatrists.

The meaning of the rhyme is that life is unimaginably beautiful—and the reality can be unbearably horrible.

In the late fourteenth century a London cleric, who previously served in a rural parish and who is known to us as William Langland, made severe reference to the impact of infectious diseases pocks (smallpox) and pestilence (plague) in Piers Plowman, a long, disorganized, and occasionally eloquent spiritual epic. As translated by Siegfried Wenzel:

So Nature killed many through corruptions,

Death came driving after her and dashed all to dust,

Kings and knights, emperors and popes;

He left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;

Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.

Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights

Swooned and died in sorrow of Death’s blows. . . .

For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,

And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

The playing children, arms joined in a circle and singing Ring Around, and the gloomy, anguished London priest were each in their distinctive ways trying to come to psychological terms with an incomparable biomedical disaster that had struck England and most of Europe.

The Black Death of 1348–49 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European and possibly in world history. Its significance was immediately perceived by the wise Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing a few years later: Civilization both in East and West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out in the entire inhabited world. A contemporary Florentine writer referred to the exterminating of humanity.

A third at least of Western Europe’s population died in what contemporaries called the pestilence (the term the Black Death was not invented until after 1800). This meant that somewhere around twenty million people died of the pestilence from 1347 to 1350. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 killed possibly fifty million people worldwide. But the mortality rate in proportion to total population was obviously relatively small compared to the impact of the Black Death—between 30 percent and 50 percent of Europe’s population.

The Black Death affected most parts of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe. Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal depicts the impact of the Black Death on Sweden. In Bergman’s view the Black Death, which reached Sweden by 1350, caused an era of intense pessimism and widespread feelings of dread and futility.

But the great medical devastation hit no country harder than England in 1348–49 and because of the rich documentation surviving on fourteenth-century England it is in that country that we can best examine its personal and social impact in detail. Furthermore, there were at least three waves of the Black Death falling upon England over the century following 1350, nowhere near as severe as the cataclysm of the late 1340s, whose severity was unique in human history. But the succeeding outbreaks generated a high mortality nonetheless.

The population of England and Wales in the thirteenth century had doubled. Unusually warm weather together with adequate moisture produced bumper crops and the generous food supply moderated the death rate. Then the downswing of the Malthusian cycle common to premodern rural societies set in.

Due to famines in the second decade of the fourteenth century the English population had begun to recede from its medieval peak of six million in 1300. But it was the Black Death that principally caused the demographic crash and the road back was slow and very long. When the English population began to rise significantly in the later seventeenth century there was yet another and final outbreak of the terrible pestilence in 1665 as graphically imagined by the journalist Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

The level of English and Welsh population attained in 1300, close to six million people, was not reached again until the mid–eighteenth century.

Recently there have appeared in scientific journals and in the press articles and stories about diseases and pandemics in modern times that raise remarkable parallels with or connections to the Black Death and offer new perspectives on the fourteenth-century devastation. But there will likely always be a degree of uncertainty about the clinical history of the Black Death because of severe limitations of the fourteenth-century medical profession in diagnosing the ailments of its patients.

Fourteenth-century medicine was not without accomplishment. It could amputate limbs and normally cauterize the wounds in an effective manner. It had precious knowledge of herbal remedies for headache, minor stomachaches, menstrual cramps, and other marginal afflictions, possibly including psychological depression. But it was impotent in the face of an epidemic.

Medieval physicians still followed the theories of the second-century Greek doctor Galen, which attributed disease to imbalance in the bodily conditions, or humours, of an individual. The main instrument of diagnosis was eyeballing the color and consistency of urine.

The prime remedies for illnesses involved restoration of putative bodily balance through purgation (enemas) or bloodletting. Drawing blood from a sick patient was considered a credible remedy until the nineteenth century. Cleaning the bowels was thought to have a curative effect. Enemas are still a popular home remedy. Nineteenth-century medicine introduced antiseptic surgery and anesthesia and smallpox inoculation but in the face of a pandemic outbreak was not much better off than the physicians of fourteenth-century England.

Faced with a worldwide outbreak of what was arbitrarily called Spanish influenza in 1918, which killed fifty million people within a year, the early twentieth-century medical profession was not much more effective in terms of diagnosis and cure than its medieval counterpart facing the Black Death. Essentially the flu pandemic of 1918 came and went without anyone knowing why, in spite of the capacity to see under a microscope some viruses and bacteria that were totally invisible to the physicians of the fourteenth century. Recently, DNA analysis has begun on cell tissue taken from 1918 graves in Spitzbergen and Alaska.

After surveying what recent biomedical science tells us about the Black Death, this book studies the Black Death in two ways. It aims to show how the great biomedical devastation affected particular individuals, both victims and survivors, families, institutions, cultures, and social groups. It tries existentially to communicate the experience of this terrible ordeal, which may have some parallels in human society in coming decades.

This is a microcosmic closeup perspective on the Black Death. The second perspective is at the macrocosmic level. This book places the fourteenth century in context of the long history of such fearsome outbreaks of infectious disease, drawing upon our increasing knowledge of the history of medicine.

On the microcosmic level we will learn what happened to key individuals in a society overwhelmed by biomedical devastation. On the macrocosmic level, we will gain insight into the history of the human race from its beginning millions of years ago into the third Christian millennium.


Rodents and Cattle

IN SPITE OF THE INCAPACITY of the medieval medical profession to describe securely the symptoms and course of the Black Death, historians of medicine and society have been able to determine that it involved at least bubonic plague, the same pandemic that had devastated the East Roman or Byzantine Empire in the sixth century A.D. and invaded the whole Mediterranean world in the third century or even earlier. The only big question on the medical side of the Black Death is whether bubonic plague was exclusively the cause of the devastation of the 1340s or whether another disease was simultaneously occurring in some parts of Europe, and particularly in England.

Bubonic plague is a bacillus carried by parasites on the backs of rodents, principally but not exclusively in the Middle Ages, the species of black rat. The black rats and the plague parasites residing on them could have been disseminated by shipping in international trade. The port of Bristol was the major initial point of entry for the pestilence into England.

It is this provocative picture of these rodents scurrying inland from port cities and making long journeys through the countryside at great speed so that most of Western Europe was in pandemic conditions within a year of initial contact that raises skepticism about the conventional account of the Black Death’s exclusive identification with bubonic plague.

When a human contracts bubonic plague without antidote (not available until the applications of antibiotics in the 1940s), there is a four out of five probability that he will die within two weeks. The first stage is marked by flulike symptoms, normally accompanied by high fever. In the second stage, buboes—that is, black welts and bulges—appear in the groin or near the armpits. (Except about 10 percent of plague victims. In these unfortunate men and women the buboes develop intra-abdominally—that is, internally—and are only seen in autopsies.)

The buboes first grow as dark accretions on the skin. They vary in size from one to ten centimeters, but are all extremely ugly and extremely painful. Diarrhea and vomiting also accompany this, the crisis stage of the plague. Its incubation period, marked by fever, runs from two to eight days.

The third—and often fatal—stage of the plague is respiratory failure (pneumonia).

Today a patient is likely to recover if treated with antibiotics during the first two stages; if the disease reaches the third stage, antibiotics may not work.

Forty years ago historians believed that bubonic plague stopped affecting Europe in the eighteenth century because one species of rodent, the black rat, was replaced by another species, the gray rat. Even if this were true, which is not likely, it would not account for the disappearance of the plague, because the disease can be carried by any rodent and, today’s scientists believe, by cats, of which there were plenty in the eighteenth century.

Moreover, there are peculiarities about the spread of the Black Death if it was exclusively bubonic plague that was involved. In 1984 the British zoologist Graham Twigg pointed out that the plague’s impact, at least in England, was as severe in some thinly populated rural areas as in thickly settled areas. The pestilence produced almost as high a level of mortality in the winter months as in summer. These qualities do not easily conform to the view that the Black Death was exclusively bubonic plague: parasites on the backs of rats in thinly settled areas and severe impact in cold weather are not in keeping with the common activity of fleas.

Medical historians such as Twigg also noted that mortality tales of the period around 1350 frequently described a death that occurred within three or four days of incubation, much too rapid for the much longer three-phase course of the bubonic plague. Some patients died without fever and without the buboes or welts on groins or around armpits, and to explain their deaths it was proposed, in what is still a minority opinion—although one rapidly gaining strength—that the Black Death involved or was even exclusively a rare virulent antihumanoid form of cattle disease, namely anthrax.

Both anthrax and bubonic plague begin with similar flulike symptoms, and the two diseases could have been conflated by contemporary doctors. And it is not hard to perceive how this anthrax-based plague—if Twigg’s theory is correct—could have been spread. As Europeans cleared forests for more arable land in the thirteenth century, they did not attenuate their passion for red meat, even though the supply of wild game diminished with the forest clearing. There was an enormous increase in cattle ranching, raising of herds of beef cattle in congested conditions both on the great open ranges of northern England and the small pasturages in the southern farmlands.

Before the widespread immunizing inoculation of cattle herds in the 1950s, infectious epidemics of anthrax murrain (cattle disease) were a constant threat in cattle ranches in the transatlantic world. Modern outbreaks of infectious disease among cattle, whether rinderpest in Rhodesia in the 1890s, hoof and mouth disease in western Canada in the 1950s, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (mad cow disease) in Britain in the 1990s, have in common an extremely rapid diffusion. What is most puzzling about the Black Death of the fourteenth century is its very rapid dissemination, a quality more characteristic of a cattle disease than a rodent-disseminated one.

That cattle were ravaged by these epidemics is certain. The question remains whether a natural anthrax mutant could be communicated to humans. The answer appears to be in the affirmative. Eating tainted meat from sick herds of cattle was a form of transmission to humans just as eating chimpanzees in what is today the Republic of Congo is believed by scientists to have started the AIDS disease in East Africa in the 1930s. The mad cow disease that killed about seventy in Britain in the 1990s was transmitted to humans by eating tainted meat.

But in 1995 David Herlihy rejected Twiggs’s thesis on the grounds there were no known outbreaks of anthrax among British cattle in the mid–fourteenth century.

The response to Herlihy’s dismissal came in 1998 from Edward I. Thompson of the University of Toronto. He cited a report in 1989 of an archeological excavation done at Soutra, seventeen miles southeast of Edinburgh, where a mass grave for Black Death victims was located outside a medieval hospital. The excavation yielded three anthrax spores from a cesspool into which human waste was discharged.

Thompson also

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What people think about In the Wake of the Plague

57 ratings / 41 Reviews
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  • (3/5)
    This one was pretty interesting, but sometimes the history of certain people/events would go on for so long I would forget what we were supposed to be talking about.
  • (4/5)
    This book looks at what happened after the Plague ravaged Europe. Cantor speculates on what historical changes were possible only because of the plague and what could have happened without its devastation. I've read this book a few times, and I have always been intrigued by how much was changed in Europe due to the sheer amount of deaths and the lack of workers in the countries affected by the Black Death. Don't go looking into this book as another history about what happened during the plague years, because this doesn't focus on that, only what came after. It's one of my favorite history books and will probably read it a few more times in the years to come.
  • (3/5)
    This one was pretty interesting, but sometimes the history of certain people/events would go on for so long I would forget what we were supposed to be talking about.
  • (2/5)
    Given its title, the very nature of this subject provides much ground for interesting work. But despite the author's obviously in depth research, there's little good I can say about this book.The author attempts to tell the tale of the Plague through personal experiences of people from all walks of life. While the idea is good, the overly detailed and plodding style make for a difficult and sometimes dull read. Another aspect of the work includes speculation as to the true cause(s) of the plague. Aside from the standard conclusion of parasites transmitted via black rats, an interesting argument is made for anthrax being a contributing factor. However, the author loses credibility when giving some credence to the theory that the bacteria were possibly delivered via cosmic dust from comets. Add to this many digressions which have little relevance to the plague itself and you have a work better avoided.
  • (5/5)
    Cantor, a famously cantankerous historian, with a penchant for nudging the accepted stylings of history, does not disappoint in his overview of the Black Death. He covers enough of the crucial social, economic and political background to place the pandemic securely in context without bogging down the reader, even without a lot of historical knowledge going in. His dry wit and subtle humor, together with his obvious passion for the history he shares, makes the wealth of information he provides flow easily. But in true Cantor style, he also gives nods to the more controversial assertions about the Black Death (about which we know surprisingly little, in fact) and shows he is willing to see the long held suppositions about the causes and effects of the plague upset. While covering his topic thoroughly, he still leaves plenty of material ready and available for the reader to pursue further.This is an excellent beginning for an academic study of the Black death, or an equally solid overview for a more casual investigation.
  • (5/5)
    Brilliant account of the spiritual, social, political and economic impact of the plague. Very relevant to today with ebola, avian flu, superbugs and Zika. It will happen again.
  • (3/5)
    Lots of interesting information but I found the author tended to stray to far from the subject. Probably more a demonstration of my lack of knowledge of the period.
  • (1/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Complete crap. I made a list of some of the major annoyances: 1. Jumps around time and topics so it's hard to establish what the world was like pre- and post-plague.2. Cantor never passes up a chance to demonize the Plantagenets, except for Richard II, who he describes as a "sensitive, intelligent monarch." I know the dynasty had more than its share of utter bastards, but was it really necessary to ridicule their sense of fashion?3. He makes claims without providing any evidence. (King John was manic-depressive, Richard II was gay)4. He treats legends and rumors as facts. (Robin Hood, the story of Edward II and the hot poker)5. Focuses almost exclusively on England6. Paints medieval people as stupid and superstitious. Avoid this one like the, well, you know.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (1/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Of all of Norman Cantor's books about the Middle Ages, this is by far the worst! Cantor was once a decent (though never great) medieval historian, but that time has long past. This book is not only poorly written/edited, but it is also wildly inaccurate. Its clear that the intended audience of this book is the general public and it is not for a specialist, but that does not make it acceptable to sensationalize/misrepresent facts in the guise of making the subject more interesting or more accessible. The problems with the content are too numerous to list individually, but I have listed a couple of the most glaring ones. First, he makes absurd and unsubstantiated claims (see section on how cosmic dust may have caused the plague) and he cites unverified legends as facts to support his scattered and incoherent argument (see the passages about the ring around the rosy song). His sloppy and casual presentation also leads him to make mistakes in terminology, like referring to women's garments as corsets even though corsets weren't worn until nearly 200 years later. Second, he is a very judgmental historian imposing his 20th century belief system on a 14th century society. Please don't misunderstand. As a medieval historian myself, I am completely aware that all interpretations of history are biased by the author's own views, but that does not mean you should dismiss your historical subject as backward, stupid, or laughable. In a wasted effort to be light-hearted (which is especially strange considering he is writing a treatise about pestilence and disease that ravaged a continent), he comes off as callous and insensitive, particularly in his discussion of Jews where he gets perilously close to blaming them for their own persecution. Even if you could put aside the numerous factual errors, the book is also almost impossible to read. It is repetitive, disjointed, and it appears never to have been edited. Cantor spends about a third of the book discussing the topic of this treatise (mostly inaccurately as I have already discussed) and then spends the remainder of the book going off on unrelated and poorly connected tangents rife with run-on sentences and incorrectly used vocabulary. He offers no new insights into this field and will lead newcomers to medieval history astray. Please do not waste your time reading this book. You will only be misinformed and aggravated. If I could give the book no stars, I would. Quite possibly the worst book of medieval history that I have ever been forced to read.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (1/5)
    It is not a problem when historians present a viewpoint of historical figures, positive or negative, of their opinions are based on evidence, and can be proven. That is what they do.

    This author, however, does not seem to have heard of evidence. He takes up page after page bashing the English, and demonising Edward III, calling him everything under the sun, and does not cite even a single shred of evidence to back up his claims. They are quite simply his own opinions, and he makes no secret of this.

    This would not be so bad if the author did not Hold his own viewpoint in such high regard, and present in as actual historical Fact, which he does here, especially considering that some of the his assertions are quite simply absurd and laughable.

    He claims for instance that Edward III and the English were evil for no other reason then that they invaded France. As if this event in itself were enough proof of the innate badness of the English, and the demoniac malevolence of the Plantagenet Kings.

    Apparently, it did not accur to him that almost all Medieval Kings invaded other Kingdoms including French ones, and so by his line of reasoning they should all be evil too. Nope, only the English ones qualify for demonisation. Right. As if no other Medieval European people would even do anything so nasty as take over anyone else's country.

    To make things even more ridiculous, the author then presents an ancient Myth about one of the ancestors of the Plantagenet Kings having been a Demon who took the form of a beautiful women and married the Duke of Normandy- and cites this as an explanation for why Edward III was so nasty. Using myth to back up one's argument?
    When reading this, I could scarcely believe that the author was a respected professor of Medieval History.

    The unabashed vitriolic and hateful nature of the author's viewpoint shocked me to the core, as it seemed so alien to the nature of everything historians are taught about objectivity, not judging the past by modern standards and distinguishing between fact and opinion. It seems as though the author simply lost his grip on logic, reason and common sense and wrote a 250 page tirade against everyone and everything he disliked.

    As such, this is one of the only books that I can honestly say ever made me feel ashamed to be associated with the scholarly historical profession.
  • (4/5)
    Good overview of the black death.
  • (4/5)
    This is an interesting, insightful and ultimately unsatisfying book. One major improvement would have been to move all the comments aimed at gaining the attention of American law students who know nothing of European history to the footnotes.
  • (1/5)
    This feels like a book of Cantor's dotage which his editors were afraid to actually edit, perhaps due to his justified reputation. Ramblings reminiscent of my grandmother as she fell deeper into senility. I've liked other Cantor and this was a horrendous disappointment .
  • (3/5)
    In this book, Cantor looks at the Black Death that hit Europe in the mid-1300s. It is mostly attributed to the plague, but Cantor suggests it might not only have been the plague; there might have been some anthrax at the same time. In the book, he also looks at people (individual and groups of people) who were affected in some way or another and how and how it changed history. I liked his writing style – that is, it was informal and easy to read. But, for some reason, I will still losing focus at times. It felt like he was going off tangents a lot, though he did bring things back to the Black Death, but it just seemed a bit disjointed, I guess. Overall, I'm going to give it an “ok”, as I thought the topics he presented were interesting; I just wish I could have stayed more focused while reading.
  • (3/5)
    While I enjoyed gathering new information from this book, it was somewhat repetitive and often times would bring up a topic/subject/theory and then let it dangle, I suppose in the hopes that we would forget it had been mentioned in the first place.

    I feel as if this was more a gathering of information, a, "here are theories and thoughts and other things I know, let me put them in to one place for you". But then the information was never really explained, and I feel like I'll have to read ten more books to better understand the thoughts presented in this one.

    Ah well.
  • (2/5)
    I could not get over the impression that the author was really disappointed and angry at medieval people for being, well, so medieval. How could they not understand that scientific method is king and the only way to combat the plague? How dared they rely on prayers and quarantine? Why did they 'waste' their knowledge of chemistry on alchemy (what he means by that rather silly statement anyway is unclear to me)? It's just a very odd attitude for a historian to take, I think. Obviously they didn't know about germs, but he makes it seem like the people in the 14th century are somehow to blame for not being scientifically enlightened.In addition, I found the book to be rather scattered. Sometimes the author would switch to a new topic in the next paragraph without any reason for doing so, or throw in some idea only to abandon it two sentences later. Random facts about lords and royalty pepper the text without any particular rhyme or reason. He also obviously has some kind of issue with homosexuality.The author also makes very critical and often derogatory assertions about certain issues without backing any of them with evidence or even mentioning that there might be another view. At one point, he describes the notion of Buddhist enlightenment/nirvana as a 'negative mysticism', a 'depersonalization', which shows that he knows very little on this particular topic.Overall, a very unstructured, very angry book. To be honest, at times I even got the impression that it wasn't actually a book about the plague, but a way to vent anger at medieval society, the ruling class, antisemitism, and who knows what else.
  • (2/5)
    I love reading books about plagues and diseases and I really wanted to like this book. I picked it up in an airport a few years ago. It's a fast and easy read, but it's extremely disjointed and unorganized. It is informative to an extent, and does throw out a couple of interesting ideas. Overall, however, I don't think it's a very good book and I can't wait to sell it back to a used book store.
  • (2/5)
    This is an extraordinarily confused, badly edited book. It rambles back and forth from one century to another, repeats itself and is full of strange extraneous asides. The author throws in tidbits of misinformation for no apparent reason. At one point he states that the Cologne Cathedral survived the Allied bombing of WWII "unscathed". It certainly survived, but 14 bomb strikes and 10 years of repairs is not "unscathed". He also seems to believe that the Nile flows South. This kind of sloppiness makes it difficult to trust what he says about The Black Death. He also makes strange sneering comments about religion. He comes close to saying the Jews who were tortured and blamed for the Plague brought it on themselves. An odd comment for someone with the ancient and venerable last name of Cantor. This author apparently knows a lot about the Middle Ages. His profiles of people of political importance who died in the Plague are very fine. His flip attitude and lack of regard for accuracy make the book unpleasant. Oh, and did I mention that he seems to constantly be looking for gays in every royal closet?
  • (3/5)
    Like many tragedies, the plague left an altered world in its horrific wake. Cantor’s stated purpose is to provide a description of the Black Death “and the world it made,” with emphasis on identifying some of the “winners/losers” that emerged after the series of plagues that swept through Europe in the 13th-14th century. A fascinating topic, yes? And given Cantor’s rep as a “leading American historian of the Middle Ages,” I picked this up enthusiastically, anticipating a thorough, orderly, scholarly exploration of the topic. However, that’s not quite what happened. Instead of a textbook, what I got felt more like a curmudgeonly old college professor whipping through the entire curriculum of his oft-taught “Europe Before and After the Plague” class without bothering to consult his notes. For one thing, Cantor’s choice of content seems driven by personal interest/preference rather than logic. For every page that actually addresses information relevant to the topic, Cantor includes pages and pages of tangential information, including long back-stories on people/institutions (Cardinal Bradwardine, the Occam-Marsilio heresy, the antecedents of the French wine industry) that are often interesting but end up having little (or nothing) to do with the topic. Much of the time I had the sense that Cantor’s research/knowledge was guiding his narrative, rather than his narrative synthesizing the research.Also, organization of the material is (to be generous) eclectic, whipping through time and across themes with little logic, with some anecdotes repeated multiple times (as if the storyteller forgot he’d already shared them) and an ending so abrupt that you can practically hear the bell ringing, signaling the end of class. Finally, Cantor repeatedly presents dubious/biased material with the supreme self-confidence of a professor who knows that his class full of cowed undergraduates will never muster up the courage to challenge him. I tolerated his rants against certain historical personages (Edward III is described, with no substantiating detail, as an “avaricious and sadistic thug”, and what exactly was the narrative purpose of Richard II's sexual preferences?:); I endured his factually dubious tangent about Lollardism; but the part at the end where he appears to endorse the notion that the plague came from space dust is where I began to lose my patience. If you’re a history “generalist”, then this may be worth the read. As a general survey of the Medieval period, the text works well; Cantor is an engaging (if erratic) storyteller who knows how to synthesize lots of ideas into a whole. But if your interest is in a thorough, accurate, and unbiased exploration of “The Black Death and the World It Made” (to quote the subtitle), allow me to save you the time and present the Cliff’s Notes version: wives, property lawyers, and yeoman peasants benefited; the Lancastrians kings of England, The Holy Roman Empire, scientific exploration, and the Jews suffered; and art, religion, monarchies and philosophy mostly emerged a draw. Now go pick up something equally entertaining but a little less erratic: might I recommend something by Boorstin, Ambrose, or Tuchman?
  • (2/5)
    In the Wake of the Plague concerns the outbreak of bubonic plague which struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. It focuses mainly on England, but does discuss briefly the rest of Europe.Normally, I like to give some good points of a book, but with this one, the only thing I can come up with is the writing was clear. Cantor's sentences made sense. Not a great recommendation.I had significant problems with this book. First of all, the book's subtitle would indicate it that it would focus on the fallout from the decimation caused by the Plague. It did this in one brief chapter. Second, the rest of the book was meandering and not cohesive at all. Some of the anecdotes were repeated almost verbatim several pages later. Third, much of the material did not concern the Plague, but general medieval history. Fourth, Cantor brings up the idea that not only was their bubonic plague, but also anthrax, yet gives virtually no support. Likewise, he devotes a number of pages to the theory that the Plague came from outer space. Fifth (and this is my last major complaint that' I'll make), all these ideas are not footnoted and the bibliography was sparse. So even when Cantor mentions a specific incidence that presumably was part of a book or article, there is no way to trace it.Overall, I can't recommend this book. I truly struggled to finish it. If someone is interested in the Plague during the Middle Ages, find an alternative.
  • (4/5)
    I picked this up after reading "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis, which involves a time traveller getting caught up in the Black Death.This is an easy read, describing how the plague, probably accompanied by an anthrax outbreak, affected Europe. He makes it personal by describing the how it affected particular individuals (a gentry family in Shropshire, an abbey in Halesowen, an English princess on her way to marry a Spanish prince) as well as giving an overall view of its political and social effects. I was especially interested in the section about marriage, dowries and inheritance law.However what is strange about this book is the flippant tone; on the very first page he describes Princess Joan as 'a top-drawer white girl' and later on states that 'a barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today would only need a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real-estate law today." The flippancy even reaches the bibliography, where the author gives us his opinions on the books listed, such as "weird and verbose but interesting" and "the best part of the book is the pictures".
  • (2/5)
    About a quarter of this book relates to society after the Black Death. The rest is tangential ramblings as other reviewers have described. Much could go into footnotes but then there would not be enough substance to make a book. I am glad another reviewer comments that there are inaccuracies because that was what I felt, although lacking enough knowledge to be sure. Hated the way he used Americanisms: "ranching" for farming and a double surname for a married woman are examples.
  • (1/5)
    So riddled with errors and inaccuracies that even a reader with a cursory knowledge of the period will find it astonishing. The author demonstrates not one whit of an understanding of cultural differences between modern and medieval society. The complete lack of citations for the most outrageous of assertions relegates the book to the historical fiction section of the library. Cantor’s reference to Ziegler’s “The Black Death” as “highly readable and out of date” is very telling. Out of date it may be, but readers who want any understanding of the topic would do well to ignore Cantor’s ramblings and stick with credible research.
  • (2/5)
    Weirdly patchy and poorly written opinion and conjecture masquerading as history. I was stunned to read the author's credentials. Some interesting ideas, but nothing fleshed out enough to take very seriously.
  • (2/5)
    Poorly written, seemingly only half thought through, and not that much new info for those already vaguely familiar with the subject matter. The History Channel did a better job on the content of pages 25-70, roughly, with one of their terrible reenactments, in only five minutes.If you're into speculation about failed proletarian uprisings in the 14th century, find random quotations from medical extracts riveting, and don't mind going on thirty to forty bizarre tangents before finding out what happened to a person identified at the beginning of a sentence you're not sure ever ended, this is so your book.
  • (4/5)
    I've always been intrigued with the Black Plague so I was thrilled to receive this book from a fellow BCer. Then I read several bad reviews of the book. I am happy to say that this book is much better than the reviews I'd read had led me to believe. Details of life just before and during the reign of the Black Plague (the average woman lived to be thirty; menopause usually began around thirty; England's largest city, London, only had about 70,000 people) were fascinating. I'd never thought about the consequences of the Plague (an economic depression as a result of lack of labor; weakening of the power of the king; need for laws related to inheritability of lands after death of owners; cruelties against the Jews who were blamed for the Plague) nor had I realized how long lasting the consequences were. Curiously, I have been listening to a part of From Dawn to Decadence, the portion of the book concerning WWI, on tape at the same time I've been reading this book. The reaction of people to suffering through WWI was to become carefree and to usher in the Jazz Age. The reaction of people to surviving the Plague seems quite different; instead of becoming nihilistic and self-involved, the people after the Plague appear to have become more concerned with guilt and death, more weighed down.
  • (5/5)
    Thoroughly enjoying account of the Black Death itself and the impact it had on several specific individuals.
  • (3/5)
    An interesting book about the sociological & historical consequences of the plague. Interesting points (it was probably anthrax as well as bubonic plague) are overshadowed by an irritating style, repititions & vagueness leading to more questions (did the plague come from Africa? Why did England suffer more than elsewhere?).
  • (5/5)
    Cantor, a famously cantankerous historian, with a penchant for nudging the accepted stylings of history, does not disappoint in his overview of the Black Death. He covers enough of the crucial social, economic and political background to place the pandemic securely in context without bogging down the reader, even without a lot of historical knowledge going in. His dry wit and subtle humor, together with his obvious passion for the history he shares, makes the wealth of information he provides flow easily. But in true Cantor style, he also gives nods to the more controversial assertions about the Black Death (about which we know surprisingly little, in fact) and shows he is willing to see the long held suppositions about the causes and effects of the plague upset. While covering his topic thoroughly, he still leaves plenty of material ready and available for the reader to pursue further.This is an excellent beginning for an academic study of the Black death, or an equally solid overview for a more casual investigation.
  • (1/5)
    Rife with historical inaccuracies.