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Thursday, January 9, 2014

IN the WAKE of the PLAGUE: THE BLACK DEATH and the WORLD IT MADE by Norman F. Cantor

Wow. I Was So Primed to Like This Book...

Published in 2002 by Perennial (HarperCollins)

But...I should have read the back cover a little better. Right at the top is the Ring around the rosies children's nonsense song:

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

This is followed by the assertion: "a children's rhyme about the Black Death."

Sadly, this is not true and I have known this since the late 1980s when I was doing my undergraduate studies at Indiana University. Why sadly? Because this would have been such a cool fact! I am a high school history teacher and it would be great to able to say, "Look! Here's a children's rhyme we all know and it has this collection to the Black Plague - see how this historical event reverberates through time and even touches our lives now?"

Yeah. That would have been cool. And it is a fact that Norman F. Cantor (1929-2004), a leading medievalist should have known, especially if he is writing a book about the Black Plague. Instead, he doesn't just reference this little song, he embraces it and uses it as the way to introduce the entire concept, even going so far as to assert that this is the way little kids used to deal with the fear of the plague and deal with the frightening concept of sudden death (pages 5-6).

If this were the only problem, I could forgive Mr. Cantor.

Historians should never judge the people of history by the values of their own modern time and they should always check for their own biases. For example, he goes after the English nobility like a dog goes after a chew toy. He goes after their sexual preferences, their private religious chapels, their political posturing, their wars and more and criticizes them: "Fourteenth-century people lacked the moral categories that could transcend political and social roles. They lacked a critical value system that judged rulers by consequences and not the formal categories in which their behavior was structured." (page 39) In other words, everyone had a part to play and no one ever questioned it.  In fact, he goes even farther on pages 58-59 to assert that these folks showed an astonishing lack of self-awareness, unlike today's modern well-educated elites, of course.

Yes, he does actually assert that modern elites are very reflective. Now, if I say to you name 5 vacuous elites in 15 seconds, could you do it? Can you name 5 people that you know that have a college degree but are still dumber than a box of rocks? Of course, because people nowadays are really about the same as they were then. But, he compares rulers of the past to modern rulers and sincerely sees a difference in the way modern elites act, believe and think about things. On page 39 he attacks Edward III as "a kind of destructive and merciless force." The fact that Edward III's contemporaries believed him to be "a constitutional king and the very model of chivalry and aristocratic honor" merely "illuminates a gap between our world and fourteenth-century Europe." 

Really? President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and yet he bragged that he was "really good at killing people" with the drone program (and he is, too - according to UK's The Guardian drones killed more than 500 people in 2012).  My point is not to disparage President Obama but to point out that we (even our leaders) are all able to live with a great deal of dichotomy in our lives - not just back then, but now. It is a part of the human condition and an experienced historian should have known that.

There are also lots of snarky comments, including a really cheap shot at former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) on page 93. He is discussing how servant girls who were fired for theft would be expelled from their village to become beggars and/or prostitutes and most likely die on the streets. He notes that this is the kind of welfare program that Thatcher would approve of ("Margaret Thatcher would have loved late fourteenth-century and fifteenth-century England.") Whatever Thatcher thought about the welfare state, I hardly think she was for having young ladies become prostitutes or die of exposure rather than be on the public dole. Over the top, off topic and inaccurate. 

Most of the book reads like it was cobbled together from a combination of
Illustration of people suffering from the
bubonic plague (note the buboes,
or raised bumps)
already printed articles with an obsessive focus on England and a few members of the royal family and which parts of France produced wine and how much that wine was worth and who drank the wine and how much of the wine they imported and ...well, you get the idea.

There is just no focus on what the book is supposed to be about - how the Black Plague changed Europe and through Europe changed the world. There is an excellent explanation of the English legal system in the area of real estate and how that legal system helped to consolidate the holdings of some families. But, there is not much explaining how English society was before and after the Black Plague. And, speaking of England, why does Cantor just focus on England for so much of this book? 

The last third of the book is much less snarky and actually deals with the topic that is detailed in the title. The chapter on how many in Europe blamed the Jews for the plague was by far the best. And, for a change, he actually moved the focus away from England and got out as far as Poland. The chapter on the origins of the plague at the end of the book seemed misplaced (shouldn't it be in the beginning?) and included a serious discussion of the extraterrestrial origin of the Black Plague (yes, he actually discusses and gives credence to a panspermia-type origin to the epidemic). 

The last chapter, "Aftermath" is the outline that should have been fleshed out into the entire book. There is an interesting mention of the fact that the Church had to fill hundreds of open positions and the average age of becoming an ordained priest dropped from age 25 to age 20. "It was a younger, much younger Church that came suddenly into being, and now one staffed heavily with undereducated and inexperienced people." (page 206) Rather than just paragraph on the topic, it would have been worthwhile to explore how the Church changed and if these changes led to the conditions that caused the Protestant Reformation 140 years later.

I rate this book 1 star out of 5. The one good chapter out of ten does not redeem it.

Reviewed on January 9, 2014.

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