In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made - Norman F. Cantor

In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor is a lecture-type book filled with some interesting facts and amusing side stories; it is easy to read at only 220 pages long and does not have a single footnote. While it might not be the in-depth analysis that medieval scholars would look for on this subject, it was exactly what I (a casual history buff) wanted when I picked it up: general information into the plague, its causes, and its effect on European history. For those reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed it – though I do understand it has its shortcomings.


One of the most interesting topics of Cantor’s narrative was his presentation of the current theory that the Black Death was not a single disease caused by bubonic plague alone but a pandemic resulting from plague and a virulent form of anthrax. To support this idea, the author cites to the rapid course of the disease (People were dying too quickly for it to be bubonic plague); the lack of typical symptoms associated with bubonic plague; the fact that the extensive herds of cattle in Europe were decimated by the plague as well; the spread of the disease during winter months; the strange question of how the Black Death spread to Iceland when the country did not have rats until the 17th Century; and the discovery of anthrax spores in the mass burial sites of plague victims. All these things framed the idea that anthrax might have played a role in this pandemic, something that I had never heard before.


The other topic that Cantor expressed very well was the idea that the plague was the primary factor in the loss of the Plantagenet's continental provinces. Chapter 3, "Bordeaux is Burning," was very enlightening for me, as it related the story of the death of King Edward III's daughter, Princess Joan, as she was traveling to Spain to marry Pedro, the heir to the throne of Castile. The argument that her death by plague frustrated Edward’s effort to unite the thrones of England and Castile, resulting in immense repercussions not only on the English domains in France but the history of Europe going forward was very well thought out and explained. Coupling her death with the decrease in the Plantagenet population resources and economic power did sound like a very reasonable cause of England losing its continental empire.


All in all, Norman Cantor's book was a nice read. It definitely resembled loosely connected lecturers woven together to create a theme than a true, single narrative, but even with that issue, it introduced me to some interesting ideas that I can now research and learn more about. Recommended for those looking for general information about the Black Plague.