In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor
In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor, 2001, pp. 232.
Did you know that the children’s rhyme ‘Ring Around the Rosies’ was first sung in sixteenth-century England and describes the flu-like symptoms, skin discoloration and death caused by the bubonic plague? Did you realize that the massive migration of Jews to the Baltic countries, Poland and Russia from Western Europe was a direct consequence of the Black Death? Did you ever suspect that the pandemic that struck Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century may not have been caused just by a bacillus carried by flea-ridden rats, but rather by anthrax, a cattle disease very similar to mad cow disease?
These and other questions are answered by Norman Cantor, who presents his research and opinions as well as those of other eminent scholars and historians. Cantor fulfills the two proclaimed purposes of his enterprise: “to show how the great biomedical devastation affected particular individuals….and to communicate the experience of this terrible ordeal, which may have some parallels in human society in coming decades” (10).
The human faces of this historical cataclysm are a fifteen year old English Princess, who died in Bordeaux on her way to marry the heir to Castile’s throne and a fifty-nine year old Archbishop of Canterbury, who died soon after being appointed and confirmed to that post. The details of their life and death are complemented by background information on the political, military, religious and social situations of the people and the countries involved. The inevitable repetition of facts or historical events adds to our firmer understanding of the overall social structure of the period and the overwhelming human loss caused by the Black Death.
Besides bringing the historical episodes of the plague to human levels, Cantor helps our understanding of that period by repeatedly giving modern equivalents to fourteenth-century figures, roles or facts. He writes, for instance, that a fourteenth-century abbot was “something like the president of a leading American University,” in their common need of business and managerial skills, besides their respective religious and academic training. In another comparison Cantor writes: “The climatic and biomedical shock of the fourteenth century induced caution in the peasant population just as the Great Depression affected the Great Generation of penny-pinching Americans who went heroically to fight World War II."
In the last part of the book Cantor describes a couple of contemporary theories on the origins of the plague’s poison, namely the influence of exotic reptiles, and the more modern one of the effect of cosmic dust. The last chapter on the aftermath of the Black Death explores the tenuous relationship of this human disaster to the onset of the Renaissance and the increase of spiritual mysticism during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These last reflections lead to the author’s personal conclusion that “the Black Death did not create the Dance of Death, in other words, the causality ran the other way” (213).
I found the book quite interesting and easy to follow, and not only because my scholarly interests focus on the culture and literature of that period and the Renaissance. In fact, Cantor’s text clarified the question of the role and situation of women vis-à-vis the Black Death and explained the presence of thousands of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, whose memory we found in our ExpeditionPlus tour. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period.
Paola Malpezzi-Price is co-founder of Experienceplus! Besides being main adviser to Rick on the company’s issues, Paola teaches French literature and culture, Italian literature and culture in translation and Women’s Studies courses at Colorado State University where she is a professor. In 2003, her book Moderata Fonte – Women and Life in Sixteenth-century Venice was published by Fairleigh University Press. She continues her research on women’s issues in France and Italy of the Early Modern Period. If you would like to contact Paola, send an e-mail to Paola@ExperiencePlus.com.