In the Wake of the Plague by Norman Cantor
I wanted to read a book about the Black Death of the Middle Ages and In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made was already sitting on my shelves so I decided to pick it up and read it rather than finding another book on the topic. The book is authored by Norman F. Cantor who was a prominent medieval popular history author as well as professor with the prominent The Civilization of the Middle Ages probably being his most famous work. This was my first book that I have read by him and let’s just say it wasn’t my favorite work of medieval history.
Affiliate links are provided for your convenience.
We’re going to start this review a little backwards by putting the positives about the book first. To start off the book has a good bibliography of material, though I was disappointed with the lack of footnotes (neither in-text citations and footnotes nor notes at the back of the book.) Next the book does make several good general arguments about the overall results stemming from the Black Death of the mid-14th century. His economic analysis is sound and his arguments for the betterment of women in general (at least to a small extent anyways) were highlights in this regard. Lastly, a few of his specific details/examples and vignettes (though we will deal with these in just a moment) were also well received. For example, his defense of the arguments that the Black Death was not exclusively bubonic plague is something that needs to be more well known than it currently is.
However, despite these highlights, there were many problems that I had with the In the Wake of the Plague. First off, there isn’t much of a contextual introduction to the Black Death itself. It is mentioned quickly, but I felt that an introductory chapter on just the Black Death to set the context would have been helpful. The most prominent problem that I had with the book was that the author went on numerous and lengthy tangents to bolster his general arguments. These tangents were only marginally related to the Black Death and could go on for pages, a notable tangent being the family feuding of the Greys and Hastingses. While some tangents and vignettes are essential to most history writing, these ones were simply too numerous and were involved with too much minutiae. Another similar problem with the book involved giving too much attention to fringe theories (basically the lengthy discussion on the Black Death disease originating from comet dust…) There were also a few eyebrow raising facts that I’m fairly convinced aren’t true – reloading a crossbow could potentially take half an hour? Lastly, the author’s lecture/casual writing style was a little offhand for my tastes. There were many callous remarks and unnecessary criticisms of the medieval world throughout the book.
Overall, the book was quick if not enjoyable read and I’ll probably have to find another book on the topic in the future. I’d only recommend In the Wake of the Plague if you enjoy Norman Cantor’s writing style or if you just happen to be a Black Death aficionado.
2.5 out of 5 stars.