What I’m Reading: 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, by the late NYU Professor Norman F. Cantor, is billed on the cover as the best and most thorough book of the Black Death ever written. I don’t know. It may be the most thorough popular history on the subject ever written, but at not quite 250 pages, there must be thicker scholarly histories. Moreover, the book has a decidedly England-centric perspective on the subject, and I bet there are French or German or Italian histories that cover the Black Death in those countries more thoroughly. Still, I’m sure this is quite enough for your average reader.

The Black Death arrived in Italian ports in December 1347 and had reached the entire continent by early 1350. At least partly an epidemic of bubonic plague–but as Dr. Cantor argues, almost certainly fortified in some areas by simultaneous anthrax outbreaks–the Black Death killed one-third of Europe’s population in three years, and in some towns and cities more than half. Europe’s population did not recover for 150 years. It was one of the greatest calamities to occur in human history. Along with the Hundred Years War between England and France, it ended the prosperous High Middle Ages in Europe, while in some ways clearing the way for the Renaissance to come.

The chapters in the book are of highly variable quality. The chapters covering the actual history bit are quite good–and the chapter on how the Black Death affected Europe’s Jewish population is a special highlight. (I mean, the pogroms against the Jews by a gentile population looking for a scapegoat for the disaster is a lowlight of history, but the event is related with an especially informative and impassioned authorial voice.)

The chapters covering the epidemiology of the disease are far weaker, however, not delivered as confidently and little more than re-wording of others’ research, and with very little interpretive force. The chapter on the origins of the Black Plague, which gives a number of pages over to astrophysicist Fred Hoyle’s theory that the disease arrived on a meteorite, was a particular eyebrow-raiser.

Still, the whole book is easy and fun to read, full of interesting facts and tidbits and theories, and certainly gives your typical reader all the information you’d want on the subject. Not without its weaknesses, but I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity about the Black Death.

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