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 Norman F. Cantor


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A New York Times bestseller, In the Wake of the Plague is a fascinating study of the cultural and religious consequences of one of the deadliest tragedies to befall humanity: the black plague. Though rigorously scientific in his approach, Norman F. Cantor has produced an unforgettable narrative that in many ways employs the novelist’s skill for storytelling.

The Black Death was the fourteenth century’s equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe’s population, and irrevocably changed the lives of those who survived. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren—the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure—are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths.

Here, Norman Cantor, the premier historian of the Middle Ages, draws together recent scientific discoveries and groundbreaking historical research to pierce the mist and tell the story of the Black Death as a gripping, intimate narrative. By focusing on twenty pivotal figures from the time, Cantor shows the lasting influence the Plague has had on history, culture, and religion.

“Professor Cantor’s style is easy—no jargon. He is far beyond just knowing his period; he understands it and so he can explain, without oversimplifying, the variety and complexity of this great section of the West’s past” (The New Yorker).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476797748
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 189,442
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Norman F. Cantor (1929–2004) was a professor of history, sociology, and comparative literature at New York University. Among his many academic honors are appointments as a Rhodes Scholar, Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University, and Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University. He was nominated for the NBCC Award for Inventing the Middle Ages.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

All Fall Down

In the sixth month of the new millennium and new century, the American Medical Association held a conference on infectious diseases. Pronouncements by scientists and heads of medical organizations at the conference were scary in tone. Infectious disease was the leading cause of death worldwide and the third leading cause in the U.S.A., it was stressed. The situation could soon become much worse.

As the world becomes more of a global village, said one expert, infectious disease could by natural transmission become more threatening in the United States. Here monitoring is lax because of a mistaken belief that the threat of infectious disease has been almost wiped out by antibiotics.

Bioterrorism presented a further and much greater possibility of terrible outbreaks of pandemic in the United States. The New York Times reported: "A speaker at the meeting warned that the healthcare system in the United States was not prepared for a bioterrorist attack, in which hundreds or thousands of people might flood hospitals, needing treatment for diseases: anthrax, plague, or smallpox, which most doctors in this country have never seen.

In the same week as this AMA conference and its Cassandra-like speeches, the NBC Nightly News featured a brief segment showing American biochemists helping their Russian counterparts clean up and close down a large germ warfare factory. The TV correspondent remarked that the Russian plant had been capable of producing far more than the minimum required for effectivebiochemical warfare. He did not pursue the obvious questions of whether the Russians had been exporting the plants' surplus to Iraq, or if this was only one of several Russian germ warfare factories and whether the others may still be operating.

That The New York Times report was tucked away on page fifteen of its National Edition and that NBC News devoted all of four minutes to the Russian disease factory indicate that the problem of infectious disease and its pandemic threat to American wellbeing is still regarded as a marginal matter. By the time the next president of the United States finishes his term, it could be the most visible problem facing American society, similar to the biomedical crisis of late medieval Europe, England in particular.

In the England of 1500 children were singing a rhyme and playing a game called "Ring Around the Rosies." When I grew up in Canada in the 1940s children holding hands in a circle still moved around and sang:

Ring around the rosies
A pocketful of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down

The origin of the rhyme is the flulike symptoms, skin discoloring, and mortality caused by bubonic plague. The children were reflecting society's efforts to repress memory of the Black Death of 1348-49 and its lesser aftershocks. Children's games were — or used to be — a reflection of adult anxieties and efforts to pacify feelings of fright and concern at some devastating event. So say the folklorists and psychiatrists.

The meaning of the rhyme is that life is unimaginably beautiful — and the reality can be unbearably horrible.

In the late fourteenth century a London cleric, who previously served in a rural parish and who is known to us as William Langland, made severe reference to the impact of infectious diseases "pocks" (smallpox) and "pestilence" (plague) in Piers Plowman, a long, disorganized, and occasionally eloquent spiritual epic. As translated by Siegfried Wenzel:

So Nature killed many through corruptions,
Death came driving after her and dashed all to dust,
Kings and knights, emperors and popes;
He left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;
Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.
Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights
Swooned and died in sorrow of Death's blows....
For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,
And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

The playing children, arms joined in a circle and singing "Ring Around," and the gloomy, anguished London priest were each in their distinctive ways trying to come to psychological terms with an incomparable biomedical disaster that had struck England and most of Europe.

The Black Death of 1348-49 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European and possibly in world history. Its significance was immediately perceived by the wise Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing a few years later: "Civilization both in East and West was visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out in the entire inhabited world." A contemporary Florentine writer referred to "the exterminating of humanity."

A third at least of Western Europe's population died in what contemporaries called "the pestilence" (the term the Black Death was not invented until after 1800). This meant that somewhere around twenty million people died of the pestilence from 1347 to 1350. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 killed possibly fifty million people worldwide. But the mortality rate in proportion to total population was obviously relatively small compared to the impact of the Black Death — between 30 percent and 50 percent of Europe's population.

The Black Death affected most parts of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe. Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal depicts the impact of the Black Death on Sweden. In Bergman's view the Black Death, which reached Sweden by 1350, caused an era of intense pessimism and widespread feelings of dread and futility.

But the great medical devastation hit no country harder than England in 1348-49 and because of the rich documentation surviving on fourteenth-century England it is in that country that we can best examine its personal and social impact in detail. Furthermore, there were at least three waves of the Black Death falling upon England over the century following 1350, nowhere near as severe as the cataclysm of the late 1340s, whose severity was unique in human history. But the succeeding outbreaks generated a high mortality nonetheless.

The population...

In the Wake of the Plague. Copyright © by Norman Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents



  1. All Fall Down
  2. Rodents and Cattle


  1. Bordeaux Is Burning
  2. Lord and Peasants
  3. Death Comes to the Archbishop
  4. Women and Men of Property
  5. The Jewish Conspiracy


  1. Serpents and Cosmic Dust
  2. Heritage of the African Rifts
  3. Aftermath

Knowing About the Black Death: A Critical Bibliography



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In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
thedominsane More than 1 year ago
I am a history buff and I have read many history books in my time, but this one stands out as one of the worst! Cantor presents the Black Death as if he has Attention Deficit Disorder. His thoughts are sporadic and do not flow logically. He is all over the place. He seems to have an interest in creating plot lines from individual stories during the time; but he does not tie them into the book at all. It seems only 50% of the time he was talking about the Black Death and the other 50% of the time he was rambling on about people and events either way before or way after the black death, without any apparent relevance. I love when Historians can relate even the most abstract events back to one cause, or vice versa, but Cantor attempts to do this with poor foresight. His stories lead nowhere, at the very least you may develop a small feeling of empathy, but I imagine any book that mentions the devastating loss of life and socioeconomic factors of the Black Death would have the same effect. I do not recommend to anyone seeking to be informed about the Black Death.
Gwendydd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was pretty disgusted with this book. Although Cantor is a well-known and generally well-respected historian, his writing in this book is totally sensationalized. He paints the Middle Ages as horrible and grim. He gets really carried away with his own prose, and makes some claims that are totally outlandish and even downright false. The book really doesn't include very much information - he goes back and forth between over-dramatized anecdotes and wild speculation. There is some interesting discussion of the relationship of the Black Death to modern epidemics, but you can find all of the same information, presented much better, in a lot of other books.
doujoji on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
So riddled with errors and inaccuracies that even a reader with a cursory knowledge of the period will find it astonishing. The author demonstrates not one whit of an understanding of cultural differences between modern and medieval society. The complete lack of citations for the most outrageous of assertions relegates the book to the historical fiction section of the library. Cantor¿s reference to Ziegler¿s ¿The Black Death¿ as ¿highly readable and out of date¿ is very telling. Out of date it may be, but readers who want any understanding of the topic would do well to ignore Cantor¿s ramblings and stick with credible research.
juglicerr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, but I can understand why some people were disappointed. This was not what I was expecting from the title, i.e., an orderly comparison of European society before and after the plague. I happen to enjoy the type of book that this is, and I wasn't reading it for a particular purpose, so the surprise didn't bother me. On the other hand, if I had really wanted what I expected, I might have been very annoyed. The book is only loosely organized. The chapters are almost independent from one another. I found them quite intriguing. I love books that toss around ideas, even if they raise questions that cannot really be answered. Cantor brings up a number of possibilities about the medical aspects of the plague - was it really two concurrent plagues? Did it come from outer space? Do animals other than rats and their fleas spread it? Did the death of particular people alter history? The writing is very lively and readable. It might have been better if I had read another, more standard history of the plague before this, but I intend to make up that lack; I thank other reviewers for their recommendations. I'm no medievalist, so I am somewhat uneasy about some of the complaints about accuracy. I know that some of them are off-base, and that others may be a matter of interpretation, but altogether, I will take this a little more cautiously than I might have. I suspect that another reviewer is correct that Cantor has misinterpreted life expectancy statistics, which is one of my pet peeves. Another issue is that Cantor editorializes about upper classes, describing King Edward III of England as a thug. He does concede that in his own time, Edward was greatly admired (of course the question is, by whom?) I found it amusing, and acceptable since both sides were presented, and this was a relatively informal book, but the prospective reader will have to decide this personally.
jcelrod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoying account of the Black Death itself and the impact it had on several specific individuals.
BoundTogetherForGood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Packed with information about what it was like during the plague.
lek103 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weirdly patchy and poorly written opinion and conjecture masquerading as history. I was stunned to read the author's credentials. Some interesting ideas, but nothing fleshed out enough to take very seriously.
Mithalogica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cantor, a famously cantankerous historian, with a penchant for nudging the accepted stylings of history, does not disappoint in his overview of the Black Death. He covers enough of the crucial social, economic and political background to place the pandemic securely in context without bogging down the reader, even without a lot of historical knowledge going in. His dry wit and subtle humor, together with his obvious passion for the history he shares, makes the wealth of information he provides flow easily. But in true Cantor style, he also gives nods to the more controversial assertions about the Black Death (about which we know surprisingly little, in fact) and shows he is willing to see the long held suppositions about the causes and effects of the plague upset. While covering his topic thoroughly, he still leaves plenty of material ready and available for the reader to pursue further.This is an excellent beginning for an academic study of the Black death, or an equally solid overview for a more casual investigation.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've always been intrigued with the Black Plague so I was thrilled to receive this book from a fellow BCer. Then I read several bad reviews of the book. I am happy to say that this book is much better than the reviews I'd read had led me to believe. Details of life just before and during the reign of the Black Plague (the average woman lived to be thirty; menopause usually began around thirty; England's largest city, London, only had about 70,000 people) were fascinating. I'd never thought about the consequences of the Plague (an economic depression as a result of lack of labor; weakening of the power of the king; need for laws related to inheritability of lands after death of owners; cruelties against the Jews who were blamed for the Plague) nor had I realized how long lasting the consequences were. Curiously, I have been listening to a part of From Dawn to Decadence, the portion of the book concerning WWI, on tape at the same time I've been reading this book. The reaction of people to suffering through WWI was to become carefree and to usher in the Jazz Age. The reaction of people to surviving the Plague seems quite different; instead of becoming nihilistic and self-involved, the people after the Plague appear to have become more concerned with guilt and death, more weighed down.
marek2009 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting book about the sociological & historical consequences of the plague. Interesting points (it was probably anthrax as well as bubonic plague) are overshadowed by an irritating style, repititions & vagueness leading to more questions (did the plague come from Africa? Why did England suffer more than elsewhere?).
lloannna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Poorly written, seemingly only half thought through, and not that much new info for those already vaguely familiar with the subject matter. The History Channel did a better job on the content of pages 25-70, roughly, with one of their terrible reenactments, in only five minutes.If you're into speculation about failed proletarian uprisings in the 14th century, find random quotations from medical extracts riveting, and don't mind going on thirty to forty bizarre tangents before finding out what happened to a person identified at the beginning of a sentence you're not sure ever ended, this is so your book.
archiveninja on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rife with historical inaccuracies.
LMHTWB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the Wake of the Plague concerns the outbreak of bubonic plague which struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. It focuses mainly on England, but does discuss briefly the rest of Europe.Normally, I like to give some good points of a book, but with this one, the only thing I can come up with is the writing was clear. Cantor's sentences made sense. Not a great recommendation.I had significant problems with this book. First of all, the book's subtitle would indicate it that it would focus on the fallout from the decimation caused by the Plague. It did this in one brief chapter. Second, the rest of the book was meandering and not cohesive at all. Some of the anecdotes were repeated almost verbatim several pages later. Third, much of the material did not concern the Plague, but general medieval history. Fourth, Cantor brings up the idea that not only was their bubonic plague, but also anthrax, yet gives virtually no support. Likewise, he devotes a number of pages to the theory that the Plague came from outer space. Fifth (and this is my last major complaint that' I'll make), all these ideas are not footnoted and the bibliography was sparse. So even when Cantor mentions a specific incidence that presumably was part of a book or article, there is no way to trace it.Overall, I can't recommend this book. I truly struggled to finish it. If someone is interested in the Plague during the Middle Ages, find an alternative.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very intriuging when doing my AP world history project.
AngelaG86 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This one was pretty interesting, but sometimes the history of certain people/events would go on for so long I would forget what we were supposed to be talking about.
ABVR on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The late Norman Cantor was a leading historian of the Middle Ages, and this book--his last, I believe--feels like a valedictory attempt to reach a larger audience than fellow medievalists and their students. Reading it is a bit like listening to a guest lecture by a distinguished, elderly professor. It's packed with well-told stories, oddball facts, and intriguing generalizations, but it's also meandering and sloppily organized. When it's over, you feel like you know more about the subject than you did before, but you're not necessarily sure that you understand the subject better. Cantor touches on the nature of the plague itself, its impact on the English monarchy, the untimely death of scholarly bishop Thomas Bradwardine, and the shift from a feudal economy built on the labor of serfs to a market economy built on wage laborers. He never manages, however, to show how all those threads relate to one another. He is occasionally sloppy about peripheral details (half an hour to reload a crossbow?) and his more sweeping generalizations would probably give medieval historians pause. If you're looking for a comprehensive history of the Black Death or a rigorous exploration of its effects, this isn't it. (Ironically, one of the best features of the book is a bibliographic essay that lists several of both.) If you're looking for an entertaining ramble through some unfamiliar corners of medieval England and France, it's a good bet.
john257hopper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I disliked much of this book. It is probably the worst book on Medieval history I have read. The main problem is that the author seems to have little insight into how Medieval people viewed their own society and, especially in the first half of the book, imputes 20th/21st century motives to Medieval actors, especially Edward III, whom he describes sweepingly as a "brutal thug", which is particularly grating having just read Ian Mortimer's so much deeper analysis. The constant use of anachronisms grates, such as describing Edward's daughter Joan as a "top drawer white girl" or using the phrase "billionaire aristocrat" to describe 14th century landowners; as does his pseudo-Marxist analysis of the Peasants' Revolt, which the author describes as coming very close to setting up a socialist state and in general makes sound like a Trotskyist-led student uprising. There are also too many digressions. His analysis of the anti-Jewish aspect of the plague is better, as is his bio-medical analysis, though he is a little too ready to give credence to a theory that the plague and all other diseases originate from outer space. Very disappointing and in places crass for anyone with a sensitivity towards English Medieval history.
Meggo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cantor in this book traces the impact of the bubonic plague of the 1300s. Some of the opinions voiced in the book are just plain far-fetched (plague from outer space), and others are just obvious. Not one of the better plague books that I have read, the time reading this is better spent sleeping.
Aetatis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cantor usually writes really well and interesting books. This one seems aimed for a more general reader and almost seems aimed at the YA (young adult) reader. Interesting overview, though brief, of the black plague and the consequences of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a sophomore in highschool and I chose to read this book in order to get information for a research project. I personally did not enjoy the book, but it did contain some important facts that helped me with my project. The reason I did not enjoy it was because I felt as though it dragged on certain things that did not need to be explained in the depth that they were because it just wasn’t necessary. One thing I did enjoy were the images that were added in. They were placed somewhere in the middle of the book, and I found them very helpful and it gave me a better idea and understanding as to what I was reading. The book was very informative, but I wish it wouldn’t have gone off topic like it did and I wish it solely would’ve gotten to the hard evidence of the plague. The information that was given was good, but the book didn’t get to the point. If you really enjoy reading and are interested in learning more about this topic, then this book is for you, but if you like books that get straight to the point then you might want to look into another book. If you need information about this specific topic then I recommend it, but just be aware of the extra added information that may be dragged on.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel was very helpful for the research project I had to do for an english class at a High School level. However, it was a difficult read and did not give many details about the actual disease of the Plague, but instead explained more how it affected the lives of people during this time. I personally enjoyed this book, but I had to research more about the plague on my own, because it was not given in the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book to me was very informative in the way it explained the origins of every point it had to make, establishing both connections into the past and into modern day. Anything that may seemingly appear to be off tangent, Cantor eventually ties it back in someway to the topic of the Black Death. It was an interesting read at these points, but could be dull at sections where he becomes too involved in outside events. I do give credit to his modern day tie ins and how they related to what we'd be able to do in order to combat the Black Death now, and its relations to other diseases. Cantor was very effective in completing his purpose, and was very able to do so with his historical background and studies, and his awards for writing such narratives for his other books, such as "Inventing the Middle Ages". I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic of the Black Death, or disease within itself. It points out interesting points through its parts of biomedical, people, and history. It is also interesting finding connections to modern day studies in history and medicine in reaction to the plague that Cantor paints out clearly, such as its relation of the plague possibly being immune to HIV/AIDS. It is a great read and he does give off his own style in a way that at sometimes seem hopeless while at others is very informative. I'm not one for books or history, but this book incorporated both into a way that actually allowed me to finish.
SSkipper More than 1 year ago
Bubonic plague may not be the only star of the Black Death. Anthrax may have had a supporting role. Whether one, the other, or both, the Black Death killed twenty million people, a percentage of world population even greater than the fifty million killed by the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early twentieth century. A culling of that magnitude had a profound effect on the future world. It gave us Ring Around the Rosie and prevented the Plantagenet kings from seizing the rule of France, the Low Countries, Spain, and possibly even Germany. Mr. Cantor delves deeply into the impact the plague had on historic individuals as well as facets of society. He explores the intricacies of land inheritance as it was impacted by the loss of heirs and convoluted English law. These aspects are the focus of this book more that the rampage of the epidemic across Europe and Britain. In the Wake of the Plague also tells of the contemporary attempts to rationalize the disaster. In various places Jews were tortured until they confessed to poisoning wells. The alignment of Jupiter and Saturn were blamed, and at later times, pathogens from outer space were the cause. This fascinating book is quite scholarly. It is definitely not light reading, but it is well worth the effort.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I believe In the Wake of the Plague provided a great insight into how the people lived there lives in the middle ages and was thoroughly detailed and accurately portrayed the medieval times. It gave several different theories that were wildly believed,  including but not limited to, the theory that Jews caused the plague or even that it was god’s wrath. My negative on this is I felt  Norman Cantor was quite opinionated and liked to state his point very bluntly with not much to compromise with. At some points I felt as if I was being talked down too. His style of writing and dash of sarcasm does create a lighter mood to the book  though. In the Wake of the Plague does provide a great general analysis on the time period but seems a little vague at sometimes . Cantor overall provides a lovely introduction to the Black Plague for the general reader. He exhibits a mastered grasp of the era he  has long studied. I would also like to praise Cantor’s organization of sub-topics.  I felt the In the Wake of the Plague is less successful in describing the broader relationship between humans and infectious  disease in the centuries that followed the Black Death. The history of this relationship is marked by many different types of epidemics  as well as changing scientific and medical views of their causes and the best methods of preventing them. I believe the element of bio medical research is the most provocative and controversial portion of this book because it’s such a large topic and can be  interpreted and viewed different ways. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor was thoroughly detailed and accurately portrayed the medieval times, not only including the Black Plague, but also the many events that effected or were effected by the Black Death. The book informed me about the bubonic plague in many ways I never knew even existed. I would have never speculated that the royal personnel of the medieval times died in the same accounts commoners did. I would've thought that the royals had more protection from the plague, but we now know it could've originated and formed into other diseases much more easily carried. When I chose the book I thought I would be reading more about buboes and blisters, but instead I read about the different people affected by the plague and the historical context the changed due to the mass number of deaths. This book left me with a lasting impression and a vast array of knowledge. The author completes his purpose quite well in my opinion. In some places he adds a dash of sarcasm and often includes words not frequently used when talking about a plague. In places, these occasions brighten the mood and keep the reader interested, while in others it truly adds character and depth to the story. The word choice also sets a proper, medieval, English feel to the non-fiction tale. I also think the author, Norman F. Cantor, accomplishes his task to inform the reader, but also while giving a twist on the story. He tells the side of the Black Plague that most don't. Instead of focusing on the painful disease and death, he relates historical events back to the plague itself. It made me think about the whole time period as a whole instead of the Black Death being the only major event happening between 1300 and 1500. He chooses events not necessarily well-known and connects them to the plague. I believe his goal was to think about the plague in a new way, and he achieved it. I recommend this book to anyone wanting learn anything new about the medieval times.