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

The hypothesis on which Norman F. Cantor bases his book – In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made – is sound. That the Black Plague swept across Europe and performed a kind of natural selection that set the course of history is indisputable. Cantor manages to also make it completely uninteresting. Almost immediately the book falls into a pattern of “because this person died of the Black Death, that person came into power”. And while this is all probably true, men and women in the Middle Ages did not exclusively die from the Plague (a point Cantor makes as well, undermining his own argument). The title and subject of his research could easily have been Cholera & the World It Made or Small Pox & the World It Made. All were equally deadly, comparatively devastating and arguably as influential to Western history. People can die of many, many things – what Cantor fails to do is convince the reader as to why his vehicle of death was so much more devastating than all the others.

Which is a shame, because there are some very interesting bits to this book. As a connoisseur of disease non-fiction (a.k.a. – a hypochondriac-in-training), I found the theories on the possible origins of the Black Death and the bio-medical data fascinating. What’s not to like about extraterrestrial viruses dropped to Earth in cosmic dust? Or the idea, really quite convincing, that the Black Death was actually concurrent outbreaks of multiple disease – such as Bubonic Plague and Anthrax? Or that a genetic relationship may exist between the Black Death and AIDS, which causes modern ancestors of those who survived the former to be immune to the latter disease? In my opinion, that’s wow-factor Cantor was looking for. Not the fact, however interesting in its own way, that Princess Joan of England died on the eve of her marriage to a Spanish prince and thus thwarted an alliance between the two countries that could have changed history. <yawn>

The other day there was a program on The History Channel about WWI trenches, many of which still remain part of the European landscape. I love WWI history and was instantly transfixed. But I quickly became frustrated as I realized that, based solely on the belief that more people were interested in WWII & Adolf Hitler than on WWI trenches, the host kept repeating (like clockwork, before every commercial break) that being a German soldier in the trenches during WWI made Hitler the man he became. It was a ridiculous and obvious ploy to use the name “Hitler” to drum up additional viewers. Ridiculous, because if it is true how  do you explain away the thousands of soldiers, on both sides of the Western front, who didn’t become Hitler?

It’s difficult not to feel that Cantor (like the producers at The History Channel) refused to follow the direction In the Wake of the Plague wanted to take in a misguided attempt to make it commercially viable and to target a more casual, “narrative nonfiction” reader. The result is a book that is schizophrenic – structurally choppy and which jumps from one topic to the next without linkage or logic. Worse yet is the tone of the writing, which I believe was meant to be conversational but instead comes across as cranky and grudging. Norman F. Cantor is obviously an intelligent individual – a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Professor and a Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University (I’ve no idea what that is, but it sounds impressive). So it seems a shame, and a decided loss to his readers, that he chose to serve us history lite this time around.

Publisher: Harper Perennial, New York (2002).
ISBN: 978 0 06 001434 6

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