The Black Death or The Black Plague, as it is known in history, was the worst disaster in medical history to date considering it proportionately (more than 40 percent mortality rate). It was so devastating in its effect that within 3 years time (1347-1350) the whole Europe was made aware of its dark presence in spite of the disadvantages of that period in terms of media coverage.
The Plague had proven itself to be no respecter of person when it visited and touched every family from those of the highest in the ladder of society to the lowest – royal families, monasteries, and farms. This medieval history is highly significant especially when looked at through the lenses of high technology twenty first century. The threat of mass killings as posed by Bio-Chemical warfare, Mad-Cow-Disease (MCD), Bird-Flu-Virus (BFV), etc.
, is so pertinent that a close look once again at the historic Black Plague merits anybody’s concern especially those bothered by the threat. What everybody knows about this event in man’s history is only mere fraction of what really occurred. Cantor dug deep into what are new scientific discoveries and the aid of historical research to give a wide-angled and more panoramic vista on the experience of the people of their day. Overview Well-known medievalist Norman Cantor relates the story of the renowned Black Death afresh with an eye of a Chronicler.
In his book In the Wake of the Plague, Cantor narrates the story of the pandemic and its widespread effects with an intention, not only to retell and revive what happened during the spread of the plague, but to inform and quicken the modern reader of the possibility of it happening again in the same proportion that it transpired in the 14th century, or maybe exceeding the mortality rate it has incurred then, if the world behaves indifferently to the prospect.
In the Book, the Black Death was viewed from its wide-ranged effect (in Europe’s population) to its effect to families and individuals. The usual memory etched in the minds of people with regards to this medical disaster is that of gloomy period where the whole population just dropping dead for reasons which no man could ever explain in rational or understandable terms. The issue instilled, because of lack of scholarly approach to this episode in the history of medieval Europe, was the survival aspect.
That all the people at that time needed to do was to keep themselves alive. Although this was part of the overall picture, this isn’t complete leaving some important details untouched. Norman Cantor, on the other hand, is so keen, in that, he not only has given the overall scenario of the Plague in his book but also the important and compelling details of it. For example, he narrated the early death of princess Joan of England who died at a very young age. He also tells of the death of the newly consecrated archbishop Thomas Bradwardine of Canterbury.
As told in the Book, the archbishop’s rather untimely death had deep ramifications especially to the improvement of religion and science. This is compelling in that it opened the eyes of the then world to all of the possibilities of how the plague was being transmitted, from serpents to cosmic dusts. The many repercussions such as, to the economy, the overall psyche of the people in their respective locale during this period is suggested by Cantor to have their lasting effect that have reached as far as to our generation today.
He suggested that it might have made the world what it is in these days of technological advances. True, scholars today have keener minds in their different fields – in particular the medical field. In the very first chapter, the conference of medical practitioners and specialists was used by Cantor to jumpstart the flow of his thesis on the wide-ranging effects of the plague. Many incidents come to life. Cantor talked about Abbot Thomas, for instance, who plays a part in the historical accounts.
Thomas of Birmingham or Abbot Thomas (1349), who was then at the time of the Plague, the abbot of Halesowen, was a local resident of the town whose family was native and well-known to the place; well-known enough to have named after them the city of Birmingham. The epidemic’s impact on the abbey managed by Thomas can be seen when he referred to the “harm” on the abbey’s income brought about by the “recent events” in his petition to the bishop. In spite of all these, Abbot Thomas was fortunate and had some advantages from the other lords because the abbey and the lands in Halesowen that he was managing were mostly of high quality.
What is amazing of all is the argument of the author that in spite of the colossal devastation and the terrifying effects of the Plague, it had resulted in some beneficial outcome which created a new world of possibilities bigger than the destruction itself. Cantor asserted that, as often was the case in the past, the termination of the old order meant the beginning of the new generation which is more scientific in its thinking. After the Black Death, there arose an intellectual revolution.
There were explosions and breakthroughs in different fields: artists had invented window protection with beautiful art designs which was calculated to block the supposed airborne virus, painters responded and painted their great paintings, and the peasants that survived the Plague flourished where they started all over again; in fact, they were Europe’s first class farmers. By and large, Black Death marked an economic change throughout Europe. It triggered what Cantor referred to as “turbo-capitalism. ” Indeed, from ashes comes beauty.
If what most of the advances in the west today were generated and can be traced back to one of the darkest of Europe’s history – the Plague, one may say with all truthfulness that even in natural disasters where no person has the power to control, a change for the better might be brewing. Critique Since In the Wake of the Plague was written by Norman Cantor with the advantages of the 21st century scholarship, it has the understanding and the insights that the medieval years were primarily deprived of.
The calculations of Norman Cantor are all possible and can be explained, as he had done in the Book, through scientifically proven facts especially that we have all the benefits of latest discoveries in medicine. To see the Plague through the kind of perspective that the author has narrated in his book is exactly something that one can expect from a 21st century medieval scholar. In spite of some negative feedbacks that some critics have given to the book, I will give generously my two thumbs up. The Book certainly deserves to receive a five star category.
It is written in a totally different approach than the former works on the Black Death. Cantor has endeavored to share his knowledge of the period and has given us details which otherwise cannot be known had it not been for the fact that a real historian has divulged them. Cantor turned from one topic to another in this book and thus able to keep those without thorough knowledge of the Plague interested till the end. Though his style of jumping from topic to topic may be viewed by some critics to be disorderly in terms of format or arrangement, they are incidental and may be looked at as his personal style.
He began with the disease’s biomedical survey and pointed to the many problems with the prevailing beliefs about the Black Death’s cause, its nature and transmission. He even went to suggest that the likely cause of death was anthrax, as in many cases the same and similar symptoms were present. Indiscriminately, the Plague hit the different classes of people in many regions. In the Book, there were stories of families and individuals, making the overall narrative more personal, intimate and gripping.
Looking at it in a nuclear point of view, the Plague is the 14th century counterpart or equivalent of imminent nuclear war. It makes us think seriously of the global threat of nuclear hoarding of some nations. If the calculations of Cantor in the book was accurate, then the threat of some renegade nations hoarding and multiplying anthrax and other biological/chemical materials are imminent and dangerous. In the Wake of the Plague is a book that can free many who until now view the Black Death through the mist of the many superstitions that primitive minds have made out of it.
Cantor’s approach in this book is to make the past history relevant. He saw the outbreak of Mad-Cow-Disease, Foot and Mouth Disease, AIDS, and the Bird-Flu Virus happened in the middle of the 14th century when the Plague ravaged Europe. The author even believes that our world today might face a similar catastrophe in the near future. In a prophetic sense, the book has given us information and a warning. The threat of another pandemic is not far since the symptoms of what the medical world has been seeing in the recent outbreaks of diseases were the same signs that 14th century people had seen.
Even the manner of transmission is deemed somewhat similar by the author. The author indirectly warned and indicated that if there will ever be another plague as devastating as the Black Death of the Medieval period, it will happen only through one of the possible causes which Cantor identified; it will be whether brought on by natural causes, or by bio-terrorism. Reference: 1. Cantor, Norman F. 2001. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. HarperCollins Publishers