I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.
In the Wake of Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made – Norman F. Cantor, 2001
A hardcore plague buff can plough through anything epidemic. From the technical information aimed at undergrads in the classic Plagues and Peoples (William H. McNeil) and the more modern Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Epidemic (Gina Kolata). To the somber self-assessing meditations of The Plague (Albert Camus). To the rambling horrors of The Journal of the Plague Year (Daniel Dafoe).
So reading a short, easy to read book such as In the Wake of Plague is a cinch. Plague buffs will be informed by Cantor’s hypothesis that the Black Death could have been a combination of pandemics, the Y.pestis carried by fleas carried by black rats and a form of anthrax, a cattle murrain. In support he cites reported disease symptoms not in keeping with the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague, the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit in Scotland, and the fact that meat from infected cattle was known to have been sold in many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague. Shades of mad cow.
The book was written for non-specialists so he provides much background on royalty, land distribution, and the medieval economy, for instance. Some readers may find this kind of background merely digressive. But I rather liked the little essays, since I’ve not read anything about the 13th and 14th centuries for a long time. Cantor (1929 – 2004) was an expert on the foundations of the common law so I found interesting his discussion about how deaths from plague stimulated lawsuits over land and how those created our common law and our adversarial legal system.
Cantor introduces us the Abbot of Halesowen, Thomas of Birmingham. Worcester, the largest city in his parish, was struck by the plague in 1349. Because I work at a university I found interesting the comparison between the medieval abbot and a modern-day university president. Puckishly Cantor explains that each might be seen as a “corporate chief executive officer, a man of business, a big time capitalist manager.”
A prude, I was sometimes struck by his jauntily jocular asides about a biomedical disaster that killed about 20 million people. But overall I found this an interesting read. And so did others – not only plague buffs - since the book was a New York Times bestseller.