Norman F. Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made, discusses exactly what the title says, the effects of the Black Death in medieval Europe. Instead of focusing on what the plague was and its medical effects on those who were stricken with it, Cantor describes what the loss of life meant for those who survived. He illustrates the changes that occured in art and the Church, for property owners, lords, and peasents, the breakdown of the gentry system due to the death of heirs and the dowry-rights of widows, and the plague’s impact on the feudal system overall. Furthermore, Cantor goes into detail about the blame placed upon the Jewish community.
Cantor’s work is also interesting in that he claims that in all likelyhood the Black Death was not merely a pandemic of the Bubonic Plague spread by infected fleas borne upon rats, but also an outbreak of cattle anthrax. He also describes the incredible discovery that the ancestors of those who survived the plague outbreak in the 1340’s may now be immune to HIV and thus AIDS.
Furthermore, Cantor makes correlations to the works and lives of famous literary figures, most living hundreds of years after the Black Death, such as Virginia Woolfe, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkein, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Hardy. He also compares the Black Death with other plagues in antiquity and present, such as ghonnorea, smallpox, and AIDS.
Finally, In the Wake of the Plague is filled with some interesting, and entertaining factoids, such as that women of the Middle Ages did not wear underwear and that Medieval nuns were the first to breed racing dogs.
Cantor does wander quite a bit in his topics, and he could have used a better editor; there are many awkward sentences and instances of improper grammer. An interesting read though on the long lasting effects of a disease.