In The Wake of the Plague Book Review

            Billed as a history about what happened in Europe as a result of the Bubonic Plague of the early Middle Ages, this book dwells more on the various theories behind what caused the plague.  From modern theories such as gray rats, dust from comets, and rancid meat; to ancient theories such as the evils of Saturn, Jews poisoning the wells, and serpents and toads, Norman Cantor touches on them all.  As the name of the book suggests, Cantor also talks about desperate land shortages that were in many cases solved by the plague, and also about royal alliances that did not take place as a result of the death that swept through all of Europe, possibly causing wars between the countries later.  Cantor’s compilation of both ancient and modern theories, many of which are not often talked about, is the highlight of his book, although ridiculous modern theories are often given serious attention they do not merit.  I would certainly recommend this book to others, but only if read with a skeptical mind.

            The ancient theories espoused in the book are the most interesting part of Cantor’s narrative.  We are taught in school about the rat theory of modern science, but are not often told about the prevailing attitudes of those at the mercy of the disease during the Middle Ages.  I found the historical records of Jews confessing to poisoning wells under torture as one of the most shocking things in this book.  In whole cities in Germany, Jews were rounded up, imprisoned in wood buildings, and torched for supposedly poisoning the general populace.  Persecution of Jews as causes of the plague was widespread throughout Europe of the times.  .  The book even includes a center panel of graphic drawings depicting mass burnings of Jews. It is surprising that this aspect of medieval history is not discussed more often.  Other theories, such as the theory that the evil planet Saturn was causing disease, or that serpents or other reptiles were responsible, are interesting as well.  Cantor lays out a complex picture of medieval Europe’s struggle to define what was happening to them.  The variety of theories that were espoused during that time show that ancient scientists often disagreed as widely as modern ones do.

In addition to his wide coverage of medieval theories about what caused the plague, Cantor also talks quite a bit about current theories that are in vogue.  Cantor surprisingly does not delve deeply into the theory that fleas on gray rats caused the Bubonic Plague, possibly inferring that we already know this theory well.  Instead, he lays out a compelling case for Anthrax Murrain, a disease caused by human consumption of rancid cow meat, as contributing to the “Biomedical Devastation” of the Plague.  Cantor argues that there are many reports from the Middle Ages of plague lasting as little as two or three days, yet we see in all modern examples, such as in India, that plague always lasts from five to eight days and is never shorter than this span of time. Because of the poor quality of medieval medicine, Cantor argues, it is highly probable that the three day plague and the eight day plague are two separate diseases that have the same general symptoms. We also know that Medieval Europeans raised cattle in close and unsanitary conditions, and had no knowledge of microbes and bacteria.  There were reports of diseased meat going to market all the time, and with no central body regulating its sale, or any widespread news system to make the populace aware of outbreaks; it is inevitable that human deaths should result.  Cantor also points out that the original symptoms of Anthrax, and also of Mad Cow disease, mimic the flu-like symptoms of someone coming down with the plague.

A modern theory espoused in the book that is not so compelling is the theory that passing comets caused the plague.  Cantor wisely gives all the credit for this one to Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, publishers of the 1879 book Diseases from Space.  They claim that tails of comets collect microbes and other elements while zipping around the galaxy, and when comets such as Hailey’s Comet come close to the earth, they drop these microbes on our cities and towns causing disease.  The evidence for this theory is extremely sketchy, and Cantor admits that this theory is controversial.  His main argument for the theory seems to be the legitimate credentials of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, who are both professors at prestigious universities.  Although it is admirable that Cantor included all sides of the story in his book, the counter evidence for this theory is substantial.  For example, Massimo Di Giulio, in his paper Biological evidence against the panspermia theory, clearly shows that it is evolutionary impossible for diseases from outer space to have survived and perpetuated themselves on earth.  Common sense also tells us that if this theory had been true, the last pass of Haley’s Comet in 1986 should have ignited a global pandemic.  The AIDS virus might have been a candidate for this pandemic had the first case not been diagnosed five years before the pass of the comet, in 1981.  If Cantor had been truly responsible in relating this theory, he would have spent more time discussing its problems, instead of giving them brief mention in this chapter.

Aside from these brief problems, Cantor’s overall coverage of the theories behind what caused the plague, both ancient and modern, are quite admirable.   These theories are undoubtedly the largest and most interesting part of the book, although Cantor does talk about potential alliances that never happened, and issues of land rights in England that arose because of the Bubonic Plague.  In The Wake of the Plague is certainly a book I would recommend to others, although care must be taken to analyze some of Cantor’s more wild theories carefully.  Over all, it was a very interesting read.

Categories: Medieval History | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “In The Wake of the Plague Book Review

  1. There’s a recent book that once and for all settled the claims that it was indeed Bubonic plague — they did DNA tests in England from the victims….. Norman Cantor isn’t so much making wild theories — he’s a respectable Medieval historians — but surveying the existing claims — I suspect he’s somewhat a traditionalist in what he thinks caused the outbreaks. Also, the Plague which he discusses is in the Late not Early middle ages — 1350-1352. The earlier outbreaks occur under Justinian in the 7th century — recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius.

  2. *1350-1352 = Late Middle Ages

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