Reading for War

Book Review | In the Wake of Plague: The Black Death and the World it made

By Tara Bucknall June 14, 2020


Ring around the rosies

A pocketful of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down

We may have all heard the story about the children’s nursery rhyme having originated in Britain as a response to the devastation caused by the Black Death of 1348-49.  During this period one third to a half of the world population is estimated to have died as a result of the uncontrolled spread of the Bubonic Plague. As we look at a world that over the months of 2020 has responded and attempted to manage an outbreak of another uncontrolled pandemic, I found it interesting to re-read a book that I discovered early in this century, In the Wake of Plague: The Black Death and the World it made.

The author, Norman Cantor, was an Emeritus Professor in History who, from his retirement until his death, turned his hand to writing about historical subjects. He was at times criticised by his academic peers due to his narrative and generalist style which was not reflected in his status as a best seller!  Writing at the turn of this century, In the Wake of the Plague considers the historical lessons from the Black Plague and questions whether the world is ready to face such a situation again. Cantor is opinionated, direct and covers some controversial theories. His critics pan him as inaccurate, covering topics not of interest and pandering to his own sense of self-importance. Looking at these comments and reviews at the current time gives more insight on the reviewers than on the author and the content of this book. I enjoyed the book the first time I read it in the halcyon “noughties” and found it even more interesting when I re-read it this March.

At only 220 pages, my assessment is that this book was never intended to be a serious historical study into this period in world history. In his introduction Cantor clearly identifies that he was going to consider the impact on the people, specifically the stratums of medieval society and some key individuals; secondly an overview of the world pandemics and a small insight into his assessment of the effects on history. The book is written for people like you and I, with no footnotes or long, dry exploration of history, instead touching on little known facts and stories of people forgotten in time. One of the little hidden gems is the extensive bibliography where Cantor not only suggests further reading (including the more academic options) but provides another level of entertainment as he critiques their authors and the contents extensively. Regardless of the historical comments and reviews, Norman Cantor generates for the general public an avenue for discussion through his commentary on facts, theories and assessment of the impact of pandemics across time.

It certainly generated some food for thought for me. Firstly, the What If’s? What if the daughter of the King of England married the heir to the Spanish throne instead of dying in France on her way to the wedding? How would the international political dynamics have changed if during the 1500 and 1600’s the Spanish – English relationship was more influential than the French-English? What if the Archbishop of Canterbury, who fundamentally supported scientific research instead of faith in the auguries and astrology, had survived? Would we have understood sooner the need for scientific research to discover why things happened instead of relying on where the guts of a chicken fell when slaughtered in front of a royal throne? What if the Jewish communities had not borne the brunt of the blame in areas of Southern Europe and instead their cultural practices of separating animals from humans, cleanliness and hygiene were identified as protecting them from the worst of the infections. Would the bulk of the Jewish population have stayed in those regions instead of moving north to Poland (where they were invited) and would that have changed the direction of European politics and conflict during the 20th century?

I also found fascinating some of the more bizarre theories that have emerged over time as to the cause of pandemics; ranging from space dust through to the African Rifts. These theories are matched by the options to cure the diseases: eating of serpent’s flesh (although equally they could have caused the pandemic in the first place), gold dust in your wine and the perennial favourite: faith healing. When we look at the warning issued globally during the early period of COVID-19, I was amused that a number of these theories and cures made a good solid reappearance across both developed and developing nations.

Finally, I found this book an interesting read for the lessons we should have learnt from history and the impact of pandemics. The Roman Empire suffered three pandemics in its last 150 years of existence. Military historians have focussed on the decline of the Roman Empire due to dissolute leaders and poor strategic decision making. If you add to that a society that over this period was reduced to one quarter of its peak population, you find an empire that can’t feed itself or defend itself.  Is this a lesson the “empires” of today should be thinking about? What are the consequences of not being able to sustain your people or your economy?

Regardless of intellectual content or not, I took this book as a primer on history and pandemics; both topics of considerable interest in the current climate.  So, when you have read this book, I challenge you to find one that is as entertaining and thought provoking as this. My next read is Viruses, Plagues, and History by Michael B.A. Oldstone. As the second book I have read on pandemics, I will be interested to see the comparison myself.


Portrait

Biography

Tara Bucknall

Tara Bucknall joined the Army in 1988 and is currently the Commander of the New South Wales 2nd Australian Army Cadet Brigade. She particularly enjoys the opportunity to provide a youth development program that inspires the youth of Australia to be better community members of today and the future.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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