A Review of Norman F. Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made (by Bethany)

the black death and the world it made

The interconnection of history and science is one of my favorite topics to read about. I took a memorable interdisciplinary course in college called ‘Plagues, Science, and the Humanistic Vision,” and I’ve also taken a fair number of literature classes in which serious time is spent placing the literature in the context of the time and place in which it was created. I would love to go back to school and get a degree in the history of scientific understanding (which is not to say that I wouldn’t also love to go back to school and get all kinds of other degrees).

The structure of this book bothered me at first, since it seemed to be neither narrative history nor a thesis-driven argument using historical examples – but soon I figured out that it is organized as a series of case studies. Norman Cantor, whom I’ve read before and have always enjoyed, identifies two individuals and three general types of people for whom the Black Death in 1348-50 changed history. In addition, he places the Black Death in the context of the biomedical knowledge and intellectual tradition of the fourteenth century. Social class, property law, economics, and religion are treated in detail, and other subjects like literature and visual art make an appearance as well. Cantor’s work is extremely easy to read and layperson friendly (or is it just me? I’ve come to the realization lately that as one gets older, not only do politicians start to look younger and one’s parents’ house starts to look smaller, but history books get easier to read. I do think Cantor’s work is easier than most, though).

For me, one of the most interesting cases discussed in this book is the plague’s impact on the two styles of intellectual thought that were germinating at Oxford and at the University of Paris. The University of Paris was dominated by Thomas Aquinas and other thinkers like him. These scholars’ aim was to demonstrate that Aristotle’s methods of logical reasoning (which were newly rediscovered in the Arab world and re-translated back into Latin) are incompatible with Catholic faith, which, according to Aquinas and others, requires an appreciation of mystery and faith. Aquinas argued against the idea of “double truth”: the idea that truths like the height of a tree and truths like the nature of God must be understood in different ways. Aquinas believed that there is only one kind of truth, but that human beings shouldn’t expect to understand it because it comes from God and is therefore inexplicable. I knew about what was going on in Paris in these years, more or less. But I didn’t know that at the same time, a scholar named Thomas Bradwardine and his colleagues at Oxford were experiment with some completely different ways of thinking. They were already working on finding and proving the natural laws of the universe that we typically associate with people like Newton and Hooke and Boyle and others in the Royal Society in the 17th and 19th centuries. Bradwardine and his colleagues had already figured out that scientific knowledge had to be testable in a laboratory setting, though they didn’t codify this belief into a system like the Scientific Method, which emerged later. These Oxford thinkers were fine with the idea of double truth. Studying the orbits of the planets from a mathematical perspective and coming to terms with who we are as people and why we suffer and what our larger purpose is from a philosophical perspective are totally different tasks, and they saw no problem in addressing different tasks with different processes and tools.

And then Bradwardine (who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the way – Dude was busy) died of the Black Death, as did others at Oxford. Thomas Aquinas and his key colleagues in Paris did not. Cantor suggests (he knows well that this is not a provable thesis) that if the Black Death hadn’t occurred or hadn’t taken these individuals, the Scientific Revolution might have dated from the fourteenth century instead of from the mid-seventeenth. He also asserts that the climate of intellectual freedom and open exchange at Oxford took six hundred years (until the 19th century) to reach the level it had enjoyed during Bradwardine’s life.

There’s lots more, of course, and I’m not going to be able to tell you about everything in detail. There’s a great chapter on English property law (things like “entails” and “jointures” – familiar to people who have read Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House) and on how these laws inadvertently made it awesome to be a widow in the era of the Black Death. Upper-class women tended to be isolated. They didn’t spend time around cows (significant since one key theory about the Black Death endorsed by Cantor and others is that this pandemic was only about 50% bubonic plague – that approximately half of the victims of this plague actually had anthrax, which resembles bubonic plague in the early stages and can pass from cows to humans) and they didn’t work in barns or shipyards or even their own kitchens and therefore didn’t come into contact with many rats and fleas. English property law clearly stated that the widow of a property owner was entitled to one-third of his property’s income per year for the rest of her life. During the Black Death, it wasn’t uncommon for three or more men in a property-holding family (a father and his two married sons, for example) to die within a few months of each other. One third of the income of the property went to each widow, and then boom – no more income. Sometimes in these situations the king declared the family “void.” I didn’t realize that a family could be declared “void.”

N.B: In a section about the similarities between medieval English and modern American property law, Cantor writes, “A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law today” (126). My note in the margin reads: IDEA FOR NOVEL??? (or screenplay or TV show or what have you). Who’s with me?

One last thought before I go: there’s reason to believe that ancestral survival of the Black Death provides immunity to AIDS. This took me a while to get my head around. If you are of Western European ancestry and one of your direct ancestors survived the Black Death before conceiving your next direct ancestor, there is reason to think you cannot get AIDS. Scientists estimate that this may apply to as many as 15% of the worldwide Caucasian population today. This is a lot to get one’s head around, but Cantor provides impressive details like specific chromosome mutations and references to articles in The American Journal of Human Genetics, so it has to be true, right?

This book is fascinating and enjoyable. It’s certainly not a scientific text, and it really just skims the surface of the scientific perspective on this topic, but Cantor’s mission here is to point out the wide range of possible interconnections between history, economics, art, international relations, epidemiology, and theology – and he succeeds.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Norman F. Cantor, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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