Monday, February 18, 2013

In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor

Norman Cantor was an excellent writer. He explained his topic in a lucid, organized, fashion, using an economy of words. He would set the stage, present the facts, then provide memorable stories and details. His style was like the best of fluid, casual and interesting, after dinner conversations. He was made for the writing of popular histories.

In the Wake of the Plague is no exception. He begins by relating the plague of the 14th century to our current lack of preparation for an infectious disease disaster. The comparison is a bit of an awkward fit, but it insures that the popular reader will see current relevance to this historical phenomena. Importantly, Cantor describes some of the medical facts of plague pathology. He then launches into the world of Bordeaux in the 1300s, and introduces us to Princess Joan. This is the kind of detail that Cantor loves. He gets to both decorate his text with luxurious detail concerning her possessions (though how he knows that she carried with her 150 meters of rakematiz silk is never explained), and he gets to show the importance of her ignominious death. Though a minor occurrence in history, the death of Princess Joan from plague has international political consequences. She was an English daughter of King Edward III, and betrothed to Prince Pedro of Castile. The goal of the union, to cement dynastic relations between the two kingdoms, was unfulfilled. Her death also illustrates how the Black Death affected rich as well as poor.

While this historical vignette is seductive to casual readers, it is a bit irksome that Cantor provides no citations or notes for this episode. Throughout the work, this is my greatest criticism. Like a conversation, the story moves along smoothly, but one cannot vet the facts presented. This is true for controversial and opinionated portions of the reading where one would want references, like Cantor’s presentation of St Anselm who “did poorly as archbishop, getting into needless quarrels with kings, exasperating the Pope, and turning the monks of Canterbury into an ingroup of young gays” (Cantor, p.111). It is also true for purely factual, non-controversial sections like his description of Thomas Bradwardine’s treatise on astrophysics (Cantor, p.110). Cantor’s bibliography contains a book by Gordon Leff called Bradwardine and the Pelagians, which is probably the source of this information. Names of articles and books do appear sporadically in the text, but they are explained and paraphrased with few quotations and no footnotes. Cantor’s picture is reasonable, as are his conclusions, but we have only his word for it.

Like many good conversations, the book has a stream of consciousness element and frequently runs off-topic. Cantor begins with a discussion of Archbishop Bradwardine, moves on to the cleric’s Oxford roots and his debt to William of Occam, discusses the Oxford Franciscans and dead-ends with a summation of the Franciscan vs. Dominican Thomists disagreement over the relationship of faith and reason. Throughout, I am captivated by both his choice of subjects and his entertaining writing. I can, however, understand how a student who is reading to find out about the Plague might become exasperated by these digressions.

Cantor’s writing is like cotton candy. It is sweet, naturally woven together, and digests easily. But without properly cited scholarship, how do you know that he isn’t just pulling the cotton candy out of his ass? Good history writing without references, like cotton candy, is insubstantial and dissolves easily under scrutiny.

Cantor, Norman F. In the Wake of the Plague. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., 2002.

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