Thursday, May 10, 2007

In The Wake Of The Plague - Norman F Cantor

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes tells us that, contrary to popular belief, the song Ring-a-ring-a roses has nothing to do with the Black Death. I'm happy to ignore the experts on this one, cos the image of happy children dancing around singing about death is too good to lose, even in the service of factual accuracy. Like most other popular Plague historians, Cantor obviously feels the same, and names his first chapter "All Fall Down"; for good or for ill, this is a sign of things to come. The line between serious history and populist froth is straddled uneasily here, with neither coming out as the clear winner, and while I'm reluctant to dispute the word of a proper history professor, such an obvious oversight on page one does not bode well for the rest.

The blurb for this book promises a look at the far-reaching social and cultural effects of the Black Death on 14th-century Europe. I thought this sounded pretty interesting, but it doesn't deliver a whole lot. The structure is a mess - while purporting to focus on a different aspect of society in each chapter (political, economic, cultural), each illustrated by more detailed case studies, it just ends up as a mishmash of facts and opinions in no particular order; some points are repeated almost verbatim in consecutive chapters, and others are only briefly skimmed over. The book was obviously written for a modern and rather stupid American audience - quite apart from its occasional (and rather bizarre) focus on current bioterrorism concerns, we also get plenty of points unnecessarily spelled out for us in a Sesame Street way. No, we don't need to be told that Sussex is a county on the south coast of England, thank you, and really, you'd think anyone studying English History would also have a basic grasp of the geography.

The patronising tone and clumsy structure is not made any easier by Cantor's language. Sentences ramble on for several lines at a time with hardly a comma to be seen, and lost clauses flailing away at the end; many paragraphs need to be mentally chopped up and stitched back together before they make any sense. Into this mess Cantor has dumped numerous jarring colloquialisms and humourous asides; probably intended to make the piece more chatty and accessible, instead they generally derail the entire flow. At worst, they even call into question the book's reliability - is it really accurate to describe the 14th-century gentry as "Jane Austen-like"? For readers who don't even know where Sussex is, this bit of anachronism could easily cause confusion. Likewise with Cantor's mention of the death of Edward II - yes, a red-hot poker up the arse makes an entertaining story, but it was only ever a disputed rumour, and listing it here as a fact loses the book many credibility points.

The topics covered raise some interesting issues, such as the new theory that the Plague was actually a simultaneous epidemic of bubonic plague and anthrax, but I came out of the book with the feeling that I hadn't really learnt anything at all. The balance is badly handled between academic and informal writing, and between broader social history and the individual case studies, and it ends up succeeding in none of these respects. Cantor may very well be a professor of history, but he's just not very good at writing about it.



Blogger Kathryn Warner said...

Great review, Alice! I agree completely - I wasn't impressed with the book, either. And I really appreciate your comments re: Edward II's death. ;) I sometimes think that if I have to read another book or article that states the daft red-hot poker story as accepted fact, I'm going to scream! ;)

2:23 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm a student in high school and we were assigned to read this over the summer. I'm not even halfway through it and I find this book extremely horrible. The structure is probably the worst in any book I have ever read, and makes this book really annoying to read. The constant allusions and tangents as well as the sad attempts in humor and intelligent insight makes me hate the author with a burning passion.

7:59 pm  

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