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In the Wake of the Plague - Black Death

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Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague (New York: Harper Collins First Perennial edition, 2001) examines how the bubonic plague, or Black Death, affected Europe in the fourteenth century. Cantor recounts specific events in the time leading up to the plague, during the plague, and in the aftermath of the plague. He wrote the book to relate the experiences of victims and survivors and to illustrate the impact that the plague had on the government, families, religion, the social structure, and art.

To illustrate some of the political upheaval due to the Black Death, a good example Cantor uses is the story of the Plantagenets. If the Black Death had not killed so many peasants who made up the army, the Plantagenets may have become kings of France (p. 214). Ten years before the plague, about sixty percent of wealth and almost all political power in Western Europe lie in the hands of about three hundred noble families (p. 59). The nobles employed thousands of workers, and the Plantagenet family in England lived in luxury (p. 61). King Edward III of England wanted to expand his holdings, and planned to marry his daughter, Joan, to Pedro, the son of King Alfonso of Castile. Joan tragically died of the plague in Bordeaux, which was devastated by the Black Death (p. 37, 47). Edward's other daughter was already married, and Edward's hopes to have the Plantagenet line "prevail in Spain as in England, Wales and France" (p. 37) were dashed.

Cantor links the plague to the War of the Roses. Edward's son, John of Gaunt, was married to Blanch Grosmont, who inherited her father's huge estate when he died of the plague (p.56). John of Gaunt became duke of Lancaster, which gave him as much power as the rest of the family. John of Gaunt's heir, Henry of Lancaster, seized the crown from his cousin, Richard

II. The rest of the family sided with the Duke of York, who was a descendant of Edward III's son, Edmund of Langley. This started the War of the Roses, which lasted twenty-five years, and the fracture in the family caused England to lose the war against the French monarchy in 1440-1450 (p. 57).

Cantor details how the plague changed social structure. The plague killed so many peasants that the remaining peasants were demanding lower rents and higher wages. There was a peasant revolt in 1381 which almost eliminated the royal government. Richard II had some of the peasant leaders killed, and the revolt was shut down. The result was a further divide between the classes. Wealthier peasants were able to take advantage of the "social dislocation caused by the plague, and poorer peasants sank further into dependence and misery" (p. 90-91). Peasants had formerly identified their place in society by who their lord was. Now that their world of feudalism was vanishing, they felt displaced, confused and anxious (p. 100). "Violence, drunkenness, and physical accidents were prevalent" (p. 95).

Cantor highlights some of the effects that the Black Death had on religion. The plague had a huge impact on the church because almost forty percent of parish clergy had died from the plague. The change was made to ordain priests at age twenty instead of twenty five, and a priest could take over a church at age twenty. Fifteen-year-olds could receive monastic vows, instead of having to wait until they were twenty. These were "undereducated

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