Paint It Black

When you think things can’t get worse, read history. I’ve just finished “In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made,” by Norman Cantor, a medieval scholar. It is a fascinating and frustrating book.

Fascinating because the subject matter is irresistible if you have a taste for doomsday scenarios. Frustrating because this is not a linear retelling of the story of the Black Death that wiped out a third of Europe in the years 1348-1350 and had consequences that ramified for decades, centuries in some cases.

Rather, this is a work of a man steeped in the period who plays a sort of fugue on the theme, modulating from one aspect of the catastrophe to another. The stops along the way are absorbing but whether the book coheres onto a whole or arrives at a resolution is debatable. The subtitle is especially misleading.

While the book addresses the consequences of the pandemic, any discussion of “the world it made” comes in the last ages and is perfunctory. Presumably the professor has left it to the attentive reader to draw his own conclusions about what it all meant.

Cantor tells us the latest analysis suggests that the plague was unlikely to have been solely bubonic because of the way it spread and the symptoms reported. Some victims near ports were probably infected with the Black Death, but many other fatalities appear to have been more akin to a virulent strain of anthrax that first appeared in herds of cattle and then spread to the rural countryside and wiped out the human population.

The books dwells anecdotally on the demographic, economic and political fallout from the pandemic. For example, Cantor characterizes Edward III of England as “an avaricious and sadistic thug who aimed to conquer much of Western Europe.” He might have done so without the plague.

A marriage arranged between his daughter, Joan, and the heir to the Castilian throne was meant to forward his ambitions by encircling France, but the scheme foundered when Joan died of plague in Bordeaux en route to the nuptials. She was far from alone. So many young men of military age died that the Plantagenet hopes for conquest were thwarted.

Economically, the death of as many as 40 percent of the peasantry spelled the beginning of the end of the medieval system. This was a time even more characterized by a concentration of wealth than our own. “In 1340, 60 percent of Western Europe’s wealth and nearly all of its political power were in the hands of some three hundred families…” In England, there were perhaps 40 to 50 families who controlled over half the wealth and “the income of each family was at least a billion dollars in today’s money.”

Suddenly, however, there was a labor shortage due to the decimation of the peasant population. Since wealth equaled land and its products, the labor shortage posed an acute problem for the gentry and the nobility but spelled opportunity for the remaining workers. They could now negotiate for higher wages and the wealthier of them were in a position to acquire land left vacant by the death of its owners. A proto-capitalism was being born.

A similar process afflicted the great monastic houses and the princes of the church. As many as 40 percent of parish clergy died in the plague at a time when a third of the best arable land in England was owned by the church. It had made the bishops and abbots and their institutions rich. But now the same inflation in labor costs and crash in commodity prices put them in a squeeze. The church and the nobility lost power.

Finally, Cantor discusses an ugly socio-cultural result of the plague. Lacking any scientific knowledge of disease processes, the medieval mind attributed the plague to divine judgement or embraced a popular conspiracy theory. The Jews did it, by poisoning wells. There was no evidence for this notion, but who needs evidence. In a script that would be replayed again in European history, they were handy outsiders to blame.

The Jews were made scapegoats, confessions were extorted by torture, sermons were preached, synagogues were burned (followed by people), land and property was confiscated and the survivors were driven out of Western Europe into Eastern Europe. They settled in places like Poland and Ukraine where their descendants would be exterminated in a similar hysteria 600 years later.

At first blush this book looks like a pandemic thriller, akin to “The Hot Zone,” “Flu,” or “The Coming Plague.” But it is really a cousin to books like “The Little Ice Age” or “Guns, Germs and Steel.” It shows how events beyond the calculation of a society can cause history to swerve into a new and unexpected direction which humans cannot control only hope to survive.

We may be in the midst of such an era with antibiotics no longer effective, climate changing, new diseases emerging, demographics creating extremes of wealth and poverty and technology upending established ways of life to create a future none can predict. As Margo Channing said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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