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Friday, July 20, 2012

“The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era”, by Norman F. Cantor

272 pages, The Free Press, ISBN-13: 978-0743226882

Norman Cantor has written a very readable book about John Plantagenet, Duke of Lancaster and one of the most important and influential men of the 14th century. Lancaster was later called of John of Gaunt reflecting his birth place of Ghent. Born the third son of Edward III and married to his distant heiress cousin Blanche, John became the wealthiest man in England and the 2nd duke of Lancaster. The era spanned by his lifetime (1340-1399) was a pivotal period influenced by the Hundred's Year War and the reoccurring Black Plague which decimated the British population and influenced the futures of serfdom and Catholicism in England. The tall, handsome Lancaster would never be a king but his descendants through his three wives would become the York’s, the Tudors, as well as the ruling families of Portugal and Spain.

This is a VERY fast read, and Cantor leaves a lot out. This is just fine, I guess, as I don’t think his intent was to write the definitive text of John of Gaunt and the era he lived in. That would have required several volumes and only serious academics would have been interested in it. Cantor is more interested in writing stuff that sells as opposed to writing the absolute best history on the market. A lot of good writers (Barbara Tuchman, Lord Norwich) do this and I don't have a problem with it. Historical studies will never reach a wider audience if books aren't written to engage the public. Call it popular history. While this book struggles at times to engage its audience, it's meant to be a very broad overview. The purpose was to show that Gaunt lived in at the end of an era and the beginning of a new era – it wasn't to explain in detail the socioeconomic, military-political realities of Western Europe during John of Gaunt's lifetime.

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