Revealing a History of Misery and Sadness; in the Wake of the Plague - the Black Death and the World It Made. by Norman F Cantor (Simon & Schuster, Pounds 14.99). the Irish Famine - A Documentary. by Colm Toibin & Diarmaid Ferriter (Profile Books, Pounds 15). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn

Article excerpt

Byline: Ross Reyburn

In England in 1500, children played Ring Around the Rosies. In Canada in the 1940s, Norman F Cantor can remember children holding hands in a circle singing this same rhyme. Who would guess this seemingly-innocent nursery rhyme was linked to the Black Plague?

'The origin of the rhyme is the flu-like symptoms, skin discolouring and mortality caused by the bubonic plague,' writes Cantor. 'The children were reflecting society's efforts to repress memories of the Black Death of 1348-49. This anecdote is one of the many insights into this devastating disease offered by Cantor in his short, vividly-written history that tries a little too hard to be readable.

No other medical disaster has ever matched the horrors of the Black Death that devastated 14th century Europe. Some 20 million perished - a third of the continent's population. 'The level of mortality was so high and so sudden that to find a modern parallel we must look more toward a nuclear war than a pandemic,' is Cantor's analysis.

Interestingly, he suggests that infected cattle rather than fleas on rats may have also been a prime spreader of the disease that resulted in hideous black welts for most sufferers.

The leading medieval historian in an interesting chapter titled The Jewish Conspiracy details how the Jews were blamed for poisoning water supplies with the plague. This led to a level of persecution that didn't fall short of Hitler's extermination policies in terms of cruelty and injustice.

Cantor's efforts to be the trendy 'Let's make everything easy to understand' academic get a little laughable. You get the impression you are entering the Valley of the Dolls rather than 14th century Bordeaux when you find 15-year-old Princess Joan described as 'a top-drawer white girl, a European princess'.

We later discover Henry Plantagenet was 'a 19-year-old stud' and Chaucer was one of those 'wise-guy poets'. We also find we owe a debt to medieval nuns for raising greyhounds - 'when you win big at the greyhound track today, give silent thanks to all those medieval dog-loving nuns.'

However, few of Cantor's extravagant ramblings match the extraordinary theory that some 15 per cent of the Caucasian population could have complete immunity to the HIV/AIDS virus if they are descended from white people who contracted the mid-14th century plague and survived.

'The chance of dying of bubonic plaque in the USA today is much less than the chance of being killed in an airplane crash,' writes Cantor. 'And there is more good news: The Black Death may also have protected you from the current AIDS scourge. …