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The Last Knight    by Norman F. Cantor Amazon.com order for
Last Knight
by Norman F. Cantor
Order:  USA  Can
Free Press, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Norman F. Cantor's The Last Knight revolves around John of Gaunt (13401399). Although it is a good analysis of medieval European civilization, readers who expect a biography will be disappointed. Instead, the author considers moral, political, and ethical perspectives and contemplates why Gaunt brought the medieval period to its close. The second son of King Edward III, John of Gaunt acquired his wealth from one of three fathers-in-law, the first Duke of Lancaster. Gaunt became the richest man (aside from the crowned monarchs) in Western Europe, with vast landholdings, and ruling over 100 peasants. He hailed from the Plantagenet family dynasty, backed Chaucer, loved women (he had three wives and mistresses) and lavish parties, and played his part in the Hundred Year War. Gaunt's elder brother was known as Edward the Black Prince because of the color of his suit of armor.

There is quite a bit of repetitive information and explanations, for example on the development of material for garments, sexual proclivities, physical abuse, references to Gaunt's monetary worth and who he married, romantic mythmaking, etc.. Though John of Gaunt is acknowledged as a great leader in the book, the following also contradicts that claim: 'The one time Gaunt ... led the English army in France, he demonstrated that he was no general. He marched his superb army in a big circle for months, ... accomplished nothing except to waste the resources that Parliament had provided through heavy taxation'. There is also some contradiction when Cantor writes, 'It is not easy to provide equivalence between medieval and modern money' and follows it with, 'safely said ... Gaunt controlled more than $5 billion in today's monetary value in annual rents'.

For me, the most meaningful chapter was on 'Peasants', describing their hatred of Gaunt, and the rebellion. A verse excerpt from 'Piers Plowman' by poet William Langland is quoted - 'And they themselves suffer surely much hunger / And woe in the winter, with waking at nights / And rising to rock an oft restless cradle'. Overall, I am left with the impression that the author's naming of John of Gaunt as 'the last knight' was done tongue-in-cheek. Cantor seems to sum up his impression in 'He was a hero, but a flawed and unfortunate one. He was more the representative of his world than its savior'. Read The Last Knight and form your own conclusion about this significant period in history when 'The tide is turning, the tone of life is about to change.'

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