The Last Knight – The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era is a non-fictional book by Norman F. Cantor. It is the fourth edition published by Free Press, New York, 2004.
The story is set in England in the late 14th century at the time of the one hundred-year war that ravaged the continent. John of Gaunt was born in Ghent in the year 1340 and was the surviving second-born son of the Plantagenet king of England Edward III. He was a central figure at this time and played a very significant role in the book as the main character on which the book is based upon. He was among the wealthiest men in Europe during the 14th century and exemplified the refined yet rough values of people in his class (Cantor, 2004, p.19). He was one of the fighters in the war that lasted a hundred years and a Chaucer patron who maintained a very close relationship because they were brothers in law from marriage to the sister of John’s third wife (Cantor, 2004, p. 35). John was also a target of the Peasants’ Rebellion in 1381 since he was seen as a corrupt church official out to exploit the weakness of young King Richard II. He had contributed to the changes in tax rates and had contrived to give protection to John Wyclif a religious reformer to possibly counteract the growth of secular power possessed by the Roman Catholic Church. This in turn led to extensive resentment of his authority and caused the burning down of his sumptuous residence in London. From a modern perspective, he can be termed as a multibillionaire and lived his life in the manner that he wanted while a vast population in Europe battled with economic uncertainty, violence, and plague. Gaunt was married thrice in his lifetime and was the Duke of Lancaster during his first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster in 1359. He also formed the English royal family Lancastrian branch at this time (Cantor, 2004, p.43). During his second marriage in 1371 to Constance of Castile he claimed the Castilian throne and by the third marriage, to his mistress and a commoner by the name of Katherine Swynford in 1396, he had founded a family line that married into the Tudor royalty. The book also focuses on the realities, rituals, and ideals of combat for Gaunt and his brother the Black Prince Edward and their Spain and France military exploits (Cantor, 2004, p.56). The chapter from Froissart’s account shows the English emerged victorious at Crecy because they were less hotheaded and better organized than France and that Edward III had shrewd tactics and was cool as compared to the French king who was brave but confused and anguished. This is the only detail given in the book of the war that lasted for quite a while. As the Lancastrian branch head of the family of Plantagenet, he was the unknowing War of the Roses father. Henry Bolingbroke, his son who became King Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II his nephew upon his time of death (Cantor, 2004, p.236).
In his book, Cantor demonstrates how several events in European history pass through John of Gaunt. He has authority over medieval Europe’s history by the books he has written and argues that the aristocratic culture and life have remained the same even in modern times. The author aims at demythologizing John of Gaunt through this historical story by giving the details of the time and the role he played in the events that were very significant in the history of England. Cantor sees Gaunt as the final great aristocrat of the Middle Ages and paints an interesting picture of a complicated figure: a man with no compassion for poor people is violent and military-oriented, and dedicated to being a ladies’ man. His opinion is that Gaunt’s adventures are a representation of the mores and culture of the middle ages and portray his death as a mark of the end of that intriguing period.
This stimulating argument is damaged by asserting points rather than by the use of argument or proof. There are several personal motivation assumptions based on fragments of evidence that cannot suffice to invalidate the intimate picture presented by Cantor. He is also reasonably unsure about the views of Gaunt on inherited privilege, power, and wealth today hence leaves sit up to the readers to decide whether to mourn or not for the world that existed for Gaunt.
The focus of Norman Cantor in this book is on the works and lives of the 14th century’s great medievalists and demonstrates how the events in their lives and their emotional and spiritual outlooks influenced the Middle Ages. The Last Knight brings to life the adventures of Gaunt and makes the 14th century come alive in a fascinating manner that evokes an enthusiasm for the subject that is infectious. The book is easy to read, informative, and interesting providing a history that is delightful to read. Cantor focuses on sharing his impressions of that time with only fractions of the facts and condenses this knowledge into a rich and exciting text that does not adhere to conventional perceptions of Gaunt. The book will command a massive audience both in academics and the informed public readers.
Cantor, N. (2004). The Last Knight – The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era. Free Press.