THE LAST KNIGHT by Norman F. Cantor


The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era
Email this review


One historian’s nomination of England’s John of Gaunt (1340–99), Duke of Lancaster and father of King Henry IV, as both chivalry’s last great practitioner and direct progenitor of the likes of Donald Trump.

Cantor (Emeritus, History and Sociology/NYU; Antiquity, 2003, etc.) amply documents the Duke’s qualifications: in rough priority order, connected powerbroker, warrior, proto-capitalist, and heterosexual (unlike nephew King Richard II). Yet it seems to take an inordinate amount of backtracking and reemphasis to wedge Gaunt satisfactorily into the selected symbolic role. This is not biography, but rather a picky academic argument as to why Gaunt’s life can be said to bring the medieval period to its close. Annual rents alone, controlled by Gaunt’s immediate Plantagenet family, apart from sundry bribes, tributes, and ransoms extracted under force of arms, would have made him, Cantor estimates, a billionaire (in today’s money) five times over. He patronized John Wyclif in cultivating the seeds of Reformation a century before its time, then dumped him on the brink; he likewise sponsored Geoffrey Chaucer, a relative by marriage, to the point where his output also began to sound a little radical to peers of Gaunt’s mindset, then backed off. He also loyally abstained from a throne grab when it might well have been his. But when Cantor runs out of undocumented assertions that Gaunt was unusually considerate—that is, “chivalrous”—toward all his mistresses but “never used a condom” (animal-based products were in fact available) it sounds more than a little like historical press agentry. Cantor’s interesting defense of the African slave trade as hypothetically posed by its instigator, Prince Henry (the Navigator) of Portugal, who was Gaunt’s grandson by his second marriage, also has stretch marks.

An unconvincing, if energetic, plea for giving robber barons the benefit of realpolitik.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-2688-7
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2004


NonfictionALEXANDER THE GREAT by Norman F. Cantor
by Norman F. Cantor
NonfictionANTIQUITY by Norman F. Cantor
by Norman F. Cantor
NonfictionIMAGINING THE LAW by Norman F. Cantor
by Norman F. Cantor