Review of 'The Black Death: A Personal History' by John Hatcher

The Black Death - A Personal History by John Hatcher
The Black Death - A Personal History by John Hatcher.

The subject of the Black Death—the 14th-century pandemic that wiped out a significant percentage of Europe's population— holds endless fascination for many of us. And there's no shortage of good books that offer details on its origin and spread, the measures taken by local governments to avoid or control it, the panicked reactions of people who witnessed it and escaped it, the gruesome details of the disease itself and, of course, the sheer volume of deaths.

But much of this data is broad, general, spread out across the map of Europe. The student can study causes and effects, data and numbers, even, to a point, the human element. But most of the works written for a general audience lack something personal.

It is this lack John Hatcher seeks to address in his unusual new book, The Black Death: A Personal History.

By focusing on one English village and the people within and around it, Hatcher attempts to make the episode of the Black Death more immediate, more vivid, more—well, personal. He does this by drawing on the unusually rich primary sources concerning his village of choice, Walsham (now Walsham le Willows) in west Suffolk; by covering the events in detail from the first whisper of plague in Europe to its aftermath; and by weaving a narrative that revolves around everyday life. To do all this, he uses one more element: Fiction.

In his preface, Hatcher observes how even the best and most abundant sources regarding events of the times cannot tell us what individuals "experienced, heard, thought, did, and believed." Court records can only supply the bare bones of the events -- notices of marriages and deaths; petty and serious crimes; difficulties with livestock; the election of villagers to positions of responsibility.

The general reader, lacking the intimate acquaintance with the details of daily life that a specialist in the era enjoys, cannot really fill in the gaps with his own imagination. Hatcher's solution is to fill in those gaps for you.

To this end, the author has created a few fictional events and fleshed out actual events with fictional dialogue and imagined actions.

He has even created a fictional character: the parish priest, Master John. It is through his eyes that the reader sees the events of the Black Death unfold. For the most part, Master John is a good choice for a character with whom the modern reader can identify; he is intelligent, compassionate, educated, and good-hearted. While most readers won't empathize with his lifestyle or excessive religiosity, they should understand it as defining not only what a parish priest was supposed to be but how most medieval folk viewed the world of the mundane and the holy, the natural and the supernatural.

With the help of Master John, Hatcher reveals life in Walsham before the Black Death and how the first rumors of plague on the continent affected the villagers. Thanks to the late arrival of the disease in this particular part of England, Walsham residents had many months to prepare for and dread the coming plague while hoping against hope that it would overlook their village. Rumors of the most unlikely sort ran rampant, and Master John was hard-pressed to keep his parishioners from panicking. Their natural impulses included fleeing, retreating from public, and, most commonly, flocking to the parish church for spiritual comfort and to do penance, lest the Great Mortality take them while their souls were still heavy with sin.

Through John and a few other characters (such as Agnes Chapman, who watched her husband die a slow, painful death), the arrival and horrifying effects of the plague are revealed to the reader in grisly detail. And of course, the priest is faced with the profound questions of faith that such harrowing and persistent misery is sure to engender: Why is God doing this? Why do the good and the evil die just as painfully? Could this be the end of the world?

Once the pestilence had run its course, there were still more trials to undergo by Master John and his parishioners. Too many priests had died, and the young novices that came to fill the positions were much too inexperienced -- yet what could be done? The numerous deaths left properties abandoned, uncared for, and in disarray. There was too much to do and too few able-bodied workers to do it.

A marked change was taking place in England: Laborers could, and did, charge more for their services; women were employed in occupations ordinarily reserved for men; and people refused to take possession of the property they'd inherited from dead relatives. The hold that tradition had once had on life in Suffolk was rapidly giving way, as extraordinary circumstances made people look for new and practical solutions.

All in all, Hatcher succeeds in bringing the Black Death closer to home through his use of fiction. But make no mistake: this is a history. Hatcher supplies extensive background in each chapter preface, and large portions of each chapter are primarily exposition, chock-full of historical fact and supported by extensive end-notes (resulting, unfortunately, in occasional redundancy). There is also a section of plates with period artwork that illustrates events covered in the book, which is nice; but a glossary would have been useful for newcomers. Although the author does sometimes get inside his character's heads, revealing their opinions, worries and fears, the depth of character one would find (or hope to find) in literature is not really there. And that's OK; this isn't really historical fiction, much less a historical novel. It is, as Hatcher puts it, a "docudrama."

In his preface, John Hatcher expresses the hope that his work will encourage readers to dig into some history books. I feel fairly certain that many readers who are previously unfamiliar with the topic will do just that. But I also think that The Black Death: A Personal History would make excellent assigned reading for undergraduates and even high school students. And historical novelists will find it valuable for the necessary details of the Black Death and life in later medieval England.