The Black Plague has left such an indelible stain on human history that the mere mention of it can give people the chills. Though it’s been almost 700 years since the plague swept across Eurasia, carrying off roughly a third of the entire population, the enormity of the disaster is referenced whenever a new, potentially epidemic public health scare rears its ugly head.
We know the broad strokes of the Black Death, the rampant virulance, the inescapable uncertainty and fear. In The Black Death: A Personal History, author, historian, and Cambridge University medieval scholar John Hatcher tries to tell us what we don’t know about the pestilence, that is, how everyday individuals dealt with this nightmare.
Hatcher focuses the unfolding events of The Black Death on the tiny hamlet of Walsham, in the east of England. Though records from this era are spotty at best, Walsham’s documentary evidence was exceptionally well preserved. The medieval bureaucracy responsible for levying fines and taxes, conferring transfers of property and goods, settling intra-village disputes, and tracking the births and deaths of residents, left a fairly navigable paper trail that has allowed Hatcher to develop a convincing, historically-grounded sequence of events.
The changes noted at each manor court session is evidence of the significant effect that the Great Pestilence had on Walsham. It is this rough skeleton of a community that Hatcher embellishes upon, giving depth and weight to the trials and travails of the common folk, using his extensive knowledge of medieval society and manners to create fully realized residents, some of whom represent actual people, others who are composites or inventions of the types of people one would have found in such a place.
Hatcher’s protagonist is the fictitious Master John, a devoted cleric and parish priest of Walsham, created to stand in for a religious figure lost to history. John is a paragon of virtue, executing his job with virtually unshakable faith and extreme solemnity. Initially, he comes off a little stiff, a little too perfect, but as the world around him begins to unravel, Hatcher reveals that John is more than just a one-dimensional stand-in for the reader’s perspective.
Though he is a caring, kind man and certainly far greater in his integrity than his peers, John is a man of his time, and how he views the growing disorder that threatens the traditional class structure is the book’s best lesson on the relationship between entrenched, authoritative institutions and the people they ostensibly serve. Hatcher makes John easy to respect, and thus the reader feels comfortable following him into the past.
Hatcher spends plenty of time introducing not only Walsham and its residents, but the traditions and rituals which guided their lives. He opens the book with a particularly stirring chapter that has Master John providing last rites to a dying villager. In this vignette, we see how medieval people viewed death, their religious and spiritual lives, and also their relationship with their friends and neighbors. From here, Hatcher is able to build outward and ultimately give life to every facet of the community, be it the church, the farms, or the local pub, where ribaldry and intoxication make for a number of amusing anecdotes.
Much of The Black Death concerns the ever-deepening dread that eeks its way toward Walsham. The Black Plague was a global crisis in a time of remote and isolated outposts. The dusty road that led to Walsham was the only connection the village had to the outside world, and so they had to wait for travellers, merchants, and wandering preachers to stroll through and leave them bits of information. Noone is quite certain what is happening, just that scores are dying and the plague draws closer every day.
Hatcher’s deft illustration of this forboding terror is chilling. He has truly made the fear and helplessness that the residents of Walsham felt palpable, and created a new dimension of understanding this vast and distant tragedy. Readers need not be overwhelmed by skyrocketing death counts and colored maps depicting the westward sweep of mortality; when Hatcher explores the emotions, concerns, and hopes of individuals like Master John, Agnes Chapman, and Margery Wodebite, the true nature of those dark days in 1348 seem like only yesterday.
Some of the most interesting action in The Black Death occurs once the plague begins to peter out. Suddenly the survivors must confront the realities of their new world. The Black Plague destroyed much of what the medieval English took for granted: prayers to God for succor went unanswered, the Church and monarchy seemed impotent in the face of an epic natural disaster, and the high rate of mortality tipped the scales of the economy in favor of peasants. Just a year earlier, the Lords and Ladies of Walsham benefitted from the glut of labor, paying meagre wages for back-breaking work.
Now, with the labor force diminished, those able-bodied men left standing could demand exorbitant salaries with perks, and women could find their way into the workforce for the first time. Emboldened by their newfound power, the peasantry sought to expand their influence and redefine their relationship with those who saw them as mere fodder. It’s a fascinating power struggle, one that contemporary readers may see as the first stirrings of the modern ideas of liberty and social justice.
Though there are a few moments where The Black Death allows its colorful cast of characters to fall into dry, less-than-authentic scholarly discussions, Hatcher has produced a riveting account of one of history’s most immense and devastating events. His personal touch, and the voices and identities he gives to those who for so long have only been counted as indistinct numbers, drive the reality of the situation home. These were real people. They cared about their families, their livelihoods, and their communities. The Black Death is less about the invisible plague that took lives than it is about the lives it took, lives that, thanks to Hatcher’s meticulous research and vivid imagination, are no longer invisible.