The Black Death by John Hatcher

From this great tragedy emerges a fascinating power struggle, one that contemporary readers may see as the first stirrings of the modern ideas of liberty and social justice.

The Black Death

Publisher: Da Capo
Subtitle: A Personal History
Author: John Hatcher
Price: $27.50
Length: 368
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0306815710
US publication date: 2008-06

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.






Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.