The Black Death: An Intimate History

August 14, 2008

When history students choose the subject of their dissertations, they often opt for "the Black Death". One hopes they have selected this topic because the disastrous mortality of 1348-49 and the subsequent period of low population marked a crucial stage in the emergence of modern society. They are also engaged by the drama of the event, but find that the sources for "the great pestilence", as contemporaries called it, can often be dry. The records of the courts held by the lords of manors bring us nearer than other written evidence to the daily lives of ordinary people, but the documents convey little of the horror that communities experienced in 1349. Instead, there are long lists of deaths and inheritances, and such routine business as fining brewers for excessive ale prices. The historian has to attempt to comprehend from such evidence the social impact of the deaths of about half the population in a few months.

John Hatcher is aware of the gap between the dull documents and the appetite for an account of "what it was like" to live through the Black Death, and therefore has broken from conventional academic writing. He gives an imaginative reconstruction of the epidemic in a well-documented village, Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk. There are precedents for this type of writing in Eileen Power's Medieval People (1924) and a chapter about a fictitious village in Philip Ziegler's The Black Death (1969). This book is emphatically not an historical novel, as the interpretation is based on the Walsham court records. Information from other sources is added, so the sermons put into the mouth of the Walsham priest are based on authentic London texts, and the account of the symptoms of the disease is drawn from Italian accounts.

The hard decision in presenting an imagined past is to choose the appropriate voice. Here each chapter begins with a page or two of background as understood by historians. The text consists of chapters pursuing a chronological narrative from 1345 to 1350, written by a supposed educated (clerical) author of the time. This removes the lofty academic 21st-century perspective, but it does lead to some rather formal prose. The clerical narrator represents the epidemic mainly in spiritual and ecclesiastical terms. The main character is the priest, who behaves conscientiously throughout. During the preliminaries to the outbreak of the disease, the sense of impending doom is conveyed through church services in which the parishioners hear about the threat and are warned to avert disaster by moral reform.

Even if it is accepted that religion lay at the forefront of people's thinking, the secular dimension deserves more space. One chapter deals effectively, and rather gruesomely, with one family's experience of the disease, and this glimpse of the villager's perspective could have been given more attention. For example, religious rituals are described in interesting detail, but not the layout of peasant houses or methods of farming. Labour relations and frictions over tenancy are presented more through the eyes of employers and landlords than from the point of view of the workers and peasants.

Future students who write their dissertations on the Black Death ought not to follow Hatcher's example, as only someone with his skill and wisdom gained over decades of research could carry off such a daring enterprise.

The Black Death: An Intimate History.

By John Hatcher. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 320pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780297844754. Published 5 June 2008

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