Great Nonfiction: The Black Death, by John Hatcher

The Black Death: A Personal History
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Black Death, AKA the bubonic and/or pneumonic plague, has been characterized as the greatest disaster in human history, killing 50% of the population throughout the Middle East and Europe. While factual chronicles abound, Cambridge historian John Hatcher has now endeavored to bring his readers a more immediate sense of what it must have been like to experience the cataclysm first hand. Hatcher chose to focus on the English village of Walsham, which was struck by plague in 1349, describing what probably happened from the arrival of the earliest rumors that the pestilence was coming, to its aftermath in a world turned on its head. Part documentary study and part fiction, The Black Death recreates the event as seen through the eyes of the village priest, the two manorial landlords, and the peasants who had kept the manor running from “time out of mind.”

With scrupulous attention to detail, Hatcher describes the fearsome months before the arrival of the pestilence, when villagers could scarcely credit the stories that filtered into Walsham about the dreadful disease. In the mind of the Church, which exerted enormous influence over the populace, God was punishing mankind for their sins, and there was no remedy but to beg God for forgiveness and deliverance. Itinerant preachers and quacks swept in, bringing with them preventatives, cures, and spiritual exhortation. What was puzzling to all was the question of why God would punish the innocent along with the guilty, and many experienced a severe crisis of faith, to which they responded in various ways. Their fears multiplied along with reports that the plague was coming nearer and nearer. When, finally, the first villagers took ill, death swept in with a vengeance, creating a cruel, hellish atmosphere that persisted for months. When the scourge finally ran its course, Walsham had lost half of its 1500 inhabitants. The final third of the book deals with its after-effects, as people struggled to pick up the threads of their lives in the face of overwhelming shortages of food and labor, and the breakdown of the practical traditions and rituals that served as the foundation of manorial life. In the turmoil can be seen the roots of the labor/management conflict that continues today.

Readers looking for a historical novel will not find it in The Black Death, which focuses upon fact at the expense of depth of character. Yet it goes a long way toward helping modern readers understand what life was like during that fearsome era. Included are 44 illustrations that are tied to specific portions of the text. Unfortunately, there is some textual redundancy, but that’s a small price to pay for the accuracy with which the topic is covered. The Black Death succeeds in making real people of the victims of the plague, individuals whose deaths were horrendous and whose lives were changed forever.

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