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THE BLACK DEATH by John Hatcher

THE BLACK DEATH

A Personal History

By John Hatcher

Pub Date: June 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-306-81571-3
Publisher: Da Capo/Perseus

Wan, long-winded “docudrama” about a rural parish in mid-14th-century England devastated by the plague.

In order to explore the “intimate social history” of villagers at the time of the Black Death, Hatcher (Economic and Social History/Cambridge Univ.) chose Walsham le Willows in Suffolk because of its exceptionally good local records, then filled in the gaps with a fictional narrative employing as protagonist a parish priest he calls Master John. The author moves chronologically, from mid-1345, when Walsham’s 1,000-odd inhabitants struggled to subsist in a makeshift agrarian economy, through 1350, when the long-feared pestilence decimated half the hamlet, to the weeks and months after, when the survivors took stock. Each chapter is introduced by a factual précis, then the main text takes the reader through the paces of Master John’s duties in ministering to his flock, particularly in assisting the dying sinner to “a good death.” As he became privy to testimonies of the plague’s encroachment on England, Master John had to address his parishioners’ growing panic and assure them this scourge of God could be mollified by confession, penitential processions, pilgrimages to sacred sites and Masses. Moreover, he relayed chilling missives from the bishops and King Edward III on how to save and protect the realm. Hatcher effectively portrays the collective hysteria that gripped the land; when the disease finally struck around Easter 1349, people frequently refused to go near the dying and dead. Once the plague subsided by summer, it “let loose powerful forces that threatened upheaval in the social order, affecting not just peasants and laborers but clergy and lords.” It wasn’t all bad news: Survivors sorted inheritances, and wages soared, offering new opportunities, especially for women.

Curiously leaden, achieving neither the gravitas of history nor the liveliness of fiction.