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In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, world-renowned scholar John Hatcher re-creates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived-and died-during the Black Death (1345-50), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly inside those tumultuous times and describes in fasci In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, world-renowned scholar John Hatcher re-creates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived-and died-during the Black Death (1345-50), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly inside those tumultuous times and describes in fascinating detail the day-to-day existence of people struggling with the tragic effects of the plague. Dramatic scenes portray how contemporaries must have felt and thought about these momentous events: what they knew and didn't know about the horrors of the disease, what they believed about death and God's vengeance, and how they tried to make sense of it all despite frantic rumors, frightening tales, and fearful sermons.


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In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, world-renowned scholar John Hatcher re-creates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived-and died-during the Black Death (1345-50), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly inside those tumultuous times and describes in fasci In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, world-renowned scholar John Hatcher re-creates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived-and died-during the Black Death (1345-50), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly inside those tumultuous times and describes in fascinating detail the day-to-day existence of people struggling with the tragic effects of the plague. Dramatic scenes portray how contemporaries must have felt and thought about these momentous events: what they knew and didn't know about the horrors of the disease, what they believed about death and God's vengeance, and how they tried to make sense of it all despite frantic rumors, frightening tales, and fearful sermons.

30 review for The Black Death: A Personal History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Petra-X

    The best of times and the worst of times is true in every generation often depending on how much money you have, or at least patronage from someone who does. But until the modern era it was always the worst of times when your locality got infected with the Black Death. There was no knowledge of germs or rats as vectors for disease, it was all miasmas and punishment from the Christian God who at that time was conceived as vengeful and harsh. The later Christian God who is ever-loving and forgivin The best of times and the worst of times is true in every generation often depending on how much money you have, or at least patronage from someone who does. But until the modern era it was always the worst of times when your locality got infected with the Black Death. There was no knowledge of germs or rats as vectors for disease, it was all miasmas and punishment from the Christian God who at that time was conceived as vengeful and harsh. The later Christian God who is ever-loving and forgiving (but is just as much involved in war, death and torture) was as much a product of our times as their god was of theirs. So preachers preached and people begged forgiveness. But if the disease came calling on a member of your household, the entire house was walled up for 40 days. People were lucky if they had someone who bring and leave them food, or they had a vegetable garden they could sneak out to from a hole in the boarded-up house. It is estimated that many died of starvation and that was put down to plague. Some villages suffered 80% mortality and in one week in London there were 7,000 deaths recorded. But the records are considered underestimates since the people maintaining the records often died themselves and there was no-one to take over. Many deaths went unrecorded with the bodies just thrown on to the death carts as they passed and thence into mass graves. There was no help for rich or poor, not from gods or doctors. The disease was the scourge of Europe for over 400 years. Compared to that, it seems like we are living in the best of times now.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    This excellent book is a creative reconstruction of a village in crisis, from 1345 - 1350. The author chose the village of Walsham (now Walsham-le-Willows) in North West Suffolk, as it had good local records for him to plunder. Saying that, there are no diaries or any personal records and, so, the author does make the book more intimate by creative writing and creating characters - such as Master John, responsible for the villagers spiritual needs. However, where possible he uses real names, peo This excellent book is a creative reconstruction of a village in crisis, from 1345 - 1350. The author chose the village of Walsham (now Walsham-le-Willows) in North West Suffolk, as it had good local records for him to plunder. Saying that, there are no diaries or any personal records and, so, the author does make the book more intimate by creative writing and creating characters - such as Master John, responsible for the villagers spiritual needs. However, where possible he uses real names, people and statistics. The Black Death first made its fearful appearance in England in Weymouth, but the villagers begin to hear rumours about the plague long before. Travellers, sailors, merchants begin to bring tales of a terrible plague and the villagers are victims of heresay and rumour. They begin to make what preparations they can by taking religious pilgrimages and, urged by Master John, making confession. Master John reads aloud a letter from the bishop, in which it is said, "If the latest rumours are true, then the plague has already arrived in the Far South and West of England." Strangers are both feared, in case they bring plague, yet welcomed for news they might bring. The author also describes in great detail the ritual of Master John attending a death bed scene before the plague, which involved many people from the community, the dying persons family and the Church. If we contrast this with the hurried, impersonal confessions (for those lucky enough to receive them at all) for those suffering from plague, it shows how difficult it was for the society to cope with the sheer numbers of people ill and dying. For plague brought fear of infection and family members were often too scared to nurse or care for their dying relatives. Even if someone could be brought to administer the last rights, everyone was over stretched, exhausted and over whelmed, and often the dying person was too ill to make their confession, as the illness struck so quickly. In 1349 the plague struck Walsham, close to Easter Day. By late June, when it departed, the village population was cut in half. There were no tenant deaths reported in March and 103 reported in June. For a small community like Walsham, the number of people lost was devastating. John Hatcher re-creates the people of the village extremely well. We feel their anticipation and fear, the horror of the plague finally coming to them and then the aftermath. For the plague changed England forever. People who had earlier been happy to take any work offered, now found that labour was in demand. They were unwilling to work for the same wages, or even to take over land and cottages left vacant. More more women than usual were left to inherit, as the men in their family died. The elite of the country were alarmed at the empowerment by the lower orders by the massive mortality rates. The King issued the 'Ordinance of Labourers', compelling the common people to work when required and trying to force them to accept the same wages and conditions as before the Black Death. In reality, those left were more concerned with their own lands, and those who had normally had a surplus of labour to choose from had to offer more wages and incentives than normal - if they could find anyone willing to work at all. This is an excellent read and gives a very good representation of the experience of living in those times and what it meant for those left behind once the devastation passed. I enjoyed reading it very much and would recommend it highly.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    Be ye not fooled: this is a novel. That's what the author means by "a personal history." This Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University (!) was so cowed by the lack of historical documentation on the plague in England that he felt compelled to create fictional characters and have them do fictional things (based on what contemporary rural denizens could have, might have done). Each chapter covers a brief period of time in the 1340s, with the final chapter covering 1350, and is preced Be ye not fooled: this is a novel. That's what the author means by "a personal history." This Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University (!) was so cowed by the lack of historical documentation on the plague in England that he felt compelled to create fictional characters and have them do fictional things (based on what contemporary rural denizens could have, might have done). Each chapter covers a brief period of time in the 1340s, with the final chapter covering 1350, and is preceded by one or two pages of historical fact in italics. The problem with this melding of 10% fact and 90% fiction is that it doesn't work. Neither history nor fiction devotees will be left happy and satisfied. The fiction sections are dry and wooden and astoundingly repetitive. A brief example: On p. 191, a man named John Blakey, the steward to a landowner named Lady Rose, goes to the village of Walsham to try to bring some order to the chaos of her estate after many laborers have been stricken and killed by the plague. Blakey "is shocked to find conditions far worse" than they had expected. One paragraph later he sits "in shocked silence" as the hayward (the person in charge of fences and enclosures) tells him that tenants are no longer bothering to perform their farm labor for the Lady. On the next page he is "spluttering" and can hardly compose himself. On the next page he has been "shocked into silence." On the next page, still in conversation with the hayward, he sits "in stunned silence." On p. 243 he is yet again "stunned into silence" (again, by the hayward). A googlebooks search shows 22 results for "shocked" in the book and 26 for "silence," although those are certainly low estimates since not all pages of the book are searchable. About half of England's rural population was killed by the Black Death (or as the author irritatingly puts it, multiple times, was "scythed"). One fictional character who escapes the Grim Reaper's scythe is a well-off landowner who, on the theory that foul but harmless vapors might counteract the foul and harmful vapors that spread pestilence, has all the manor privies emptied into a brass cooking pot, which he leans deeply into with a towel draped over his head, inhaling. This causes incessant diarrhea and vomiting, but spares his life. Then we have a character named Simon, who, drinking in a packed tavern, falls off his bench, screaming and pointing to a large swelling on his upper thigh. (The plague often produced giant boils in the armpit or groin area, called buboes.) The tavern customers "did indeed see a great lump in his crotch" and ran screaming from the tavern. Whereupon Simon chased after them chortling and "exposing his huge erect cock..." No, even that could not make this tale interesting.

  4. 4 out of 5

    ghost

    This could have been done better. In fact, I think a similar concept was applied when Barbara Tuchman wrote 'A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century'. She created a very cohesive narrative by selecting a relatively obscure figure out of history and tracing the events of the century as they had happened to him, on both a grand and a very personal level. The difference here is that her figure, Enguerrand de Coucy, was a very real person, as opposed to Hatcher's Master John, who is a wo This could have been done better. In fact, I think a similar concept was applied when Barbara Tuchman wrote 'A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century'. She created a very cohesive narrative by selecting a relatively obscure figure out of history and tracing the events of the century as they had happened to him, on both a grand and a very personal level. The difference here is that her figure, Enguerrand de Coucy, was a very real person, as opposed to Hatcher's Master John, who is a work of invention. The narrative in question, Hatcher's, can't seem to decide if a novel should be written or if a scholarly work is at hand, and it suffers from the indecision. As a scholarly work, the book is at fault for including so much fiction and for getting mired in descriptions of daily work and administrative tasks in a 14th century village as opposed to descriptions of the affliction and aftermath (which is, of course, why one opts to read the book). As a fictional piece, it lacks from any semblance of a storyline, developed characters, or any kind of investment or emotion on the character's part. A better alternative would be to read John Kelly's 'The Great Mortality' for a nonfiction treatment of the subject, and perhaps Geraldine Brooks' 'Year of Wonders' for a fictional piece set during a later epidemic.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lucy Barnhouse

    I found this book both impressive and engaging. Hatcher (an eminent medieval historian) himself describes the genre of this unusual book as resembling a "docudrama," which is probably the best way of encapsulating it. It's likely to appeal to the interested layperson, but could also be useful for classroom use by history instructors. Hatcher uses the surviving records of an English village (reaching beyond it to nearby towns and manors, and, where relevant, to continental Europe.) He then recons I found this book both impressive and engaging. Hatcher (an eminent medieval historian) himself describes the genre of this unusual book as resembling a "docudrama," which is probably the best way of encapsulating it. It's likely to appeal to the interested layperson, but could also be useful for classroom use by history instructors. Hatcher uses the surviving records of an English village (reaching beyond it to nearby towns and manors, and, where relevant, to continental Europe.) He then reconstructs/imagines the experience of this community not only during the first outbreak of the Black Death, but during the years immediately preceding and following it. This enriches considerably its potential usefulness, in my view, as well as its interest. Hatcher, while inventing conversations and motives, keeps remarkably close to his documents, and explains how they survive and are used by historians. Impressively, Hatcher covers not only economy (prices and landholding,) and social status, but also how the plague affected governance, ecclesiastical administration, popular piety, and, not least, the roles of women in agricultural society. His protagonists include a cleric, members of the nobility and gentry, manor officials, a monk, and a diverse group of peasants, It's a meticulously crafted and a fascinating work.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ciara

    although i found this book strangely compelling while i was reading it, i probably wouldn't ever want to give it a re-read. the author is a prolific historian who specializes in the middle ages, apparently, & has written a bunch of straightforward history books about the black plague & the economic development of europe in medieval times. he bills this book as a kind of "docudrama," focusing on the mid-sized english village of walsham during the years leading up to the black plague, the plague m although i found this book strangely compelling while i was reading it, i probably wouldn't ever want to give it a re-read. the author is a prolific historian who specializes in the middle ages, apparently, & has written a bunch of straightforward history books about the black plague & the economic development of europe in medieval times. he bills this book as a kind of "docudrama," focusing on the mid-sized english village of walsham during the years leading up to the black plague, the plague months, & the aftermath. he wanted to write about the way the plague impacted the everyday lives of serfs & villagers, but there's pretty much no verifiable historical evidence that would enable a historian to write that kind of personal account, since most toiling vollagers back then were illiterate & their literate counterparts were largely clergy & manor holders who were pretty unconcerned about the day-to-day affairs of regular people, so long as they were looking after their crops properly & paying attention in church. i guess the narrator of the story is supposed to be a member of the clergy recounting the events of the plague from a distance of a few years. the primary protaganist is the village priest, master john (self-insert?), a "good" priest who is devoted to his asceticism & obligation to care for the villagers' mortal souls. there is so much religion in this book, it blew my mind. i am a life-long atheist who actually wasn't allowed as a child to have anything to do with religion. i wasn't allowed to, say, watch "the flying nun," lest it convert me to catholicism. i wasn't allowed to stay the night at the houses of friends who might pray in front of me before bed. there is so much about religion that i just don't know or understand, & what's more, i kind of don't care. so reading a book with a priest as a main character totally blew my mind. there was this one part where, after the plague, a female villager who became wealthy through inherited land decides to go on a pilgrimage to rome. she is told that she can get a plenary indulgence because "the pope holds the keys to a vault wherein is stored the excess charitable goodwill accrued by jesus, the virgin mary, & all the saints & apostles during their lives, which was more than enough to secure their own salvations." i was like, are you fucking KIDDING ME? WHO COULD POSSIBLY BELIEVE THIS SHIT? like the pope can just open a door & be like, "yeah, here's a little salvation for you, & here's some for you, & yeah, you're all good on the hail marys now. have an awesome eternal salvation." it made me realize that even though i have always been fairly tolerant of religious folks (so long as they don't try to convert me), i have never actually consciously believed that any of them REALLY believed in god. i figured maybe their spirituality gave them a mooring for a moral compass, but surely they knew the god thing was totally bogus, right? when i expressed this sentiment to my quaker, meeting-attending, god-beliving-in boyfriend...man, he got really pissed. anyway, this is an okay book. there are probably far more interesting, less religion-obsessed books about the black plague though.

  7. 5 out of 5

    uk

    a bitter but instructive example for the dire consequences a lethal pandemia can have on the political, religious, cultural, psychological, and mental foundations of society - in quite a few respects not so very much different from today. the human factor.

  8. 5 out of 5

    April Cote

    The author took facts from historical records and tried to turn it into a fictional story so readers could better understand the life of those who lived through the Black Death. It didn't work. It never sounded like a story, it read like a text book. It was one long church sermon, since most records were kept by priests and monks and from their point of view, it was brought by sin and they thought they could pray it away.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tanya

    I expected this book to be a grisly account of those suffering the disease - perhaps that appealed to me on some level. But that's not what it is at all (and perhaps that's why readers on this site haven't liked it more -- they wanted the macabre details). The section of "The Black Death" dealing with the actual infection was brief. The majority of the book focused on the months leading up to the outbreak, as rumors of pestilence to the south reached Walsham (a small village in England) and the I expected this book to be a grisly account of those suffering the disease - perhaps that appealed to me on some level. But that's not what it is at all (and perhaps that's why readers on this site haven't liked it more -- they wanted the macabre details). The section of "The Black Death" dealing with the actual infection was brief. The majority of the book focused on the months leading up to the outbreak, as rumors of pestilence to the south reached Walsham (a small village in England) and the citizens were called to repentance, and the social turmoil that followed the decimation of the population. Hatcher sucked the very marrow out of Walsham's primary sources; though the fourteenth century overall is nearly undocumented, the local records for Walsham and its environs are strong. The Black Death is a somewhat overworked topic, yet Thatcher adds something new to the scholarship. Not only is his "personal history" approach unique, but it also provides a clearer understanding than anything I've read before of how the black plague loosened the bonds of feudalism and undermined the authority of the Catholic clergy. Overall, though the book was different from what I expected, I found it engaging, and a very worthwhile read for anyone interested in social history.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Daniela

    It's historical fiction, so... where's the fiction? Sure, there are made-up characters but judging by the historical facts presented at the beginning of each chapter, there really wasn't much fiction going on. Plus, the fact that the peak of the Black Death was skimmed over while giving so much attention to its effects in the upcoming years kinda bothered me. Yes, it is an important part of history and brought many changes to the land and way of living, but I picked up thia book to know how peop It's historical fiction, so... where's the fiction? Sure, there are made-up characters but judging by the historical facts presented at the beginning of each chapter, there really wasn't much fiction going on. Plus, the fact that the peak of the Black Death was skimmed over while giving so much attention to its effects in the upcoming years kinda bothered me. Yes, it is an important part of history and brought many changes to the land and way of living, but I picked up thia book to know how people lived day-to-day through the plague which is not something you can talk lightly about. But, that's just me, I guess I wanted more drama and less economy and religious processions. The writing is terrible, this book is so dense it took me almost two months to complete... and it'd not even that long, so go figure... the cold historical facts and the illustrations were the best of this book, by far. There was so much filler... and it was so poorly written. It truly is a shame, because it's very obvious that the author has plenty of knowledge of this era, but it's just impossible to read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This is one of the very few books that I have not been able to finish. The combination of fiction and fact in this book was difficult to read and did not mesh well. I felt that the facts were incredibly interesting but the story was incredibly boring. This would have been much better off as a non-fiction piece.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    Godology seemed to have added terrible distress to those destined only to live another 24 hours

  13. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    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 wh 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.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    I quite enjoyed this history of the Black Death as seen through the eyes of those who lived at the time. It's written quite differently, with a very strong dose of historical facts which are linked together with some educated guesses, and it works very well. It gives an incredibly intimate impression of what it was like to live through the pestilence. My favorite aspect of this was probably what it was like while people were waiting for the disease to arrive - to start with, they assumed they wou I quite enjoyed this history of the Black Death as seen through the eyes of those who lived at the time. It's written quite differently, with a very strong dose of historical facts which are linked together with some educated guesses, and it works very well. It gives an incredibly intimate impression of what it was like to live through the pestilence. My favorite aspect of this was probably what it was like while people were waiting for the disease to arrive - to start with, they assumed they wouldn't be affected (only non-Christians were being punished), but then Avignon was struck (where the Pope was) and France and London, and you could tell it was getting closer and closer. The feeling of impending doom was something I'd never really thought about before, because I'd never really tried to visualize it through the eyes of people at the time. This book also neatly emphasizes how quickly the plague tore through England - 2-3 months and it was gone (although it did recur a few times, between the 1350s and 1660s, it was never as virulent). The book also neatly hints at the incredible upheaval Society experienced over the next few centuries, and how it wasn't so much a matter of the evil lords wanting to shove the nasty peasants back into their boxes, but it was a matter of a whole society trying to adjust to a very, very new reality, which isn't clear and is difficult to navigate, whilst at the same time, trying to cope with guilt for surviving and trying to rationalize why God inflicted the plague in the first place. Were their little sins not little at all? Why did children, who really had no major sins, die, but those who were serious sinners survive? I wouldn't suggest that people with absolutely no basic knowledge of the black death read this one. It assumes a basic familiarity, but makes a really nice alternate perspective. 3 stars. I liked it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ben Hector

    A work of docu-fiction that aims to elaborate on the existing facts concerning the black death in the small town of Walsham in Suffolk, a location chosen for the abundance of surviving records. Unfortunately the book doesn't quite work as a piece of fiction suffering from editorial issues and a lack of imagination. It's main problem is repetition - it manages to illustrate the same point over and over particularly with the peasants revolt in the second half of the book, then there's the obvious A work of docu-fiction that aims to elaborate on the existing facts concerning the black death in the small town of Walsham in Suffolk, a location chosen for the abundance of surviving records. Unfortunately the book doesn't quite work as a piece of fiction suffering from editorial issues and a lack of imagination. It's main problem is repetition - it manages to illustrate the same point over and over particularly with the peasants revolt in the second half of the book, then there's the obvious repetition in the writing style - 'from time out of mind' being Hatcher's favourite go to phrase. That said I did find Master John's arc to be quite sad. Despite being agnostic myself, I found his actions & purity of belief admirable. In the first half, Hatcher does well to show the power of religion at this time. The Medieval English calendar was centered largely around religious festivals, and the villagers looked to the parish priest (in the book's case 'Master John') to give them guidance and support in their day to day lives. Master John knows them intimately; he hears their confessions, visits them at their homes, and executes elaborate funeral processions for family members when they die. One section of the book gives a vivid depiction of Master John going through the last rites for a villager. It's a lengthy affair, requiring help from a chaplain and several assistants to carry various religious paraphenalia (holy oil, a boy called a 'pyx', to name a few). Upon the team's arrival the villager is usually in an unfit state to be mouthing words and answering lengthy questions. At one point, Master John puts a bit of bread (the 'body of the host') in the dying mans mouth. He can barely swallow so he sputters it, sending bits of the saliva-coated bread into the team's faces. It's an important event however, as it gives the villager the last chance to confess any sins and ensures a smooth journey to heaven. Religion even solidifies the social hierarchy and the class system, as it is 'gods intention' to have everyone in their 'right place'. Ultimately there was a very heavy emphasis to live a life free from sin, which is instilled in the locals from a very young age through graphic paintings of heaven and hell on the church stained glass windows. Naturally, there is pandemonium when the villagers first hear of the oncoming pestilence. They reassess their religious lives and force impossible questions upon the parish priest: 'Why is god tormenting us? We have not sinned. We have done everything you have asked of us. We are following gods wishes.' The priest explains that the pestilence is gods anguish at their sins, and encourages them to repent more than ever before. He consults his elders, particularly one monk at Bury St. Edmunds who has spent his life looming over Tomes getting a rounded view on things. The monk seems excited to tell Master John about a similar description to the pestilence in an ancient Greek book by Thucydides, but ultimately offers no practical advice leaving John majorly disheartened. The villagers live in fear; some drown their sorrows with drink and debauchery, but Master John tries to keep his flock in check, making most of the village double their attendance to church. Some go off on pilgrimages to holy locations like the 'Fountain of the Virgin', are visited by religious fanatics and charlatans who make quick money from selling the desperate villagers supposedly 'holy' items, and most worry immensely over sudden death and the possibility of not getting their last rites and being lost to Hell. The richer villagers form fraternities and guarantee each other last rites and a consecrated burial. Unfortunately 50% of the population are wiped out and the bodies are piling up so fast they can't possibly bury them in time. Priests and their underlings are afraid to go near the villagers in order to not catch the pestilence themselves so they either don't, or they charge exorbitant rates for their service (which people pay if they can). People are left hysterical when their loved ones pass without the correct burial and psychological torment manifests deeply as they consider their loved one's journey to hell. One vivid scene see's a diseased woman speaking through the slats in her window to her neighbour, telling her to take her healthy daughter and look after her when she dies. People are crawling out onto the road in delirious states (high temperatures were a symptom) and they lay there to die. The poorest of the population come round with carts and shift the bodies for a pittance, dumping them over the hedge of a nearby field. Mass graves are dug piling 10's of bodys on top of each other. Master John works long hours and exhausts himself administering to his parishioners. After the pestilence, so much of the population has been wiped out that the social hierarchy is reordered somewhat. There is so much work going for so little people that the peasants start to charge double what they used to, and the land owners pay for fear of yielding zero in the coming harvest. The peasants start to eat good bread, not the stuff that's 50% sawdust that they are used to eating, and they also request ale and hearty meals in their breaks from work. People inherit land from family members who died in the pestilence, so they begin to stop working for other people and tend to their own land instead. The order of things is disrupted so much that the King even orders legal action to be taken on any workers taking more than their usual rate, aswell as the employers who hire at them. It's such a free-for-all that there is corruption on all levels, including the stewards who are working on behalf of the Lady's and Lords. The more trustworthy stewards try to get stocks built in front of the village church, but can't find a carpenter to make them at the usual price! Ultimately, the pestilence loosens the social hierarchy and puts another steak in the heart of the feudal system that pretty much expires by the 17th century (I think there was a law passed that made it illegal in Britain? I can't recall). And sadly, Master John becomes more and more depressed with priesthood, and the sins of his flock (the church also supported the restrictive laws, seeing the workers as transgressing their social boundaries). One day while performing mass, Master John keels over and dies within minutes. Luckily, he was ably confessed by the two priests at his side, guaranteeing him a safe passage to heaven.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Micha

    The people of Walsham knew that the Black Death was coming. At first, it seemed to them that “such a sickness, if it could be believed at all, was occurring in the strangest of places at the very ends of the earth, where no Englishman had ever been.” Yet the stories being told in cottages, alehouses, monasteries, and manor halls became ever more detailed. “This pestilence, it was said, was borne by the wind in clouds of poison, and was contaminating all those it touched, bringing sudden death to The people of Walsham knew that the Black Death was coming. At first, it seemed to them that “such a sickness, if it could be believed at all, was occurring in the strangest of places at the very ends of the earth, where no Englishman had ever been.” Yet the stories being told in cottages, alehouses, monasteries, and manor halls became ever more detailed. “This pestilence, it was said, was borne by the wind in clouds of poison, and was contaminating all those it touched, bringing sudden death to thousands upon thousands of Tartars and Saracens.” For two long years they heard stories about the plague ravaging the east. Finally, people started to believe that “it is only a matter of time before he arrives in this kingdom.” After all, “the most powerful prayers and penitential processions proffered in their multitudes have not yet been sufficient to stay the hand of an angry God.” The Black Death duly arrived in Weymouth by ship in June 1348. “The terror raging less than a hundred miles from the doors of Walsham’s residents combined with their beliefs and the teachings of their priests to feed an almost obsessive concern with sin.” The plague was clearly God’s will, though “contemporaries had great difficulty in explaining why God found it necessary to inflict it.” More pilgrims than ever before made their way to local shrines. “Holy water was drunk, sprinkled over food, loved ones, and animals, thrown over paths and fields, and used to moisten almost every doorway in Walsham by constant dousings.” In addition, people purchased “pieces of bone from the skeletons of saints, hairs from hallowed heads, fingers from sacred hands, and pieces of wood from the cross of Christ, or at the least a chunk of wood from the coffin in which he had been laid.” They did all of this because they were terrified of dying suddenly, “unable to confess adequately or to express sufficient contrition.” “It is impossible to overstress the importance of a “good death,” which was essential to ensure the safe journey of the soul from this world to the next, shortening the time spent in Purgatory, and the easing the pains while there.” Few plague victims were “able to respond to the urgings of their confessors, and many were incapable of even understanding what was said to them.” Because of this, the plague posed a threat not only to people's bodies but also their souls. When the plague left Walsham in June 1349, half of its residents were dead. This left the remaining residents in an interesting position. “Men and women who had spent most of their lives desperately seeking poorly paid work in competition with scores of their fellows, hoping without expectation one day to acquire a piece of land or a cottage, or even the ability to keep themselves and their families moderately well fed, clothed, and warm, now found themselves sought after by employers and landlords.” Land, which had always been scarce, was suddenly there for the taking. “Increasingly, the old ways of doing things, the old levels of rents and wages, and the old customs were no longer accepted without question.” In time, this led to “revolutionary changes in economic and social institutions, including the decline of serfdom and feudalism, and a golden age for peasants and laborers.” These are some of the insights I’ve gathered from reading John Hatcher’s excellent “The Black Death: A Personal History.” The book convincingly recreates the lives of ordinary people living in Walsham at the time of the plague. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this period of history.

  17. 4 out of 5

    TE

    I've read innumerable books about the Black Death, from just about every perspective and angle imaginable, but I always enjoy those which bring a much-needed personal and intimate view to this tragic area of study. Some scholars have difficulty with this type of history, as, admittedly, a fair amount of it is conjecture, but it imparts a much-needed dimension, and is far more accessible to a more general audience than more academic works with which many people are less familiar and comfortable. I've read innumerable books about the Black Death, from just about every perspective and angle imaginable, but I always enjoy those which bring a much-needed personal and intimate view to this tragic area of study. Some scholars have difficulty with this type of history, as, admittedly, a fair amount of it is conjecture, but it imparts a much-needed dimension, and is far more accessible to a more general audience than more academic works with which many people are less familiar and comfortable. It takes the form of a chronological account of the epidemic, which moved across the continent in a slow, unstoppable wave. Some of the most poignant scenes are the accounts of the people/characters who realize that a looming catastrophe is coming, but are seemingly powerless to do anything about it, or to protect themselves or their loved ones. Rather, they stoically await their fate as death closes in on their small village from all sides, like a flood, rendering escape impossible. This book is a very good introduction to this vital event in world history. Some more in-depth knowledge of the topic would enhance it even more for readers, as there is a minimal amount of background information regarding the plague elsewhere than in England, but that's really the whole point of this work: to focus on one particular area and to provide an in-depth look at how it affected persons spanning the entirety of the social scale, from the wealthiest landowners (who weren't all that wealthy, comparatively, in this case), to the most destitute and landless, whose daily existence was a struggle for survival. When one reads other accounts of the wake of the plague, it becomes more clear and profound just how devastating this event was, and how it shaped the world in which we now live, despite occurring nearly seven centuries ago. This is what many would refer to as "micro" history, rather than macrohistory, of which there are plenty regarding this topic. It's not a novel or historical fiction, which the author eschewed in favor of a more traditional historical narrative, which I think many readers were expecting, but it provides a good balance between illustrating the various characters and the effect this event had on their lives, and providing a fairly thorough account of this specific period in world history.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    Fascinating insight into a different world

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ailsa

    As a literature student, my academic interests have recently tended towards contemporary fiction and particularly what gets called "historiographical metafiction": fictional works that blur the line between history and fiction, and ultimately force the question of how all of what we "know" about the past is constructed. So I was intrigued to find a history book, by a well-respected historian, that seems to be participating in similar kinds of modes as some of the ficitonal works I've been studyin As a literature student, my academic interests have recently tended towards contemporary fiction and particularly what gets called "historiographical metafiction": fictional works that blur the line between history and fiction, and ultimately force the question of how all of what we "know" about the past is constructed. So I was intrigued to find a history book, by a well-respected historian, that seems to be participating in similar kinds of modes as some of the ficitonal works I've been studying. In The Black Death John Hatcher sets out to give us an "insider's view" of the devastating plague that swept through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. He does this by focusing on one small Sussex village, and recounting the events as they unfold. But, although the records for Walsham and the surrounding area are particularly good, Hatcher is upfront about the things they couldn't tell him: how exactly individuals behaved in the face of the crisis, what they felt, said and did, or even the name of the parish priest. So, in order to get his reader "inside" the history of the times he decides to make (presumably extremely well) educated guesses and narrate from the position of a clergyman writing several decades after the events of the book, whilst he, the objective historian, opens each chapter with an italicised introduction, which gives context, explanation etc. So this isn't going to be a book for the historical purists out there, but I found Hatcher's attempts very compelling. The balance between historical fact and narrative drama is competently handled and I sped through reading this in a day: for me, even though I knew what would happen (i.e: the plague would arrive in Britain, a lot of people would die) I nevertheless found this a page-turner. Which is surely a testament to Hatcher's writing style and presentation of events. Hatcher also builds a picture of the late medieval world without being overtly expository. Telling details abound to build up a picture of life for every day people - although I would be interested to know if this struck readers without a prior familiarity with the period. He also transformed actual historical figures (the lords and ladies of the local manners, for example) into compelling characters, reading human motivations into the dry court rolls. My only real criticism of this book is that it refused to play with the uncertainty of its genre: Hatcher seemed ultimately concerned with writing history, at finding a greater "truth" through his unorthodox method, which appeared to me to be essentially futile. The ambiguity could have been exploited much more fully (as in with the narrator - who was he? why would he be writing this account) but perhaps that's just my literature student background betraying me. Overall, a very enjoyable read, and much more entertaining than many history books you might read on this subjet.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Judith

    It is hard to characterize this book. It is a historic fictionalization of an actual village in England's encounter with the Black Death and the immediate years of the aftermath, basically covering late summer 1435 through 1350. Every event or reaction is known from chronicles of this village or others; the people named actually existed, though the personalities of most are fictional. Hatcher's intent is to make history vivid and personal. Each chapter is prefaced by 2-4 or 5 pages giving the hi It is hard to characterize this book. It is a historic fictionalization of an actual village in England's encounter with the Black Death and the immediate years of the aftermath, basically covering late summer 1435 through 1350. Every event or reaction is known from chronicles of this village or others; the people named actually existed, though the personalities of most are fictional. Hatcher's intent is to make history vivid and personal. Each chapter is prefaced by 2-4 or 5 pages giving the historical background of what events and reactions that chapter will reveal. The Black Death was a turning point in history, and perhaps the most important one for all of us. With a death rate varying (according to location and one's age) from 35% to 60%, you and I should see ourselves as immediately affected by this disease. After all if our ancestors hadn't somehow for some reason survived, we wouldn't be here. Just imagine all your relatives save for distant cousins dying; imagine all members of all ages of a family dying. Imagine if we can. Hatcher made me care about a number of the individuals, especially Agnes and her three year old daughter Agnes. For surviving women the BD did bring some boons; some of the women were the sole inheritors since all male heirs had died. And with the great shortage of laborers to work the lands of others (as per the feudal system required), survivors were able to earn money and quite a bit of money for work formerly done for free. Women too were in demand, not only as cooks or housekeepers, but some became thatchers and some field workers. Given that we have recently had outbreaks of Ebola and Zika and will likely soon again have such, the BD is likely to be of more than curious interest for here is a society under great stress. We, at least, understand that epidemics are caused by viruses or bacteria; but will we be able to use our knowledge to prevent future outbreaks of these or of currently unknown diseases?

  21. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    The Black Death is, the author argues, a docudrama - not a history, nor a work of literature, but something between the two. (I suspect he had in mind a BBC reconstruction of the events of the time, the kind of thing that would show up on PBS.) As such it's hard to find an appropriate response. As literature it's too ponderous, too slow, and lacking in plot. As history it's pretty absorbing, although it's hard to put aside that we're reading made-up conversations, and the central figure is entir The Black Death is, the author argues, a docudrama - not a history, nor a work of literature, but something between the two. (I suspect he had in mind a BBC reconstruction of the events of the time, the kind of thing that would show up on PBS.) As such it's hard to find an appropriate response. As literature it's too ponderous, too slow, and lacking in plot. As history it's pretty absorbing, although it's hard to put aside that we're reading made-up conversations, and the central figure is entirely imaginary. I'm not sure I buy the author's argument that it's impossible to write "real" history in a compelling way, either. But regardless, I guess I enjoyed it all the same. I certainly learned a great deal, especially about the rituals of the medieval church and the theology that explained the plague of the 1340s as God's judgment of a sinful world. I gained some respect for the idea of paying homage to the seasons in the ways in which the clergy saw fit, and the internal logic of all the various chants and songs and masses and prayers. I also relished the upheaval that followed the plague, especially in terms of the adjustment of gender roles that had to take place. I *love* that women got to become skilled artisans and craftspeople, and were encouraged in this by clergy and lords, because there was no other choice. Weaker sex, I ask you. But I would have preferred that we got to the death and dying quicker than we did, and that some of the dialogue could have been between parishioners, instead of just the higher ups. I guess I wanted it to be more like a novel - better chararcterization, more show not tell. Entertaining, but a bit weird.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Katie (wife of book)

    I had trouble finding books that focused on the Black Death in the 1340's. Luckily, I discovered this one and it was a fascinating read! It's non-fiction but most of it reads like a novel. I think it's been referred to as a "docu-drama" type thing, which I think is accurate. Each chapter starts out with an overview of the month or year, and then the chapter is about the people living in the village of Walsham and how their lives were directly or indirectly affected by the plague. The sources Hatch I had trouble finding books that focused on the Black Death in the 1340's. Luckily, I discovered this one and it was a fascinating read! It's non-fiction but most of it reads like a novel. I think it's been referred to as a "docu-drama" type thing, which I think is accurate. Each chapter starts out with an overview of the month or year, and then the chapter is about the people living in the village of Walsham and how their lives were directly or indirectly affected by the plague. The sources Hatcher uses are things like court rolls and church sermon records, which sound extremely boring! But, using these tools, Hatcher weaves a little soap opera drama of the village in the late 1340's....we learn who is having arguments and what they're about, and how the church influences daily life. It's very hard to understand the people in the medieval period because their lives were so different from ours...the main difference being religion. We read about people who really did believe that, if they went on a pilgrimage, or prayed enough, or confessed every small sin, that they would be saved. Because God would never let his loyal flock catch this horrific disease. The affect the plague had on England was huge. The chapters that tell the tale about the months after the plague had ended are full of changes and new ways of thinking. This book is a great read and really helped me understand the events, and impact of the Black Death.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Becky

    What a great idea -- to create a "personal" history of one of the greatest disasters of human history -- the black plague of the Middle Ages. In this novel (well, it is labelled "docudrama")John Hatcher, historian, transports the reader into a real community, Walsham in North West Suffolk. Hatcher selects this village because it provided some of the best primary sources for the period. Each chapter has a preface describing the research conclusions and historical context. In order to shed light o What a great idea -- to create a "personal" history of one of the greatest disasters of human history -- the black plague of the Middle Ages. In this novel (well, it is labelled "docudrama")John Hatcher, historian, transports the reader into a real community, Walsham in North West Suffolk. Hatcher selects this village because it provided some of the best primary sources for the period. Each chapter has a preface describing the research conclusions and historical context. In order to shed light on daily life during this time and in this place, Hatcher tells his story through various individuals who actually lived during the time and through Master John, a fictional priest in charge of the spiritual well being of the community. The story does an excellent job of reflecting the social, economic, and religious conditions leading up to the swift and deadly plague; and, then reveals the dramatic changes post plague. While I learned a lot and was drawn into the period, I found the literary quality lacking. The warmth,the ability to identify with characters, the personal drama which makes history vivid didn't match the historical details which became repetitious.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Allison

    This book is a unique melding of historical text and fictional narrative. It allows us to have as accurate an account of what it might have been like during the period of the Black Death and how a small town/village in England may have endured it. The text explores the society as it would have been prior and then during and after, allowing for a very in-depth look at how a society collapses and then slowly begins to emerge in a new form after such a catastrophic event. It's engaging, thought-pro This book is a unique melding of historical text and fictional narrative. It allows us to have as accurate an account of what it might have been like during the period of the Black Death and how a small town/village in England may have endured it. The text explores the society as it would have been prior and then during and after, allowing for a very in-depth look at how a society collapses and then slowly begins to emerge in a new form after such a catastrophic event. It's engaging, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking in its capturing of humanity all while remaining steadfastly within its narrator's confines and viewpoints of the period at hand. To capture something that must have been so horrific, devastating, and unimaginable in this way is a truly gifted thing to have accomplished, and Hatcher does that extremely well here. If you haven't looked into the period before or the human experience during it, I recommend this text. It makes us understand what happened well over 600 years ago in a new light.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sas

    What was everyday life like in the village of Walsham in the mid-fourteenth century? Now add the Black Plague and how does it change the composition of the village hierarchy?[return][return]A very detailed description of the various fears leading up to the arrival of the disease, the spread of the disease and finally the repercussions of the crippling plague. The opening of each chapter offers a brief history of actual events and then 'recounts' the day-to-day life of the various ficticious memb What was everyday life like in the village of Walsham in the mid-fourteenth century? Now add the Black Plague and how does it change the composition of the village hierarchy?[return][return]A very detailed description of the various fears leading up to the arrival of the disease, the spread of the disease and finally the repercussions of the crippling plague. The opening of each chapter offers a brief history of actual events and then 'recounts' the day-to-day life of the various ficticious members of village society- church leaders, lords and lady and farmers/laborers. [return][return]The book is geared to people who are interested in the historical aspect of the Bubonic Plague, not for those looking for a light read (if there is such a thing as a 'light' read on the plague). Very detailed laden but interesting nonetheless. As a history buff I thoroughly enjoyed the meticulous research presented in Hatcher's book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Victoria

    This was an inventive insight in to the history of the devastating plague that wiped out half the population during the middle ages. Written in a semi fictional style, Hatcher has presented the Black Death through the lives of one village and has clearly shown the absoloute chaos and heartbreak it caused. The focus on religion and the idea that the plague had been sent by God to punish mankind is a central part of what the village (and the entire world) believed at the time and Hatcher's focus o This was an inventive insight in to the history of the devastating plague that wiped out half the population during the middle ages. Written in a semi fictional style, Hatcher has presented the Black Death through the lives of one village and has clearly shown the absoloute chaos and heartbreak it caused. The focus on religion and the idea that the plague had been sent by God to punish mankind is a central part of what the village (and the entire world) believed at the time and Hatcher's focus on Master John and his absoloute belief that by completeing certain masses, confessing daily and other religious practices would appease the angry God and stop it before it hit the village was integral to the structure of this book. This was so fascinating and it was very refreshing to read a history book that was not heavy and dfficult to get through - in fact unusually for a non-fiction title - it was completely un-put-downable!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christa

    This book was awesome! Each chapter starts out by delineating how the story fits into recorded history about the plague (the italicized portion of the chapter). The rest of the chapter brings that history down to a personal level - how did King X's edict effect the lives of the everyday English villager. It certainly addressed some questions that I'd had: How much did people know about the plagues process through Europe (did they see it coming?) and it's massive scale? Did they know that it was This book was awesome! Each chapter starts out by delineating how the story fits into recorded history about the plague (the italicized portion of the chapter). The rest of the chapter brings that history down to a personal level - how did King X's edict effect the lives of the everyday English villager. It certainly addressed some questions that I'd had: How much did people know about the plagues process through Europe (did they see it coming?) and it's massive scale? Did they know that it was wiping out over half the population of Europe? How much did the average person know about the feelings of the government and church? How did the government and church deal with the plague and how did people respond to these efforts? All these questions and answers, and a touching portrait of a local ecclesiastical made this book great.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    The author explains in his introduction what he's writing here - a fictionalised history. It's not a novel, in the sense that it isn't about a plot and character development and so on; but it is presented as a story with dialogue and so on. It's based on genuine historic sources for many of the facts, but the detail of events can never be know - who said what to whom and when, for example. I found it a really enjoyable way to learn the basics of the Black Death, and I think concentrating on one v The author explains in his introduction what he's writing here - a fictionalised history. It's not a novel, in the sense that it isn't about a plot and character development and so on; but it is presented as a story with dialogue and so on. It's based on genuine historic sources for many of the facts, but the detail of events can never be know - who said what to whom and when, for example. I found it a really enjoyable way to learn the basics of the Black Death, and I think concentrating on one village makes it somehow more approachable. It's a thing of too grand a scale to necessarily take in at once. The factual elements are backed up by an extensive bibliography, so further reading is readily available for anyone who wants to take the history further.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Trawets

    John Hatcher's The Black Death is set in the Suffolk village of Walsham between 1348 and 1350, based on characters in official records it recreates the events before, during and after the "Pestilence". Walsham like many communities lost about half it's population to the the Black Death and as well as giving us great insight into the wave of religous hysteria before it arrived John Hatcher's book is fascinating when dealing with the after-effects of the plague. The halving of the population led to John Hatcher's The Black Death is set in the Suffolk village of Walsham between 1348 and 1350, based on characters in official records it recreates the events before, during and after the "Pestilence". Walsham like many communities lost about half it's population to the the Black Death and as well as giving us great insight into the wave of religous hysteria before it arrived John Hatcher's book is fascinating when dealing with the after-effects of the plague. The halving of the population led to shortages of labour and a surplus of land, both of which were exploited by the poor, who for a time enjoyed unheard of barginning power and relative wealth. Easy to read this mix of well researched history and imagination, made me want to read more about this period.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Heather Pundt

    Disappointed, expecting much more. This is the book you read to inspire you to write your own. Too much apology about veering from history makes me think the author wasn't really ready or had the heart to write this book. The narrator's voice was supposed to be a character in itself but the fact that we have to be reminded of the narrator’s presence in the later chapters shows I think that even his peer readers before publication were not feeling the voice of the narrator character. Too bad, I r Disappointed, expecting much more. This is the book you read to inspire you to write your own. Too much apology about veering from history makes me think the author wasn't really ready or had the heart to write this book. The narrator's voice was supposed to be a character in itself but the fact that we have to be reminded of the narrator’s presence in the later chapters shows I think that even his peer readers before publication were not feeling the voice of the narrator character. Too bad, I really wanted to like this one :(

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