My favourite television series when I was growing up in the 1970s was Survivors, set in the near-future, in an England devastated by a deadly plague that had been released, inadvertently, from a germ-warfare laboratory. In my usual perverse way I liked the idea of a society reeling from such a disaster, and took a particular joy in imagining the freedoms I might enjoy in a world so turned upside down.
Judging from the mass hysteria that the very hint of such pestilence can summon up, even in such phlegmatic people as ourselves, it would seem that I’m not alone in my grim fascination. Think Sars, think Ebola, think bird flu yet behind them all, knocking on the rear door of collective unconscious, lurks the daddy of all plagues, the Black Death itself, which halved the population of England in three short months of 1349. There had been previous plagues, and more were to follow, but this was the big one.
John Hatcher, a professor of economic and social history, has taught the Black Death for more than 20 years, and in this book he has tried to do something unique. There are many first-hand accounts of the plague extant but they are mostly foreign and urban: one thinks of the introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Petrarch’s descriptions of the impact of the epidemic in papal Avignon.
Conversely, the manorial and ecclesiastical records of the Suffolk farming communities during the plague are particularly rich in the kind of detail Professor Hatcher excels in analysing, while actual testimony of what it was like to survive the Black Death is lacking.
So, why not join the two together to create a vivid and as factually accurate possible account of what it was like to experience the Black Death? If you like, a 14th-century version of Survivors.
It’s an arresting notion, and Professor Hatcher’s set-up is promising: short, objective sections prefacing each chapter, in which the epidemiology, aetiology and course of the plague are limned in while the social, political and economic institutions of England are discussed in relation to religious faith and agricultural practice. But the body of the book is a narrative of the plague that, while written in Modern English, is in many ways a convincing portrayal of the worldview of a contemporary member of the educated elite, presumably an ecclesiastic.
Professor Hatcher cannot be faulted on his devotion to the detail, or his convincing portrayal of the village of Walsham, a straggling farming community of a couple of thousand in the hinterland of Bury St Edmunds. Individual men and women are painstakingly described.
Peasants like Agnes Chapman, who witnesses her husband’s horrific death, festering with buboes, or the pious vicar, Master John, who, while privately affected by doubts, continues to encourage his congregation to repent of their sins more fully so as to avoid God’s wrath.
The local squire, Edmund de Welles, resorts to a prophylactic of his own devising: inhaling the contents of his chamber pot to protect him from the noxious vapours that it was believed along with sight transmitted the disease.
Moreover, unlike more discursive works, The Black Death conveys with great effectiveness the intensity of medieval English devotions and their deep preoccupation with the business of dying. Reading this book I was reminded time and again of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and of other peasant societies in which life and death are commingled in spirituality.
Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, Professor Hatcher lacks the novelist’s touch and his details tend to be exhaustive, repetitive, and even a little dull. Not something anyone associates with Armageddon.
The Black Death: An Intimate History by John Hatcher (Weidenfeld, £20)