The Black Death: A Personal History

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In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, John Hatcher, a world-renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, recreates 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 AD), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly into those tumultuous years 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 experienced and thought about the momentous events—and how they tried to make sense of it all.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher, July 2009
“This book uses a bit of fiction, mixing it with [Hatcher’s] vast knowledge to illuminate that catastrophe.”

Curled Up with a Good Book
“This book screams ‘docudrama.’ One wonders if it will be made into a TV mini-series, so vivid is its novelistic story line yet accurate its information…What Hatcher has done, and done well, is to tell the tale of the Black Plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century from the viewpoint of a single English village.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 8/7/09
“The core of the story — the plague’s effect on the lives of everyday people— is as true as can be surmised, nearly 700 years later.”

History in Review, 10/19/09
“Will enthrall both historians and fans of historical fiction…Provides a fascinating and unique glimpse into what life was like in rural, mediaeval England, during the 1345-1350 plague outbreak…An informative and entertaining book to read on the Black Death and, more important, on how it affected the common people.”
Metapsychology Online Reviews, 3/19/10
“The psychological turmoil for those living through the plague’s visitation and the terror, grief and horror such an experience engendered, are vividly brought to life in John Hatcher’s magisterial ‘personal history’…A fascinating and absorbing ‘literary docudrama’…of the profound effects of a calamitous and unfathomable event on both the individual and collective psyche…It is for his deliberately novel (and novelistic) approach that the author is to be particularly commended…Provides an admirable insight into how the majority of society struggled to make sense of a world turned upside down…Likely to appeal not only to historians of the Middle Ages and of medicine, but also to those interested in how individuals and communities alike cope with, respond to, and in many cases survive, catastrophic circumstances.”

Publishers Weekly

In an experimental narrative for an academic historian—blending some fiction with solid facts—Hatcher, of Cambridge University, offers a "literary docudrama" that looks at the lives off ordinary people during the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 1340s. Focusing on the English town of Walsham de Willows, Hatcher helps readers understand the deep terror that prevailed, including rumors of "awful omens, including rains of frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions, and venomous beasts." He describes the plague itself, which caused coughing up of blood, carbuncles and boils on the neck, underarm and groin, and death in a few days. Especially affecting are accounts of the psychological agonies of those who, in a deeply religious age, saw their often delirious relatives die without proper confession. Finally, Hatcher notes the socioeconomic upheaval wrought by the plague, including poor people unexpectedly inheriting land from relatives killed by the plague, and a severe labor shortage as a third of Europe's population was wiped out.. While a glossary would have been helpful (will readers know what a "rood" of land or a "heriot" is?), this is a fine work that gives an intimate sense of the Black Death's horrors. Maps. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
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 precis, 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. Agent: Andrew Lownie/Andrew Lownie Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306817922
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 6/9/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 393,187
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Hatcher, a leading expert in medieval and early modern social and economic history, is Professor of Economic and Social History and Chairman of the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge.

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Table of Contents

Preface: The Nature of This Book

Introduction Walsham in the Middle Ages 1

1 Master John 13

2 Late Summer, 1345 21

3 Autumn 1345 to Winter 1347 35

4 Christmas and New Year, 1347-1348 53

5 Spring and Early Summer, 1348 63

6 Midsummer and Autumn, 1348 81

7 Autumn and Winter, 1348 101

8 New Year, 1349 119

9 Lent and Easter, 1349 135

10 Mid-April to Early May, 1349 149

11 Mid-May, 1349 163

12 Late May to Early June, 1349 179

13 June 10-20, 1349 201

14 Summer, 1349 217

15 Summer and Autumn, 1349 233

16 September to December, 1349 249

17 1350 263

Epilogue 285

Illustration credits 289

Notes 291

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