Tuesday, November 18, 2008

John Hatcher's "The Black Death": Book Review

"A Personal History": the subtitle's crucial to this fact-based "docudrama" narrative of Walsham in Suffolk during the five years spanning 1345-1350. The plague hit in the late spring of 1349. It wiped out about half the population in around two months, before receding as gradually as it had entered this English village. The landholding records kept-- combined with the medical, religious, and social contexts historian Hatcher integrates from other sources-- blend for this re-creation of mid-14c rural life.

As Hatcher reminds readers early on: "The language spoken by the characters, though modernized, has as far as possible been adapted from that contained in contemporary sources, and the voice of the narrator, who from time to time links the action and offers introductions, summaries, amplifications, and judgments, is that of a male contemporary writing after Master John's successors as parish priest. The intention throughout has been to banish the hindsight, overviews, judgments, and perspectives of the twenty-first-century historian from the text." (xvi) The result? Lots of data.

This amount may dissuade those not expecting detailed recitals of heriot (death-tax) livestock exacted from a local tenant, or statistics on how many monks in nearby Bury St Edmunds abbey died, or how a pilgrimage to the nearby shrine at Walsingham was conducted. There's two quite moving scenes: one when a wife over four days watches her husband succumb in the plague's early stages; the other, preceding this pandemic, when the local lord William Wodebite contends on his deathbed against Master John's insistence that he make full amends-- materially assisted-- before he receives the last rites. The tension between the secular and religious realms, as well as their shared interest in tangible gains, earns insightful treatment here.

The chronicler's tone, adapted by Hatcher's narrator, does keep today's reader at somewhat of a distance from the kinds of scrutiny that present-day academics-- for better or worse-- may heap upon the evidence from court cases, royal correspondence, or baptismal records of the time and place. This does free the raw material, on the other hand, from the dead weight of theory rather than an encounter with the primary sources, filtered by the imagination of its compiler, Hatcher, into a facsimile of what a Walsham scribe might have been able to reconstruct if he had given his life, back then, over to the recounting the fate of his neighbors, living and dead.

Much of the text takes place before and after the actual plague. You get rumors, far off, begin to become hearsay and second-hand around p. 50; a hundred pages later, the epidemic reaches Walsham; by about forty pages on, the plague starts to recede. The remaining hundred pages or so detail what's less remembered today: the disruption to the order that consolidated clerical and feudal power, and which enforced regal rule according to occupation and class. Thomas Wimbledon's 1388 sermon's cited (although not, curiously, from its standard 1967 edition by Ione Kemp Knight): "If laborers work not, priests and knights must become cultivators and herdsmen, or else die for want of bodily sustenance." (218)

The threat of turmoil continuing after the ebb of the plague; the profits that clever survivors begin to accumulate as they calculate the demand for work by their "betters" against the rise in pay that followed the labor shortages; the strain placed on devout priests as their own confreres died and were replaced by raw youths or conniving charlatans; the impossibility to match one's own repentence or lack of guilt with who lived and who died according to what was interpreted as God's vengeance after the disruption as the news of the plague from Asia and then Europe became less legend and more fact, slowly filtered in to a remote village-- these topics make Hatcher's ambitious approach a rewarding one. You begin to appreciate how tenuous was the hold of the desparate gentry upon the restive peasantry, and how the Church struggled against glimmers of individual sensibility where privilege counted less than merit, and principle began to challenge custom.

It's not a particularly quick read in parts. Debates over land division and legal inheritance may test most people's attention span. This is, after all, the gist of much of the records that survive, and what for us may be the more scandalous or exciting bits are few and far between, as we have to depend on those in power and those few clerics and clerks possessing literacy-- nearly always, they sided with the system rather than with its malcontents.

Sermons, songs, poems, trials, banter, and proceedings from extant literature as mixed in by Hatcher's "speaker," however, sprinkle verve and even wit into what could be rather sober recitals. The pace of a rather sober teller forces we moderns to slow down and take in lots of information for which we lack quick comparisons. Some may balk at this register, but for those patient-- a quality that the medievals probably cultivated far more often-- the clever use of Walsham's rich local lore as a representative case for how an English village might have coped with the onslaught of sudden destruction proves a valuable compendium.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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