Review: The Black Death; A Personal History

(John Hatcher, Da Capo Press, 2008)

There seem to be two types of readers of history; those who love history, and those who tolerate it as a necessary evil. Writing for the first group requires thoroughness, organization, solid research, and certainly a bit of style. However, writing for the second group seems to be an altogether more complicated proposition. Or so one might conclude from the handful of ‘dramatic history’ offerings to have appeared recently. Seeking to combine ‘responsible,’ accurate history with a sense of drama in order to engage the causal, or even disinterested, reader of history as well as those with avid interest, these hybrids try to walk in two worlds and appeal to both readers while alienating neither.

John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History is one such hybrid. Hatcher, a respected expert in the subject, approaches the task with enthusiasm and forthrightness. His research is clearly flawless, down to his choosing the small village of Walsham in West Suffolk based upon the great availability of period records. And, unlike other histories which lean toward the dramatic–such as Mark Pegg’s A Most Holy War, which also incorporates highly dramatized dialogs, complete with gestures and facial expressions–Hatcher’s preface makes it very clear what he intends to be taken as factual and what he intends to be read as fictive drama. For this alone, he deserves credit.

Throughout this novel treatment of the Black Death, his stated goal is to remove the voice of the historian and let the narrative speak for itself. Is it not clear if he succeeds, and the result is that we can clearly see the historian’s dedication to detail and background. This is in one sense a good thing, for it gives necessary texture to the larger events being described, but sadly, it renders the fictive aspect of the work stilted. Hatcher also seems caught between the world in which his tale resides, and the breadth of the plague itself. He is unwilling to let go of the larger context and scope of the epidemic outside this world, but because his story is grounded so deeply in the village of Walsham, he must, of necessity, relay all the background of the plague’s first devastating months as hearsay, much of it in awkwardly expository dialog. It provides some welcome context for Walsham’s plight in terms of the rest of the epidemic but becomes cumbersome when embedded into the dramatic model he tries to achieve.

He bases his protagonist, Master John, the parish priest of Walsham, on the available records, flavored by characters found in contemporary narratives like Chaucer’s. He relies heavily on manor court rolls, bishops’ letters, and the like, and even as he laments the lack of a ‘personal face’ within such documentary records (though he inserts them into the narrative as the day-to-day happenings in the village; a device with varied success from the viewpoint of the narrative itself) he proceeds to construct faces for them. Master John is a masterwork of an archetypal character in context, but he lacks depth, as indeed he must. The other characters, largely minor players, are likewise difficult to view sympathetically because Hatcher is too conscientious a historian to embellish them too extravagantly. However, his care forces him to people the village with, if not caricatures, then not wholly dimensional beings either. The elements which make fictional characters real–conflict, inner struggle, angst–are absent, perhaps surprisingly so, given the stress of the situation. If there is a ‘character’ that does attain a certain mythic quality, it is the disease itself, which doesn’t say much for the rest of the actors within the narrative.

Drama is another casualty of Hatcher’s desire to paint a clear picture, even though he does at times evoke a powerful sense of place. He captures, for example, a brilliantly insightful portrait of medieval Christianity. His sections dealing with the villager’s fervor to acquire relics despite even their own quite reasonable doubts as to their authenticity; his descriptions of the villagers’ pilgrimages; and the reverent quality with which he imbues the deathbed rites and the notion of a ‘good death’ in particular stand out as exceptional. Rather than treating these as backward quirks, as have many other historians, he shows these examples of medieval religiosity with insight, sensitivity, and a visible affection for his subjects. It is clear he wants to impart the same sympathy for the villagers’ sense of despair in the face of the coming pestilence, via the ever-present motif of doubt, uncertainty, and the rabid push towards repentance and excess. While certainly accurate, and initially fraught with an anguished and wholly authentic tension, his motif loses its emotional impact with repetition and thereby becomes a liability to the digestibility of the narrative as a narrative.

However, that repetition is a necessary limitation of his setting. We are nearly halfway through the book before the pestilence even hits Walsham. Once he touches that thread of fear early on, he has nowhere left to go but to reiterate it over and over. Even the gravest and most frightful sense of impending doom seems to become something of a parody of itself if not crafted carefully, something which Hatcher, being as grounded as he is in the facts of history and in the town which houses his tale, cannot manage to do.

The same is true of the latter half of the book, where Hatcher addresses the aftermath of the first wave of plague. There are moments of brilliant insight, embedded in a flurry of material straight from the court roles. Clearly, it is here he is able to use the manor court rolls to their best advantage, enumerating the difficulties encountered by the survivors faced with labor shortages, skyrocketing wage demands, tangled inheritances, and so on. But the distress, confusion, disbelief, and disorder he so clearly wants to drive home tend to become submerged in these details, and like the building anxiety of the first half, become tiresome with repetition.

Much as the fictive aspect of this work is weakened by the need to shape it to the history he wants to present, the history is diluted by the limitations inherent in a dramatic narrative. Despite Hatcher’s obvious care never to overstep the bounds of what he can reasonably assume while still presenting a whole account, the shell of the fiction grows frustrating to the historian, who wants to see more of the events in a larger context, across a broader scope. He opens each chapter with a bit of background information, providing us with the necessary understanding of life in a Suffolk village and the nature of his sources (though he only occasionally cites those sources specifically, and then only in end-notes that are not linked to markers in the text, another frustration to the academic reader). It is reassuring to ‘hear’ Hatcher’s voice in these scholarly asides, but it leaves the experience of the reader somewhat disjointed.

Hatcher’s Personal History is an admirable attempt at walking two very different paths. The shortcomings of the end result lie more in the choice of subject and setting than in the abilities of the author. A ‘personal’ history must, perforce, present a limited view, as personal experience is never comprehensive. Perhaps a smaller, more local moment in history might have surrendered itself more gracefully to such an approach. The Black Death, as one of the broadest events in medieval history, with precursors and massive repercussions across economic, political, religious, and social life, is perhaps the most challenging topic in that period to present succinctly in the first place. To present it through the necessarily flawed and narrow lens of a single village’s experiences while still touching on the breadth of the topic proves too wide a gap for Hatcher to bridge. Were Hatcher a novelist, or were the aim of the book to provide a purely experiential, emotive perspective on the events, he might have been more free to focus on the dramatic and truly personal side of his docu-drama and create more than recount. However, Hatcher is not a novelist but a historian, and he faithfully, even doggedly, retains his historical grounding, for better or worse.

Among academic readers, or those who truly love history, this book can provide an element of depth to those already familiar with the Black Death, but its limitations will make it a frustrating first introduction for those who are not. However, this book can be viewed as something of a showcase for what can (and cannot) be found in primary source records; Hatcher is dutiful in gesturing back to the period documents he sources (if, as noted, with a frustrating vagueness), and for academic readers, students in particular, intimidated by the notion of slogging through such sources, the result may be inspiring. For the casual reader, though, unless they have a particular interest in English history, or are already fairly versed in either the Black Death or the fourteenth century, the dramatic aspect of this volume is unlikely to engage the level of interest which Hatcher desires.


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