Top critical review
26 people found this helpful
Interesting but not gripping ....
on 20 July 2008
The Black Death "remains the greatest natural disaster to befall humanity." Well, perhaps but we are spoilt for choice. Professor Hatcher's book is a hybrid, mostly a social and economic history, partly fictional based on a real Suffolk village in 1340s. What he has done is to apply intellect and industry (using the records that have survived) adding his imagination to make a story. As a Cambridge historian, he is qualified to add narrative flesh to the factual skeleton. The book chronicles the fourteenth century rural world with much detail - plus some reasonable extrapolation - providing a picture of religious belief, agricultural practice and social structure.
The suffering caused by the plague is dealt with comparatively briefly; it arrives on page 127 and is over in eight weeks. It was random, the godly fell as easily as the sinners. Its gruesome symptoms are described; individual lives sketched in their final hours. There is not much more to say about boils and the stench, "bring out your dead" and paint the crosses on the doors. Hatcher invents characters to propel the story. The book has the subtitle "A Intimate History" and I suppose this was it.
Essentially this is a book about terror. What I did not fully appreciate was that they knew what was coming a long time before it arrived. Reports of the epidemic travelled well ahead of the actual infection; by 1346, it was known to be on the Caspian then its progress charted city by city. Death, horrible and agonising, was coming ever nearer; it was only a matter of time. It arrived in Weymouth, Dorset, in 1348. In the Suffolk village it came in the Spring 1349. How would our society react knowing that half of us would be dead in two or three years?
What they did was turn to religion. In a world of intense superstition and pervasive Christian dogma, the clergy controlled lives. Unimaginable suffering awaited those who did not die in the hands of a priest. Death without confession, and the correct rituals, ensured entry to hell and a putrid eternity of suffering. Terror of the spiritual was as great as the fear of physical suffering. Half the population of the village died, peaking at 50 people per day most without confession or a proper funeral to pave their way toward heaven. Some had prepared as best they could, elaborate rituals, visits to shrines, holy water and candles. The church made a lot of money, priests made more as did the charlatans and quacks.
Hatcher then goes to some length to show how society changed after the infection had passed. There were considerable spoils for the survivors; land was available, food was cheap, higher wages for less work, and a new social freedom for the poor with less deference and obedience to their masters. And yes the priests (those that survived, God was not sparing of his own) made more money.
I was a little weary by the end of the book; it is an interesting story but not a gripping one. The characters are not developed but illustrative. This is certainly not "an intimate history" rather a skilled case study of a place and time. As Professor Hatcher suggested, it is an invitation to go and learn more. This is a tidy book, a good social and economic commentary of the rural - as opposed to the better documented urban - experience.