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4.0 out of 5 stars


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on 29 April 2017
what an amazing read! arrived on time and well packaged. New book, written as a story containing immense detail. Stands up as a guide to the Black Death, and as a histroy book
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This excellent book is a creative reconstruction of a village in crisis, from 1345 - 1350. The author chose the village of Walsham (now Walsham-le-Willows) in North West Suffolk, as it had good local records for him to plunder. Saying that, there are no diaries or any personal records and, so, the author does make the book more intimate by creative writing and creating characters - such as Master John, responsible for the villagers spiritual needs. However, where possible he uses real names, people and statistics.

The Black Death first made its fearful appearance in England in Weymouth, but the villagers begin to hear rumours about the plague long before. Travellers, sailors, merchants begin to bring tales of a terrible plague and the villagers are victims of heresay and rumour. They begin to make what preparations they can by taking religious pilgrimages and, urged by Master John, making confession. Master John reads aloud a letter from the bishop, in which it is said, "If the latest rumours are true, then the plague has already arrived in the Far South and West of England." Strangers are both feared, in case they bring plague, yet welcomed for news they might bring. The author also describes in great detail the ritual of Master John attending a death bed scene before the plague, which involved many people from the community, the dying persons family and the Church. If we contrast this with the hurried, impersonal confessions (for those lucky enough to receive them at all) for those suffering from plague, it shows how difficult it was for the society to cope with the sheer numbers of people ill and dying. For plague brought fear of infection and family members were often too scared to nurse or care for their dying relatives. Even if someone could be brought to administer the last rights, everyone was over stretched, exhausted and over whelmed, and often the dying person was too ill to make their confession, as the illness struck so quickly. In 1349 the plague struck Walsham, close to Easter Day. By late June, when it departed, the village population was cut in half. There were no tenant deaths reported in March and 103 reported in June. For a small community like Walsham, the number of people lost was devastating.

John Hatcher re-creates the people of the village extremely well. We feel their anticipation and fear, the horror of the plague finally coming to them and then the aftermath. For the plague changed England forever. People who had earlier been happy to take any work offered, now found that labour was in demand. They were unwilling to work for the same wages, or even to take over land and cottages left vacant. More more women than usual were left to inherit, as the men in their family died. The elite of the country were alarmed at the empowerment by the lower orders by the massive mortality rates. The King issued the 'Ordinance of Labourers', compelling the common people to work when required and trying to force them to accept the same wages and conditions as before the Black Death. In reality, those left were more concerned with their own lands, and those who had normally had a surplus of labour to choose from had to offer more wages and incentives than normal - if they could find anyone willing to work at all.

This is an excellent read and gives a very good representation of the experience of living in those times and what it meant for those left behind once the devastation passed. I enjoyed reading it very much and would recommend it highly.
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on 1 December 2008
I was intrigued by this book due to the village the author used for the setting of the book, Walsham in Suffolk, which is close to where I live. I had read other books concerning the Black Death and been bored senseless with clinical faceless facts about incubation dates and estimation of the exact spread of the Plague, so I was hopeful that this book would be more insightful into the lives of the ordinary villager.

Yes, the book does deliver on giving the reader characters, both real and invented, that you can follow through the book and observe how various events affected every stratum of society and how things changed through the "before, during and after" times of the Black Death. From attitudes to religion and work conditions, to changes in social classes. But this book leaves the reader feeling it is missing something.

To begin with the book settles into the surroundings and sets the scene for the reader, both of human and geographic content. However a few chapters into the book and you're wondering if the Plague is ever going to turn up?!!? The chapters for the time the pestilence has actually arrived in Walsham seem to be over in no time. This is then followed by chapters on the after effects of the Black Death. The main problem I have with the "before" and "after" is that it repeats a lot of the same themes and theories, even the same sentences put into the minds of the characters. At times the book seems to just be going round and round in circles and you're left thinking on some paragraphs that "I already knew that"...or "Didn't I just read that in the last chapter?".
By the end of the book you feel you have read a book just on social and economic history of the 1350s rather than a book dedicated to Black Death. The themes of the book seem to wander around a lot and almost feel as if some chapters were taken over by the author rambling just to fill the book out a little. In the current form, the book would have been much better if it had been more concise. Having said all that, it's still one of the better books I have read in this genre and does at least bring the reader closer to "seeing" how an ordinary village coped with the Black Death.
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on 21 January 2016
This book could be edited down to a third of its size - especially if you remove the tedious repetition. I managed up to page 119 (of 356) before I admitted defeat. Really, I felt that this was historical fiction and, 'gripping' it certainly was not.
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on 30 January 2012
God has sent a terrible pestilence that is laying waste to mainland Europe and is rumoured, by the villagers of Walsham in Suffolk, to be headed towards England.

This `docudrama', by a Cambridge professor, examines the impact of the plague on the lives and thoughts of the people of a single village. He has had to invent and speculate, yet such is his skill that it is difficult to decipher modern fiction from historical fact. The result is balanced towards an entertaining and informative history book rather than a gripping novel.

The most fascinating aspect of the book was reading of the economic and social changes that occurred as a result of half the population dying between April and June 1349. It illustrated to me the feeling of how little we, as individuals, have changed; our fears of the unknown and matters beyond our control, whether disease, tsunami, earthquake or terrorism, is no less in our sophisticated age than it was for the poor uneducated peasant folk all those centuries ago.
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on 23 August 2009
This well researched and fascinating account of the "Black Death" had me gripped. The mixture of fact and fiction worked well. The characters were entirely believable and the sense of place was strong. The priest caring for the sufferers was sympathetically portrayed and the importance of religion emphasized. I knew the effects of the shortage of workers following the plague, but probably had not realised what a hold the feudal system had on the poor. I had not previously read much about this time and it was brought to life with great detail and without sentimentality.
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on 20 April 2012
I am puzzled by the many reviews that point to this book being "well-written". The concept is good. The material on which Hatcher draws is undoubtedly strong, and it is hugely informative. With judicious editing this could have been a truly remarkable book. But as it stands it is hugely repetitive to the point of being laborious at times. Hatcher introduces historical fact and source material in the preamble to each chapter. This is obviously a valid device to establish authenticity and academic rigour in the research. But rather than using this to provide a contextual understanding, he often repeats whole passages of this (only slightly altered) in the following novelisation. I found myself reading bits while realising I had read almost exactly the same only a few pages earlier. A book with all this strong material could have been half its length and very much more effective for being so.
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on 10 May 2015
Very poor quality. Purchased as "used....good". Let's just say it was very very well read before I purchased it
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on 6 January 2014
This is a bit of a mixed bag. The presumption of the author is that by somehow pretending to place the "action" in a single village, the Black Death will seem more alive, more interesting, than a "dry" historical analysis. The problem is that the author just is a historian, not a novelist. The result is a book that is just too contrived to work really well. And so bits of historical records are offered as though they were part of the history of this village, when in fact they weren't at all. Things that might have happened in London, or Oxfordshire, (sermons delivered, for instance) are presented as though they happened in his chosen village. Whether this gives a more interesting narrative is pretty much up to the individual reader I suppose. For me, it didn't work. This whole episode of English history hardly needs to be made "more exciting", does it? : if it isn't compelling already as a story, I don't see how pretending that it's all happening in the one place is going to make it so. I think that a decently written narrative giving information from here, there, and everywhere, would have worked much better. As I say, this is contrived.

There are also irritating repetitions of material. In one chapter, the preamble gives some fascinating information about the dispensation given as to who might be able to hear confession. But then exactly this is written into the "fictional" narrative a few pages later, where its impact is completely negated!

There are other issues. At least one entire sentence gets repeated word for word on two different pages - the curse of word-processing "cut and paste" techniques, where someone forgot to "cut". Where's the editing?

And is there anyone left out there - other than musicians - who know that the word "crescendo" in itself means "rising to a peak". The author here likes the word, unfortunately, so there are several occasions when we are given the solecism "rising to a crescendo". Ugh!

There's a lot of really interesting material here, and presenting it "straight" would have made this an essential read. As it is, if you don't warm to what the author's up to in the first few chapters, it'll be a pretty frustrating experience getting to the end.
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