August 2009

Erin McKnight


The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher

More than half a millennium has passed since the Black Plague ravaged Europe as "the greatest natural disaster the world has ever seen," yet this pandemic's path of panic and fear bears a striking resemblance to the current trajectory of influenza. The horrifying plague, which consumed over a third of Europe's population in the years between 1347 and 1351, was also responsible for transformative shifts that established our modern world; had this catastrophe not occurred, it is unlikely society could have undergone such a swift or far-reaching revolution. Although the fear of such a recurrence hasn't completely quelled, the Black Plague remains a monumental historical event worthy of reflection. Indeed, after a lifetime dedicated to its study, leading expert John Hatcher has brought the plague back in a way that is tangible and terrifying, personal and provocative.

Expressing the hope that The Black Death, newly released in paperback, "will have served its purpose if it simply encourages some to dig deeper into real history books," Hatcher's self-professed "docudrama" is a blend of historical fact and narrative fiction. In seeking to render the pestilence in a way that honors its societal -- to include economic and religious -- significance, Hatcher relies on an illustrious career and copious historical records. Absent in these administrative artifacts, however, are the tales relating to the cataclysmic event. Until now, no story tells of the individual people, families, churches, and towns devastated by the appalling disease.

Largely due to the quality and quantity of historical information that serves to frame Hatcher's fiction, the people and micro-routines of the English town of Walsham le Willows are rendered with a concerted sense of care. In true historical keeping -- as Hatcher has meticulously ensured from first word to last -- the chronological narrative of Walsham's demise is experienced through the eyes of an unnamed male contemporary who focuses largely on the interactions of parish priest Master John. In energetic language, Hatcher familiarizes his reader with a doomed place and its inhabitants. Though a story with an expected ending, The Black Death incites a captivating mood of tension as the plague's ever-nearing shadow creeps inland from British ports.

Separated into years and their seasons, every section of the book is prefaced with historical notes brief enough so as not to disturb narrative pacing and progression, but informative enough to feature the crucial factual details that link this bustling village of a thousand in western Surrey with its greater kingdom and continent. Sixteen pages of black and white images shed additional light on this dark time in European history, yet thankfully also manage to neither overwhelm nor blur the book's storytelling approach.

In Hatcher's capable hands, the identities of Walsham villagers are revealed in a manner that honors their contributions to history. Especially welcome is Hatcher's continuation of his story even after lives are gruesomely lost: his ongoing focus on the irrevocably altered central feudalistic relationship between landowner and laborer. In a community beholden to the church, the moral implications of this disaster are compelling, manifesting in the shift from self-sufficient and stratified community, to one wherein the most God-fearing of humanity rebels in primal reaction to utter helplessness.

Hatcher's greatest feat in this substantial work is perhaps the elicited reader response that the people of the fourteenth century were compelled by the same hopes and fears -- the universal urge to flee when disaster strikes. Millions of lives were lost and so too were millions of personal accounts. The reader is fortunate that after a lifetime devoted to the plague, John Hatcher determined to undertake the rendering of the Black Death in a way that brings to bear its momentous historical significance and the resonating personal stories of formerly unknown plague victims.


The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher
Da Capo
ISBN: 0306817926
352 Pages

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