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The Black Death: A Personal History

by John Hatcher

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3781551,325 (3.49)3
In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, John Hatcher, a world-renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, recreates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived--and died--during the Black Death (1345-50 AD), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly into those tumultuous years and describes in fascinating detail the day-to-day existence of people struggling with the tragic effects of the plague. Dramatic scenes portray how contemporaries must have experienced and thought about the momentous events--and how they tried to make sense of it all.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
This is a great book for casual readers and people just touching on learning about the medieval period. While others are quick to chastise it for not being as good as similar books, like A Distant Mirror, it serves well for the beginner, being less dense, episodic, and engaging. ( )
  theothergarypowell | May 20, 2021 |
Interesting and insightful. ( )
  Mithril | Jan 8, 2021 |
Written by an academic historian, this book fails on so many levels.
Firstly, it is intended to be about the plagues of the black death in the 14th century, but the focus is primarily on the medieval church - the book is half over before the plague arrives.
The details of the plague are brief to a fault. There are three paragraphs giving some technical details of the plague - the other mentions seem to be limited to buboes and blood and dying.
I was prepared to forego the macabre details of the plague when the author starts dealing with the economic impact - particularly the new found power of the serfs to bargain for higher wages. Sadly, while the book gives some coverage, there is only a very limited attempt to put the changes in context.
Then there is the structure of the book - written as a sort of historic fiction. The idea is that the limited documentary evidence would be presented in the lives and words of the individuals of the village that is the focus of the book. Nice idea, but badly delivered. The reader is left struggling to comprehend what is pure fiction, what is probable fiction and what is fact.
And then there is the church. As Mentioned above, the focus is the church. The main character in the book is Master John, the saintly village priest. Bizarrely, this leading character is one that is NOT in the documentary evidence. So, we plough through endless pages of his thoughts and actions (did I mention that they were all saintly?) while there seems to be a total lack of documentary evidence for any of it. Sure, he is a composite of other figures in the country at the time, but why is this the focus of the book? Why so much detail about the church at all?
I'm not sure that it was the intention of the author, but the focus on the church and its response to the plague, generous though that focus is, makes the church and religious belief in general, a farce. ( )
  mbmackay | Aug 27, 2020 |
Good History, Weak Storytelling

John Hatcher's knowledge of the Black Death is unrivaled. He is an excellent academic and historian. In "The Black Death: A Personal History," Hatcher provides an account of the Black Death before, during, and after the plague strikes.

This book straddles the line between non-fiction and fiction. It focuses on a made-up priest, but otherwise most of the names, places, and incidents are found in the record books of Walsham, a real city in Suffolk. Because Hatcher relies so much on real incidents in order to push the narrative, there is little emphasis on the usual trappings of a novel: character development, dialogue, action, and so forth. As an instrument for history, the book is wonderful. As an instrument for fiction, it is very dry.

The exposition dominates the book. It concentrates on descriptions of the town and its' inhabitants, along with various rituals and customs. The descriptions of feudal relationships in the town are very interesting. While giving these descriptions in the first half of the book, Hatcher also projects the fears and rumors going through Walsham when word of a plague in distant lands arrives by traders.

When the plague comes to the Walsham, the residents mostly shut themselves in, venturing out only to seek help from the priest and his assistants when their loved-ones become ill. During the month or so in which the plague ravishes the village, very little happens in terms of a story, though various characters are brought in and out of the narrative to show the impact of the plague.

The final chapters, while skimpy, were the most interesting. These chapters showed how Walsham and the land-owners tried to recover from a shortage of labor, products, and markets.

The book held my interest despite of the somewhat tedious and repetitive descriptions in the exposition. Again, as a tool to tell about society, I think "The Black Death" is excellent. However, as a novel, it is rather monotonous. ( )
  mvblair | Aug 9, 2020 |
An historical "docudrama" about the bubonic plague's effect on Walsham, England in 1349
  JohnLavik | Mar 29, 2020 |
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In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, John Hatcher, a world-renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, recreates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived--and died--during the Black Death (1345-50 AD), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly into those tumultuous years and describes in fascinating detail the day-to-day existence of people struggling with the tragic effects of the plague. Dramatic scenes portray how contemporaries must have experienced and thought about the momentous events--and how they tried to make sense of it all.

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