The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher encompasses an interesting time within a very oddly structured book. I’ve read quite a few historical fiction novels about the plague (see The Year of Wonders) and I’ve skimmed through a few history books about the subject, but I’ve never seen one combined. Clearly, Hatcher was attempting to appeal to those interested in the thoughts and feelings of individuals that rarely get got recorded in the fourteenth century, but also provide a popular history that elucidates the period for those looking for strictly factual content. Unfortunately, the reader ends up with two very different books encased inside the same binding.
Hatcher, a renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, spent several decades researching the period around the onset of the bubonic plague in Europe. It’s clear from the factual parts of the book that the man knows what he’s talking about. Pulling from primary sources, Hatcher presents the reader with statistics, royal and ecclesiastical reactions, and the aftermath that changed the path of feudal Europe. In the book’s fictional parts, he pulls he story from the manor records of the real village of Walsham and imagines the villagers’ feelings and reactions from there. Most of the story comes from the point of view of Master John, a fictional cleric who struggles to hold his congregation together as doubt pulls them apart.
The problem with this writing strategy is that, while Hatcher presents us with both a Europe-wide view and a focused British view of the plague, he tends to repeat his facts in both accounts. As a reader, it becomes very monotonous and repetitive. I understand that Hatcher needed to cite the facts in his historically accurate account to have credibility, but to hear the same facts repeated from the mouths of his characters was a drag. He must be admired for trying to put out a book that two types of people can enjoy, but also critiqued on the execution. Still, if you’re looking for a book that can give you both an insider’s and outsider’s view of the Black Death, this is the one.