My review of The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher ran today at PopMatters.
It was an excellent portrayal of the life and times of medieval villagers as the plague crept towards their English hamlet in the 14th century. Hatcher blends historical research with well-crafted fiction, bridging the gaps in our knowledge. It’s not pure history; it’s something of a reenactment, full of educated guesses and speculation, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.
The result is an effective means of communicating the salient facts about the Black Death in a personal and immediate way, highlighting the significance of the event in a manner that no dry, statistical outline ever could.
One of the more interesting themes in the book is the breakdown of traditional social controls. After the plague has petered out, things don’t just go back to normal in Walsham, where Hatcher has focused his efforts. The plague has transformed the society, raising doubt and dissatisfaction with the Church, flipping the feudal economics of the area as peasants become significant landowners through inheritances, and generally inspiring all sorts of questioning rebellion from the previously oppressed lower classes.
Hatcher has done a great job bringing Walsham alive, and making readers feel a part of that community, so that the oncoming dread (and subsequent tumult) is affecting, emotional, and full of power.