Saturday, July 15, 2017

Hatcher, John (2009): The Black Death - A Personal History

What is it about?

This is a curious book. It is written by a professional historian, but is written as a "semi-fictional" story. That is, the story running through the book is fictional by nature, but it is written as far as possible based on historical facts.

The book is situated in Suffolk, Great Britan, in the rural parish of Walsham le Willows, for which there are excellent historical records available for the focal period of 1340s to 1350s. Consequently, the characters and other contextual aspects can be based quite well on historical facts such as court records.

The story is told with the parish priest, Master John as the main character. Consequently, the perception by the common people towards the pestilence appear quite theological in nature -- which well might have been the case in the absence of modern medical knowledge. However, there voice of the story is that of an external narrator.

Welcomingly, each of the chapters begins with a non-fictional contextualizing section, which provides the current historical knowledge of the issues presented in the fictional story in the chapter.

Was it good?

The book is fascinatingly set up due to the "semi-fictional" style. Moreover, the historical-factual sections at the beginning of each chapter clearly add value and more generally make the story more compelling.

Actually, the historical-factual sections make even better reading than the fictional story itself. Namely, it is somewhat evident that the author is not very experienced with writing fictional narrative -- for example sometimes the narrative reverts to the form of "this happened, and then this, and thereafter also this" without much nuance and vividness.

Overall, however, the book paints a compelling and interesting picture of what it was like to live through the black death (or one instance of it) during the Middle Ages.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me is probably the vast difference in world view between us today and the people living in the Middle Ages. Namely, if the book is to be believed, fortunes and misfortunes were explained during the Middle Ages to a large degree theologically, and consequently prayer and all kinds of religious rituals were primary in combating, say, a pandemic disease -- which, from the modern Western post-industrial standpoint is largely if not entirely futile.

Who should read the book?

I think that anyone interested in the black death of the Middle Ages more in general would find the book quite interesting. However, if one seeks a thoroughly enjoyable fictional story to read, this book may not be the prime choice to make.

The book on The Black Death

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