"Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence ... He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be thy sword and buckler ... Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day ... Nor for the pestilence that walketh in the darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday ... A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come on nigh thee." - From Psalm 91, the comfort of Master John, as quoted in THE BLACK DEATH
With THE BLACK DEATH, author John Hatcher has made an intelligent and clever approach at describing what it was perhaps like for the Average John Q Citizen to experience the pandemic outbreak of the Black Death, the "plague" caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which came out of Central Asia and peaked in Europe in 1348-50, wiping out 30-60% of the population.
In the Preface, Hatcher explains the conundrum he faced. While he didn't want to compose yet another historical survey of the plague's progress across Europe - so many of such already exist - he also didn't want to create a completely fictional historical novel. Rather, to pen a narrative of the common man's personal experience with the disease - about which encounter there's virtually no contemporary description - John went to the public records as a starting point. In this case, they were the manorial court and accounts roles of the village of Walsham le Willows in west Suffolk, England, which are notably complete for the years in question. From these documents, the author populates the Walsham of his "docudrama" with people that really lived and engaged in the routine (and faithfully recorded) activities of life - marriages, births, deaths, petty crimes, personal legal squabbles, local elections, manorial court sessions, crop harvest yields, goods' prices, etc. - to thus paint a picture of the community's environment from 1345 to 1350, i.e. before, during, and after the Black Death struck in the Spring of 1349. Fictional dialogue between the characters, otherwise kept to a minimum, is inserted to flesh out the narrative and is based on reasonable supposition and what is known of the customs of the time.
Walsham's records have one glaring omission; there is nowhere recorded the name of the village priest. Out of necessity, then, Hatcher introduces his only completely fictional character, John Bradfield ("Master John"), God's shepherd for the parish of St. Mary's Church. As envisioned by the author, John is a learned, compassionate, honest, unworldly, wise, and pious cleric who assiduously cares for the spiritual well-being of his flock to the point, during the worst of the plague, of exhaustion; he becomes the hero of the piece. In that respect, the Walsham of THE BLACK DEATH was lucky indeed.
For those readers living in a western society where the various levels of government refrain from sponsorship of any organized religion, the importance of the Catholic Church to the everyday lives of the English commoners, as depicted in THE BLACK DEATH, may be a revelation. The central government, at this time the monarchy headed by Edward III, played virtually no role in attempts, beyond exhortations to the realm's various bishops to urge the faithful to increased prayer and penance against a background of more sermons, Masses, and powerful indulgences, to explain or protect its subjects from the pestilence as it marched inexorably across mainland Europe towards their island bastion. Master John, then, found himself at the pointy end of the only defense then believed able to potentially deflect God's wrath. The fact that the Church failed - indeed, could not but fail - does not detract from the fact that it tried. For those front-line clerics of the same honesty, competency, and dedication as Master John - and many such certainly existed (and died with the disease) - posthumous honor is due.
From an amateur historian's perspective, the second substantial lesson of the book is the change in the foundation of medieval society, i.e. the relationship of the villeins to their manorial masters, which the depopulation by disease precipitated. The surviving rustics got uppity in their demands for better wages and benefits - something they could pull off because of the resultant labor shortage - and their world was never the same again (much to the distress of the affluent Church and the landed nobility).
The volume includes a 27-page section of bibliography-based Notes and a 16-page collection of photographs of elements of paintings and illustrated manuscripts, all which support the nature of the society and environment which the author means to re-create.
Any casual or serious student of psychology, English history, and/or the effects of a universally devastating disease on societal structure should find THE BLACK DEATH convincing and absolutely fascinating. John Hatcher admirably achieved what he set out to do, and I think his book one of the best I've read all year.