Sunday, 24 October 2010

Book No 2

As you might have guessed from the first of my 5 books, there is a vogue at the moment for narrative history rather than what you might call expository history (or some might call dry, factual history). I wonder whether it's the printed word responding to the dynamic way television has started bringing history to life?

Years ago, for my own pleasure - if that's the right word - I read Philip Ziegler's The Black Death – pretty much the standard popular work on the progress of the plague in the thirteen forties – and I was looking forward to reading it again as preparation for TB&TW when, in Foyle's of Cambridge, I came across John Hatcher's The Black Death: An Intimate History. The hardback (it was newly published) has a pretty forbidding skeletal grim reaper on the front and its title isn't as explanatory as the paperback which is sub-subtitled The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis 1345-50.

To almost-quote a well-known advert – it does what it says on the cover.

Hatcher takes us to Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk, one of the almost unbelievably well-documented Suffolk villages that medieval social and economic historians love so much. In those days it was just Walsham, the 'le Willows' being applied in a later century, and if you were expecting a cluster of hovels with underfed scraggy people wandering disconsolately about muttering about how they were done down by their lords (which some recent novels set in the medieval period might have led you to expect) then think again. Walsham, which was home to the people of two manors – Walsham itself and the smaller manor of High Hall - was home to over a thousand people and some of them were pretty well off. The families at the head of the village pecking order held more than twenty acres which made them hugely more than the kind of subsistence farmers most people imagine medieval peasants to have been (and which – to be fair – the village was actually full of).

[I actually bought a book on the villages of medieval Suffolk (not one of my five, not because it's not excellent but because it turned out to be less than ultra relevant to TB&TW) thinking that what was true of Suffolk must be true of most of the country (the current BBC series, The Story of England is taking exactly this line with its in-depth look at the archaeology and records of the Leicester village of Kibworth) but I soon found out that I was wrong. The system of inheritance in Suffolk, was different from the more familiar system of primogeniture practised in most other places – in Suffolk, as in modern France, land was divided between all the heirs which led to all sorts of social difficulties that I don't need to go into here as they don't form the substance of the book. As my main protagonist comes from Gloucester, this kind of thing would have been outlandish to him. Just another example of not knowing what you don't know until you start reasearching your book...]

Anyway, back to An Intimate History. John Hatcher is (I gather) an economic historian but he has the instincts of a novelist. Before he even starts on the main body of his work, he outlines the whole social fabric of Walsham briefly, succinctly and evocatively, in his introduction. Before you're introduced to a single individual in this 'intimate history', you already know what kind of place they live in and which stratum of society they're going to fit into. And a medieval village had as many strata as any town today, believe me. If I hadn't already learned that from Ian Mortimer's book (see previous post) I'd soon have worked it out from this one.

And it's the people – rather than the economic life of the village - who are the mainstay of the book, as the jacket copy leaves you in no doubt:

Agnes sat up with John all night, intermittently mumbling prayers and falling into fitful and troubled short naps. And when she did doze off she was confronted by a crowd of grinning demons striving with their infernal claws to snatch away her husband's soul.

John did not regain hs senses, and soon after sunrise he stopped breathing.

Agnes arose and looked vainly around the bare room. She lit the candle that the priest had sold her and recited the Placebo as best she could. But the words of the prayer which she had known well since she was twelve kept slipping from her mind. As she washed John's body she was shocked to see that much of his skin was now blotched and blackened, and that there were a number of swellings as well as a carbuncle in his groin. She folded him into a clean sheet. Then she fetched some sticks of wood that she washed and dried, and placed them at the edge of the embers in the hearth and waited till the ends blackened and burned to ash. Taking them up she allowed them to cool, and then carefully traced a cross on the shroud, and smoothed and shaped it with her fingers.

We see quite a lot of Agnes in the book, along with many other village characters, all of whom Hatcher has drawn from the astonishingly detailed Walsham manor court rolls.

We follow the progress of summer 1349 when, as Hatcher says, the population of the village was 'scythed in half'. Life, which had consisted of the same ambitions, fears, petty rivalries and major disagreements for as long as anybody could remember, was utterly turned upside down in a way that the villagers could neither comprehend nor, initially, cope with. And, through it all, they are supported by Master John, the iconic 'good parson' of the middle ages; he is the first character we are introduced to and he is with us, almost, to the last. And it is partly through his contacts outside the village that we are introduced to the England beyond Walsham, from the new religious guilds that were springing up in the mid-fourteenth century to the state of medical knowledge shared with Master John by his friend the infirmarer at St Edmondsbury.

This marrying of the intimate history of the village with events in the wider world – and indeed with expository writing on the progress of the plague – is managed by a brief foreword at the beginning of each chapter that places its subject-matter in a wider context. From the inexorable spread of the pestilence to the church's reaction to it; from the role of the monastic infirmarer to contemporary descriptions of the plague (not for the faint hearted) we are given an overview of the progress and effects of the Black Death on Great Britain as well as the more up-close-and-personal account that is the meat of the book.

And it is up-close. We watch people die. We watch family members trying, desperately, to ensure that their nearest and dearest don't die. We watch a village struggling to remain afloat as family after family after family is torn apart. It soon becomes obvious that nothing will ever be the same again.

And one of the things I liked most about the book was the way in which it gave us a small taste of life in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death. We see Walsham's surviving inhabitants understanding that the balance of power has shifted from their lords to themselves, that the balance preserved by too many people fighting for too little land has been upended by the need of that same land to be farmed by a very diminished population. While land is in demand, the power is with those who hold the land; once labour is in demand, well, guess who holds the power now?

I truly admired this book. It read like a novel and I kept forgetting to make notes as I went along. In the end I gave up and just raced to the end. But this turned out to be a mistake as the one failure of An Intimate History, in my view, is its lack of an index. If you can't remember where you read a particular detail, you just have to trawl through the whole book until you find it again.

But that's a small gripe. In general, I can do no better than agree with the reviewer from the Sunday Business Post:

'A compelling tale of ordinary people faced with a horror beyond imagining'



Tim Stretton said...

Wow! Sounds like some book, Alis.

Perhaps not one to have on the bedside table, though...

Alis said...

Despite all of that, there is something of the triumph of the human spirit about the book, Tim. And the essential Englishness of the folk of Walsham really comes through - somehow they feel like us, despite the gap of six hundred and sixty years.

Justin (3MinuteTheologian) said...

Have you read "Eifelheim" by Michael Flynn? The Black Death comes to a village in the Black Forest, the parish priest is a refugee from the Sorbonne, the parish deacon is a refugee from the radical wing of the Franciscans, and, oh, … an alien space-craft crash lands in the words. But don't worry because that is the catalyst for long, and completely convincing, applications of the medieval world view on questions of "what makes a human".

Best evocation of fourteenth century I've read (beats Tuchman into a cocked hat)

Alis said...

Hi Justin. Wow. that sounds... surreal. I'll have to see if I can get a copy.Thanks for the recommendation!

C. N. Nevets said...

Hatcher's book is phenomenal. I'm glad to see it on your list, Alis. Good reading, powerful story, and academically intriguing enough to have inspired multiple presentations at a forensics conference I attended about six months after it came out.

Alis said...

Hi Nevets - yes, you've only got to look at the sheer quantity of notes to see the depth of scholarship that went into The Black Death.