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The Black Death: A Personal History

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  690 Ratings  ·  101 Reviews
In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, John Hatcher, a world-renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, recreates everyday life in a mid-fourteenth century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived?and died?during the Black Death (1345?50 AD), Hatcher vividly places the reader directly into those tumultuous years ...more
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Published June 1st 2009 by Da Capo Press (first published 2008)
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Petra Eggs
The best of times and the worst of times is true in every generation often depending on how much money you have, or at least patronage from someone who does. But until the modern era it was always the worst of times when your locality got infected with the Black Death.

There was no knowledge of germs or rats as vectors for disease, it was all miasmas and punishment from the Christian God who at that time was conceived as vengeful and harsh. The later Christian God who is ever-loving and forgivin
Mar 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This excellent book is a creative reconstruction of a village in crisis, from 1345 - 1350. The author chose the village of Walsham (now Walsham-le-Willows) in North West Suffolk, as it had good local records for him to plunder. Saying that, there are no diaries or any personal records and, so, the author does make the book more intimate by creative writing and creating characters - such as Master John, responsible for the villagers spiritual needs. However, where possible he uses real names, peo ...more
Lucy Barnhouse
I found this book both impressive and engaging. Hatcher (an eminent medieval historian) himself describes the genre of this unusual book as resembling a "docudrama," which is probably the best way of encapsulating it. It's likely to appeal to the interested layperson, but could also be useful for classroom use by history instructors. Hatcher uses the surviving records of an English village (reaching beyond it to nearby towns and manors, and, where relevant, to continental Europe.) He then recons ...more
Jan 15, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This could have been done better. In fact, I think a similar concept was applied when Barbara Tuchman wrote 'A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century'. She created a very cohesive narrative by selecting a relatively obscure figure out of history and tracing the events of the century as they had happened to him, on both a grand and a very personal level. The difference here is that her figure, Enguerrand de Coucy, was a very real person, as opposed to Hatcher's Master John, who is a wo ...more
Jan 16, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: black plague devotees, covington cross fans, ascetic religious figures, humble flagellants
Shelves: read-in-2009
although i found this book strangely compelling while i was reading it, i probably wouldn't ever want to give it a re-read. the author is a prolific historian who specializes in the middle ages, apparently, & has written a bunch of straightforward history books about the black plague & the economic development of europe in medieval times. he bills this book as a kind of "docudrama," focusing on the mid-sized english village of walsham during the years leading up to the black plague, the ...more
Jan 14, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hist-fic, non-fic
The Black Death, AKA the bubonic and/or pneumonic plague, has been characterized as the greatest disaster in human history, killing 50% of the population throughout the Middle East and Europe. While factual chronicles abound, Cambridge historian John Hatcher has now endeavored to bring his readers a more immediate sense of what it must have been like to experience the cataclysm first hand. Hatcher chose to focus on the English village of Walsham, which was struck by plague in 1349, describing wh ...more
I quite enjoyed this history of the Black Death as seen through the eyes of those who lived at the time.

It's written quite differently, with a very strong dose of historical facts which are linked together with some educated guesses, and it works very well. It gives an incredibly intimate impression of what it was like to live through the pestilence. My favorite aspect of this was probably what it was like while people were waiting for the disease to arrive - to start with, they assumed they wou
Aug 15, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the very few books that I have not been able to finish. The combination of fiction and fact in this book was difficult to read and did not mesh well. I felt that the facts were incredibly interesting but the story was incredibly boring. This would have been much better off as a non-fiction piece.
Jul 20, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: plague-disease
Godology seemed to have added terrible distress to those destined only to live another 24 hours
Mar 19, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
It's historical fiction, so... where's the fiction? Sure, there are made-up characters but judging by the historical facts presented at the beginning of each chapter, there really wasn't much fiction going on. Plus, the fact that the peak of the Black Death was skimmed over while giving so much attention to its effects in the upcoming years kinda bothered me. Yes, it is an important part of history and brought many changes to the land and way of living, but I picked up thia book to know how peop ...more
Jan 08, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
As a literature student, my academic interests have recently tended towards contemporary fiction and particularly what gets called "historiographical metafiction": fictional works that blur the line between history and fiction, and ultimately force the question of how all of what we "know" about the past is constructed.

So I was intrigued to find a history book, by a well-respected historian, that seems to be participating in similar kinds of modes as some of the ficitonal works I've been studyin
The Black Death is, the author argues, a docudrama - not a history, nor a work of literature, but something between the two. (I suspect he had in mind a BBC reconstruction of the events of the time, the kind of thing that would show up on PBS.) As such it's hard to find an appropriate response. As literature it's too ponderous, too slow, and lacking in plot. As history it's pretty absorbing, although it's hard to put aside that we're reading made-up conversations, and the central figure is entir ...more
Jul 01, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I expected this book to be a grisly account of those suffering the disease - perhaps that appealed to me on some level. But that's not what it is at all (and perhaps that's why readers on this site haven't liked it more -- they wanted the macabre details).
The section of "The Black Death" dealing with the actual infection was brief. The majority of the book focused on the months leading up to the outbreak, as rumors of pestilence to the south reached Walsham (a small village in England) and the
Apr 26, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a great idea -- to create a "personal" history of one of the greatest disasters of human history -- the black plague of the Middle Ages. In this novel (well, it is labelled "docudrama")John Hatcher, historian, transports the reader into a real community, Walsham in North West Suffolk. Hatcher selects this village because it provided some of the best primary sources for the period. Each chapter has a preface describing the research conclusions and historical context. In order to shed light o ...more
The Badger
Plague enthusiasts (such as myself) who are interested in the particulars of the disease and its spread--especially in urban areas--this probably isn't for you. However, this book is an excellent study on how the plague changed the sociological make-up of rural areas. Most of the focus in this book is post-plague, and deals with the issues of fair wages, the right of the individual to make a living before paying taxes to the Lords and Ladies who demand to be first priority. Basically, what happe ...more
I was intrigued by the concept of this book - combining fiction and nonfiction to create a "personal" portrait of a small 14th century English village faced with the plague epidemic. However, the end result was pretty disappointing - very dry and academic (which are not normally negatives for me). The "fiction" sections felt like a history lesson carefully put in the mouths of "fictional" characters and was not very convincing. The information is interesting, but I wish I had just skimmed the bo ...more
Heather Pundt
Disappointed, expecting much more. This is the book you read to inspire you to write your own. Too much apology about veering from history makes me think the author wasn't really ready or had the heart to write this book. The narrator's voice was supposed to be a character in itself but the fact that we have to be reminded of the narrator’s presence in the later chapters shows I think that even his peer readers before publication were not feeling the voice of the narrator character. Too bad, I r ...more
Feb 25, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was very informative, but since it was written by a historian and his intention was to tell an accurate tale of the Bubonic Plague, it comes off rather dry and a bit boring. I would have liked an historic account of the 12th century epidemic a bit better I think, than this "hybrid" of fiction and history. Oh, and he keeps calling is a "docudrama." I decided I sort of hate that word. Sorry, not my cup of tea.
Kate F
Nov 14, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Viewing the tragedy of the Black Death from a more personal angle.
Jan Chlapowski Söderlund
* * * - I liked this book, but it had underexploited potential.

John Hatcher has written a historical account of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague, attempting to write a more living account than most other retellings of this historical period. In the preface, J.H. explains that he wanted to write a living fiction-like but historically accurate novel using his knowledge as a historian to make the details accurate. He precisely details his goals and the means with which he plans to achieve them; am
Aug 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had trouble finding books that focused on the Black Death in the 1340's. Luckily, I discovered this one and it was a fascinating read!
It's non-fiction but most of it reads like a novel. I think it's been referred to as a "docu-drama" type thing, which I think is accurate. Each chapter starts out with an overview of the month or year, and then the chapter is about the people living in the village of Walsham and how their lives were directly or indirectly affected by the plague.
The sources Hatch
May 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This was a very interesting book. Both in topic and the way it was written

The topic of the black plague and how it affected an individual village was both unique and informative.....and made this book highly personal and engaging. The way the book was written - part history, part fiction worked very we'll.

And in any case - I'm very glad I didn't have to live through these times!!
This was really interesting, but honestly, there wasn't quite as much graphic death and destruction as I was hoping for. I wasn't quite as engaged as I expected to be. It was definitely a cool concept, though, and well-executed.
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Marvelous account of such a desperate time in human history. Fascinating to see the way people lived during that time and how they coped with this tragedy. I bought this book for my own library.
Caitlin Augustus
rambling and awkward-paced with an unsatisfying ending.
Robert Tostevin
Jun 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: blogged
A very readable historical book.
One commentator described this book as "History written from the inside" & I'd agree.
The book covers an interpreted narrative around the events as recorded in the Sussex village of Walsham's Manorial Court records from 1345 up to 1350.

From these basic Manor records - recording fines, land transfers, deaths, marriages etc - along with John Hatchers extensive knowledge of life and attitudes during this period - he constructs a narrative around the lives & de
It is hard to characterize this book. It is a historic fictionalization of an actual village in England's encounter with the Black Death and the immediate years of the aftermath, basically covering late summer 1435 through 1350. Every event or reaction is known from chronicles of this village or others; the people named actually existed, though the personalities of most are fictional. Hatcher's intent is to make history vivid and personal. Each chapter is prefaced by 2-4 or 5 pages giving the hi ...more
Aug 09, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
DONE! Finally, I thought it would never end. I gave it two stars because it is an interesting read after you drag yourself through the first half. Once the Plague comes to town it starts to really get interesting. What's most fascinating in this book is the interplay between the wealthy landowners and the peasant class before, during, and after the run of the plague. This book only covers the outbreak in and around 1350.

Nearly all of the docudrama stories that were about anyone other than the '
Oct 12, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cannonball-read
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 h ...more
Cassandra Miller
I thought this book was pretty good and really informative, but when I first read that it was a "docudrama", I really thought it would focus more on the lives of certain people, instead of the community. I was hoping to follow each persons lives, what they did eaah day, who they married and their children, and how the plague affected their lives. This was show a couple of times in the book, but then it went back to the social and political climate, which gets difficult to read after a while, whi ...more
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Madison Mega-Mara...: An interesting prospective on the Black Death 2 7 Jan 23, 2013 10:37AM  
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A specialist in the economic, social and demographic history of England from the middle ages to the eighteenth century, John Hatcher is Professor of Economic and Social History at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge.
More about John Hatcher...

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