Rewriting History

John Hatcher, Chairman of the Cambridge History Faculty , explains how in the absence of extensive sources he drew on fiction to tell the story of the Black Death and argues that historians need not always confine themselves to conventional historical techniques. The Black Death: A Personal History has just been published in US and UK and rights already been sold to Spain and Latin America.

This book is not a conventional history book. It combines solid history with fiction. Having studied and taught about the Black Death for more than thirty years I wanted to find a new way of adding to our knowledge and understanding of this massively important but very well-worked historical event. I therefore decided to try to write an intimate history of the tumultuous years of the mid-fourteenth century seen through the eyes of those who lived and died in the ferociously lethal epidemic. It was to be a history from the inside, with the hindsight, overviews, judgments and perspectives of the twenty-first century historian banished from the text.

But I soon found it impossible to reconstruct in a deep and satisfying manner the experiences of ordinary people in the tumultuous years between 1345 and 1351 by using surviving sources in the conventional manner. For even the very best of the local records, including those of the Suffolk village of Walsham-le-Willows that provide the foundations of this study, reveal frustratingly little in a direct fashion about what was heard, thought, believed or done by ordinary villagers and their priests. The fourteenth century has left no diaries, reminiscences or correspondence, and precious few sustained commentaries. In fact, there is scarcely any truly personal information about the mass of men and women who lived at the time, for they were illiterate and their rulers and betters were not concerned to write much about them. Surviving records reveal instead the motives and priorities of the lords who commissioned them and the clerks and administrators who compiled them, by concentrating on such largely impersonal matters as legal disputes, community regulations, landholdings, the exercise of seignorial authority and the extraction of seigniorial payments.

Imagine the excitement if a manuscript were to be discovered that provided a detailed eyewitness account of the devastating impact of the plague on an English village and the suffering of its inhabitants. But no such document will ever be found for nothing like it was ever written, and it will never be possible to know for certain more than a small part of what it was like to live and die in the time of the Black Death. If this hidden story is to be told it cannot be by using orthodox historical methods. But this does not mean that historians should leave its telling entirely to novelists, dramatists and filmmakers. Acceptable historical methods frequently proceed from the known to the unknown, and historians commonly draw heavily on the facts in order to tackle issues and answer questions beyond where the facts take them. I have tried to do just this, but in a decidedly more explicit and adventurous fashion. The central part of this book is constructed in the form of a narrative written by a contemporary a few years after the Black Death, and it therefore contains speculation as well as specifics, fiction as well as fact.

Indeed, it more closely resembles docudrama or creative nonfiction than traditional history, and it contains dialogue. But, as far as possible, the recreations are based on what is known to have happened, and the attitudes and ideas expressed by the characters are derived from what contemporary sources would lead us to expect. Even the language the characters use, though modernised, is drawn heavily, and frequently directly, from fourteenth-century sources, as the endnotes testify.

Manor court rolls, farm accounts, sermons, moral literature, manuals written for the guidance of parish priests, liturgies, theological debates, chronicles, legislation, art and artefacts, and much more besides, have all been used to recreate the world of the mid-fourteenth century, but they can only take us so far. The characters that feature in this book are almost all based on actual people who lived at the time in Walsham and its region, and the evidence provided by surviving records of who they were and what they did has been used to the fullest extent. But these records are commonly fragmentary, prosaic and frustratingly oblique. In order to provide both a satisfactory narrative and new insights into the lives of the villagers it has been necessary to flesh out the events and the characters beyond the limits that these laconic sources will take us. In doing this I have tried to be guided by what I know about these years and what the people who lived in them were like.

The leading character, Walsham’s priest, called Master John, is based on the notions of Chaucer and Langland on what constituted a good priest, and in his daily life I have made John draw for guidance on William Pagula’s Oculis Sacerdotis, a mid-fourteenth-century manual for parish priests. The tales that are told to Walsham’s villagers of the devastation wrought by a terrible pestilence in far off lands, follow closely the substance, chronology and even the language of the reports that contemporary observers and annalists have left to posterity. From midsummer 1349, as the pestilence threatened to invade England, many bishops sent out letters of warning and advice to be read out in plain English in the churches in their dioceses. A scene has been created in which such a letter is read out by Master John to a shocked congregation in St Mary’s, Walsham. This letter is then interpreted by the priest in terms drawn from contemporary theology and religious teaching, and the questions asked by parishioners, and the answers given to them, follow the debates that raged at the time. While the pattern and chronology of the advance of the pestilence towards Walsham, and the death rates it caused in the village, are very firmly anchored by facts, the narrative of events in its immediate aftermath takes the remarkable administrative records that were painstakingly compiled as a starting point for recreating the despair, confusion, conflict, frustrations and opportunities that faced the survivors in a world turned upside down. These and many other scenes and sequences have been created with the intention of providing windows through which the mentalities, sentiments and experiences of people in this traumatic time may be observed.

My motives were those of a historian: to teach the truth about the period in so far as we understand it, and to reveal the lost history of the Black Death, rather than to invent it or simply tell a good story. I do not know whether many of the events in this book took place in Walsham and its region in the way they are described. But I believe they are likely to have done so in a broadly similar fashion in many places throughout England. Nevertheless, much of the book remains an invention, a wide-ranging speculation on what might have taken place rather than a much more constrained account of what we know did take place.

I was encouraged in my writing by a number of supportive colleagues, friends and experts in this field, and who found the format that I had chosen threw welcome light on some important themes very poorly illuminated by surviving sources. Recreating and playing out scenes from the time of the Black Death in which the documents we have were compiled and used, and where the beliefs, arguments and sentiments we read about were expressed, debated and questioned, can lead to the reinforcement or the questioning of our assumptions. At the least, I hope that this book may serve as an accessible means of entering into an unfamiliar distant world during a period of unprecedented crisis.

About article author

John Hatcher

John Hatcher

John Hatcher is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Cambridge, Vice-Master of Corpus Christi College, and will shortly become Chairman of the Faculty of History.For many years he was editor of the 'Economic History Review', the leading international journal in the fiel...More about John Hatcher