This totally absorbing book presents the best account ever written about the worst event to have ever befallen the British Isles. In the hands of John Hatcher, an English medievalist of sober and steady reputation who has for decades been squirreled away in one of the smaller, older, and least obtrusive of Cambridge colleges, the extraordinary tragedy of the great plague which wiped out as much as 60% of the population of 14th-century Europe and killed an estimated 75 million worldwide has been brought to life in a manner rarely attempted, and with a level of success even more rarely achieved.
"Much of life passes unrecorded, and so is all but lost to future generations," Mr. Hatcher wrote in the foreword to an earlier book. "In the flood of histories of institutions, major events and long-term processes, life as it was lived for most of the time frequently gets left out of the picture." This is an essential recitation of his method in "The Black Death" (Da Capo Press, 318 pages, $27.50) to draw patiently from the available documents any clues, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant, as to just how life was lived at the time by ordinary people and so to write medieval history "from the inside," from the point of view of the peasant and the parson, rather than from the traditional perspective of the prince or the panjandrum. The technique, offered here with masterly precision and for a lay audience, makes for a history book like very few others, and a triumph at that.
Library shelves groan under an insupportable mass of volumes about the dreadful flea-borne pestilence that spread across Europe in the middle of the 14th century the number of books being equaled only by the scores that deal with the very similar plague that killed thousands in London three centuries later. The Black Death, the Awful Malady, the Vast Pestilence, the Great Mortality, the plague has been called by many names, and is in many senses a perfect topic for the lazy historian the subject matter is adequately horrifying, the known descriptions are vividly readable, the social implications are sufficiently varied to allow for the kind of wild speculations that make for a book publicist's dream.
None can deny that the Black Death marked a historical turning point, and brought about social changes in Europe that were both profound and lasting most notably the empowerment of the poor and the collapse of serfdom. But the accounts that have resulted in the past and four or five more have emerged so far this decade, so commercially attractive is the plague to the publishing industry all seem to tell in essence much the same story, and in the very same way: Rumors are heard of distant illness, fear gathers as what is clearly a terrible disaster edges ever closer, neighbors appear with lurid tales, and then suddenly local people become afflicted. Skins turn black, huge swellings appear in groins and armpits, blood is spat, and horrible, hacking death sweeps in like a rainsquall and at incredible speed, leaving thousands to be limed and buried, while stunned communities try desperately to recover sanity and order.
That is the Black Death as sound bite, and rare is the account that manages to take it very much further. But Mr. Hatcher has turned his highly specialized attentions to the minutiae of the tale, and in doing so has come up with a book half fact, half highly informed speculation that can have few rivals.
In his academic work, Mr. Hatcher has immersed himself in the documentary details of the pestilence for the better part of four decades, and he is all too familiar with the surprisingly abundant archival documents court papers, parish records, sermons, later Elizabethan surveys that allowed him and the small corps d'elite of medieval scholars to meditate on the circumstances and travails of the times, and to publish occasional arcana for the amusement of, primarily, one another.
But then Mr. Hatcher took the further, bolder step. True to Emily Dickinson's famous mantra "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant," he realized some years ago that the vast troves of yellowed documents he had at hand would allow him, if interpreted painstakingly and carefully, to tell the inside history of the plague that had never been written to create, from published sources, a series of dramatic tableaux that would give a cinematic quality to what had hitherto been dry, or vague, or a matter of baseless speculation.
He had simply to choose a location, pepper it with carefully delineated people priests, noblemen, justices, and, most important, believable ordinary folk, who would become victims or survivors of the onrushing disease and create what he would dare to call (to the possible chagrin of his more severely unforgiving peers) a literary docudrama.
He chose accordingly a village in Suffolk, in East Anglia, a church-on-a-crossroads settlement named Walsham, a community with two manor houses, halfway between Cambridge and the sea, which in 1345, at the beginning of the story, had a population of a little more than a thousand. By 1349, when the final convulsions of the plague were over, fewer than five hundred remained.
In fine, absorbing detail, Mr. Hatcher tells the story month by month, year by year. Each chapter opens with a rubric outlining what is definitively known, and follows with a m้lange of astonishingly detailed but imagined reconstruction of what happened to the people of this typical English village. His writing manages by its simple economy to be so vivid that one feels quite acutely the leaden press of the calamity: One wants to weep for the passing of the men and women who fell victim, to rejoice for the courage and luck of those who survived, and to give thanks that the community itself managed somehow to hang on, and recover.
As recover it did as did all of England, eventually. Walsham survived what seemed the unsurvivable, and grew back to its former size and strength. Seven centuries later, it is once again a pretty little village, with one church and two manors, a nice pub, a batik instructor, kickboxing classes, a flourishing soccer club that sports its own Web site, and 32 gardens that are open to the public in summer on purchase of a five-pound pass.
But more than the merely physical weathered the calamity. Historians have long posited a bewildering array of consequences of the plague. The reduced population made the peasantry more valuable as workers, made them aware of their value, gave them muscle in the market, and gave rise to social mobility. Language changed as people moved across the land, and dialect was diluted. More land became available. Food supplies increased. The failure of the church to offer good reason for the pestilence weakened its hold, giving new power to skepticism and secularism.
And the makings of the England that these changes helped fashion today's democratic, capitalist, and more-or-less secular England are all on view in the village that for the last two centuries has called itself Walsham-le-Willows, a lovely new name for a community that once went through a terrible time, and emerged all the better for it.
Mr. Winchester is the author of "The Professor and the Madman," "Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded," and "A Crack in the Edge of the World." His latest book is "The Man Who Loved China."