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John Hatcher, The Black Death: A Personal History, literary docudrama, teaching


John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History is an unconventional text. It recounts the experience of plague by a single, extraordinarily well-documented village in Suffolk, England: Walsham le Willows. While such a focus perhaps seems fairly standard of case studies or microhistory, Hatcher’s book is more than a narrow treatment of a corner of England. In a preface entitled “The Nature of This Book,” he opens with a discussion of both his journey toward the realization that he wanted to write a markedly different sort of treatment of the Black Death than present in extant scholarship and a rather startling confession: while he based his text on the abundant sources for Walsham, he had created a “literary docudrama rather than conventional history” (ix). Because the everyday lives and deaths of the people who lived in Walsham are inaccessible in the historical record, Hatcher takes what some would call liberties by inventing these details in his quest to write an “intimate history of the Black Death” (xi). Perhaps the most striking element of Hatcher’s approach involves his “invention” (xiv) of the book’s central figure, Master John, the village priest. Silence in the records on the identity of fourteenth-century Walsham’s spiritual leader allows Hatcher to create the character of Master John as the book’s protagonist, as well as the reader’s guide to the village. He explains that Master John is a composite character based on fourteenth-century evidence, although he notes that his decision to make the character “a good priest” (xiv) was an arbitrary one. Hatcher personalizes the Black Death and its effects by recounting the experience of the disease through Master John and the book’s other “characters,” who are almost all based on actual people living in Walsham at the time.