What can it be like to face the end of the world? The closest I came was in 2003 when I interviewed a doctor outside the Prince of Wales hospital, Hong Kong. Almost all the patients had fled and the doctor insisted we sat outside, six feet apart, wearing surgical masks. It was the height of the Sars outbreak and there was no knowing then how far or how long it would run.
On that occasion we escaped. Almost 700 years earlier, the world was not so lucky. The Black Death, the greatest disaster to befall humanity, killed half the population. It was spread by fleas that lived on rats and, once they died, turned their attention to humans. It originated in the Russian steppes and was carried via trade routes through the Middle East, Europe and eventually to the village of Walsham in Suffolk, where this book is set.
Why Walsham? Because an exceptional number of documents survive. This has enabled Hatcher, professor of history at Cambridge, to recreate the events through the eyes of the residents with scrupulous attention to detail. The result is a gripping read - part historical inquiry, part novel.
The story is centred round Master John, the parish priest, whom Hatcher has invested with an exceptional sense of vocation and a crippling conscience, questioning his faith as the plague advances. There was only one defence against the pestilence - to beg God for forgiveness. In the church's eyes, it was a punishment visited on a sinful world. Yet as the disease advanced it cut down the innocent and guilty, young and old. It was its failure to discriminate that taxed his belief. It also undermined the faith of his parishioners, who reacted with uncontrolled excitement to the arrival of every itinerant quack.
Some devised their own remedies, such as Edmund de Welles, owner of High Hall, who bent over a chamber pot and breathed in. He survived. Others lost their faith and abandoned themselves to their fate, eating, drinking and fornicating, while still others shunned worldly things and flagellated their flesh. In two months, half the village's 1,500 population were dead, their corpses piling up. By June, the plague had started to wane, only to be replaced by a new scourge.
With the population halved there was a desperate shortage of labour. Wages soared, plunging the country into economic crisis and changing the relationship between landlord and tenant for ever. It is impossible to read this book without wondering how the modern world would cope with a plague. Bird flu is waiting to strike and while we have a much-improved medical arsenal, the potential for devastation remains. Sars wreaked havoc in a few weeks. When the next plague strikes we must hope we are better prepared.
Jeremy Laurance is health editor of 'The Independent'
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