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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Book Review: The Scourging Angel by Benedict Gummer

Benedict Gummer's lengthy book examines the UK before, during and after the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Utilising an array of sources, Gummer builds up a thorough picture of the political and social contexts of a world very similar to our own but also very different.

The amount of detail in this book is astounding. As well as hypothesising about the probable path of the disease in England, Gummer also looks at the probable route in Scotland and Ireland - of course, this involves an in-depth analysis of the tensions between those countries and England. He also zones in on specific places in the country where detailed information was available for mortality rates (via parish records of tenancies and such). These village or town snapshots allow the plague to become more than just a sweeping disease as they show the real human effects and the consequent knock-on effects of the pestilence.

One of the central protagonists in this narrative is naturally the king of the period - Edward III. In relating the effects of the plague, Gummer also documents a sovereign somewhat successful in battle against France but flawed in other ways. The ruling classes in general are looked at in detail - both the ones who reacted well to the pestilence and those who reacted badly. The intricacies of the feudal system are well-explained by Gummer, with particular attention being paid to those which seem so alien to modern readers.

I have to say, my favourite sections of this exceptional book are those which examine the effects on - and recovery of - Ireland in this period. The plague, added to English-Irish tensions, creates a fascinating dynamic. Equally, the discussions of architecture (amid the deaths of some pioneering masons) is extremely interesting. At first I was surprised how much of the book is devoted to the after-effects of the disease but this is actually very important, showing the fundamental changes that occurred during the late fourteenth century, some a result of the plague and some not. What Gummer achieves in this book is an accessible history only occasionally bogged down by the sheer amount of detail. The immersion in his subject is evidenced not only by the extensive bibliography but by the lengthy notes section. This book is primarily a history of the Black Death but it is also a history of the UK in the fourteenth century. I bought it for the former but have found my interest piqued by the latter.

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