Back in the good old days, when the pound was worth a fistful of dollars, Iceland was solvent and no one had ever heard of Sir Fred Goodwin, life was peaceful here on the Suffolk prairie. We worked hard, practised religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and when we felt we were becoming too provincial, we pushed ourselves to hear Brahms in a barn converted into a concert hall or to visit a garden in the Yellow Book. It was on one of those open-minded outings last summer that we made our way to Walsham le Willows, a village two miles away, to attend a talk on the Black Death.
Like most country folk, I enjoy healthy melancholy, but even I wouldn’t ordinarily be tempted by a talk advertised as ‘An Intimate History of the Plague’. However, the speaker, Cambridge historian John Hatcher, had written a book set in the Suffolk village of Walsham and there’s something about propinquity that arouses curiosity. That, plus the fact that the talk was being held at Clarkes of Walsham, local builder and agricultural merchant, where we get our farm gates, water troughs, hay mangers, cattle grids and chicken feeders.
What drew Prof Hatcher to Walsham was a similar fascination for the machinery of rural life in his case, the unusually good records of the transactions between the lords of the manor and their tenants in the village’s two manorial courts during the 1340s. These records show that the Great Pestilence reached Walsham in about Easter 1349, killing more than half of the population of about 1,500.
The court records also provide the names and details of taxes and death duties, impressive when you realise that the death rate was close to 50 a day. Prof Hatcher then brings all this death to life by using sermons, chronicles and contemporary accounts of the time, locating them in Walsham in a kind of timeline docudrama history.
Our farm, part of a manorial court next door to Walsham, would also have witnessed the pandemic that killed half the population of Europe. Historians now trace the end of feudalism to the plague. The death toll over four years was 75 million, and the diminished workforce could refuse to reap corn for free. Not only did labour acquire a market value, the Church lost credibility. The survivors were less inclined to worship a god who punished his people for their sins with a devastating pestilence.
But if historians now associate the beginning of capitalism with the plague, scientists have revisionist theories, too. For centuries, rats and fleas were blamed for the Black Death, but now the finger points to an Ebola-like virus. I study the plague symptoms tumours in the groin and armpits, a purple rash, death within three days with predictable anxiety.
But, in fact, I’m too distracted by a new pandemic. Its cause may be less mysterious, but it’s complicated all the same. Village houses with the patina of centuries are festooned with For Sale signs. I counted 16 in Walsham this week. Sadder still: the country pubs. When these close, the windows and doors now are boarded up, a visual slap as evocative as a painted cross as a symbol of contagion.
And every week, another warning: the beloved three-tier school system is going, a cost-cutting exercise that will not benefit our children, but will raise money to pay the toxic debts, including Sir Fred’s pension. Even the hospital in Bury St Edmunds is threatened with closure, in a merger with Ipswich.
I hope records of these days are being kept so that future Prof Hatchers will be able to chronicle the rural world in 2009. Please forgive me if I sound overly dramatic, likening an economic disaster to the plague. I realise there is no comparison. The plague in Walsham was over in eight weeks.