Somewhere to review books I'm reading without giving away any spoilers!
My historical fiction series, the Meonbridge Chronicles, of which Children’s Fate is the fourth book, is set in the middle of the 14th century, a period (in)famous for its devastating plague. The events of the first novel don’t concern the Black Death itself but rather its consequences for a community that lost so many of its members. But Children’s Fate, sadly, is at least partly “about” plague, which returned to England many times over the ensuing centuries.
I was still writing this fourth novel when our world was plunged into chaos by COVID-19. It was unsettling writing about a pandemic whilst in the midst of one, but it also gave me food for thought: it’s particularly interesting to see the parallels between the two events so many centuries apart.
In the 14th century, people had some curious (to us) ideas about the causes of the disease. Death was of course everyday: accidents were commonplace, illness mostly incurable, and even untreatable, life generally subject to many risks. Medieval people often attributed adversity of any kind, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, to God’s will or the Devil’s work.
The Black Death, or indeed any disaster, was deemed the result of mankind’s sin. That was what the Church maintained. But there were scientific explanations too: various complicated theories about the movements of the planets, and also ideas that miasma, or foul air, was to blame.
But how did folk then deal with the plague?
Isolation – social distancing, as we now call it – was certainly understood. The premise for Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) is the self-isolation of a group of young people who flee Florence to escape the plague. And a 14th century French physician, Jean Jacmé, wrote, in a treatise on the plague: “In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected”*
So close contact with your neighbours was to be avoided… And people did go into “lockdown”, confining their families to their homes, going out only to fetch water, buy food, tend their animals or manage their land.
Doctor Jacmé also had some other familiar-sounding advice, recommending the washing of hands “oft times in the day”*, though he advocated using water and vinegar, rather than soap.
Another physician, however, thought looking into a plague victim’s eyes was also dangerous, on the grounds that disease could be transmitted via the “airy spirit leaving the eyes of the sick man”*. Hmm, I’m not so sure about that… However, advice that is, again, much more familiar to us was to shun a victim’s “foul air” – in other words, what results from coughing, sneezing or even breathing. The “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can well imagine those who attended victims covering their nose and mouth.
What medieval people didn’t seem to know about was the role of rats and fleas. Rats have long been implicated in the spread of plague, though some scientists think the speed of spread was too rapid and too far for transmission by rat flea alone to be viable. Others think the rat fleas jumped host to people, and then infected human fleas and body lice enabled rapid people-to-people transmission.
Of course doctors in the 14th century didn’t really know how to treat the disease, though some undoubtedly thought they did. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied various substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. In Children’s Fate, a barber-surgeon lances buboes, a practice that wasn’t necessarily carried out in the 1300s, though it certainly was a couple of centuries later. But I can imagine eager medieval surgeons trying whatever they could to save their patients. And, even in the 14th century, catching plague wasn’t absolutely a death sentence, for some people clearly did survive it – even some who had been close to, or even nursed, victims.
When I started writing Children’s Fate, back in 2019, I could never have imagined just how close to home the events I wrote about might seem. As the 2020 pandemic took off, I recoiled a little at that “closeness”. Yet, since then, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to compare experiences then and now, finding, as so often, that, despite the centuries between us, there is much that we share.
* Quotes are from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox.
Read on to discover more about ‘Children’s Fate’ and its author as well as an opportunity to enter a rafflecopter giveaway!
How can a mother just stand by when her daughter is being cozened into sin?
It’s 1360, eleven years since the Black Death devastated all of England, and six years since Emma Ward fled Meonbridge with her children, to find a more prosperous life in Winchester. Long satisfied that she’d made the right decision, Emma is now terrified that she was wrong. For she’s convinced her daughter Bea is in grave danger, being exploited by her scheming and immoral mistress.
Bea herself is confused: fearful and ashamed of her sudden descent into sin, but also thrilled by her wealthy and attentive client.
When Emma resolves to rescue Bea from ruin and tricks her into returning to Meonbridge, Bea doesn’t at first suspect her mother’s motives. She is happy to renew her former friendships but, yearning for her rich lover, Bea soon absconds back to the city. Yet, only months later, plague is stalking Winchester again and, in terror, Bea flees once more to Meonbridge.
But, this time, she finds herself unwelcome, and fear, hostility and hatred threaten…
Terror, betrayal and deceit, but also love and courage, in a time of continuing change and challenge – Children’s Fate, the fourth MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLE.
CAROLYN HUGHES was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After completing a degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the government.
She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest several years ago that writing historical fiction took centre stage in her life. She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.
Children’s Fate is the fourth novel in the MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES series. A fifth novel is under way.
You can connect with Carolyn through her website http://www.carolynhughesauthor.com and social media:
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