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Rab Houston discovers the story of the plague through the pen of a Newcastle clerk
Plague arrived at Newcastle in May 1636. Within a year it had killed over a third of the inhabitants. We have many accounts of the impact of the early modern world’s most dreaded disease, but none that is as compelling and readable as this.
Yale historian Keith Wrightson’s micro-historical account is elegantly written and beautifully crafted, a new and satisfyingly complete analysis of plague and people in one British town. The central character is a 25-year-old clerk who wrote a quarter of the surviving wills of Newcastle plague victims.
Wrightson communicates the thrill of first discovering Ralph Tailor in the archives and the way his continuing research revealed many fascinating and unexpected aspects of the scrivener’s life and times.
The approach is scholarly yet at the same time imaginative and deeply sympathetic. Wrightson feels that Ralph “tugged at my sleeve”. Once the two are together in partnership we feel like we are standing at the scrivener’s shoulder as, for example, he perched on the city wall to hear a will dictated from a garret window by a dying man, a faint voice from the void.
Wrightson coaxes convincing, lifelike interpretations from apparently dry statistics and lifeless documents, even using nuances in the scrivener’s handwriting to bring out the texture of his experiences in the hot and deadly summer of 1636. Guided by maps, images, and Wrightson’s lucid prose, we walk through Newcastle as rat fleas carried the plague across the city and deep into its poorest, most crowded quarters.
\Wrightson vividly emotes the responses of the people. There was fear, of course, but running through it all was pragmatism and this tale is profoundly humane, even uplifting.
Disease and death are on every page, but we also learn how people coped, not only the well-documented magistrates who tried to quarantine the infected or the sermonising clergy who spoke the judgemental “dialect of heaven”, but also ordinary souls faced with tragedy as they tried to continue mundane routines or, once infected, to settle their affairs as best they could.
Wrightson evokes the eerie quiet of a locked-down community, a far cry from the bustle and noise of normal times.
As dedicated as any doctor or vicar, Ralph Tailor criss-crossed this uneasy townscape, doing what he could to help his fellow citizens. In the hands of a fine historian, his life, his city and his time come alive to give us a unique insight into the different mental and material worlds of early modern people.
Rab Houston is author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)
Readers from the BBC History Magazine reader book club will be quizzing Keith Wrightson on Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague in our February issue. It's not too late to join our book club – visit www.historyextra.com/reader for more details