Ever since the outbreak of covid, people have been talking about some other major pandemics in history such as the Spanish flu in 1918 and ‘the plague’ that was raging through Europe in the Middle Ages. There are different forms of the plague. The one we usually refer to is the bubonic plague which causes black ‘buboes’ or swollen lymph nodes on the body. In the 14th century there was a huge outbreak of this bubonic plague and it is recorded as the most fatal pandemic ever. This pandemic is therefore also called ‘The Black Death’ or ‘The Great Mortality’. Ever since we went in lockdown, I began reading some historical novels that were set during the plague years (in the 14th century mostly). It soothed me to read about people struggling with a strange disease that is now in the 21st century under control on a global level.
I decided to make a list of historical fiction books around this topic, for everyone who also wants to feel better (or worse, it depends on how you feel when reading about people dying 😅).
World without end by Ken Follett
In World without end we follow four youngsters in medieval Kingsbridge. It’s an epic story set in the 14th century, so off course the plague also arrives in Kingsbridge. One of the characters, Caris, is a nun who tries to make sense of this disease and believes in seperating the sick from the healthy and wearing a cloth before your mouth when tending the sick to not breathe in the same air. But the prior finds these views heretic and this will cost many lives.
This is a huge book with a lot more themes than the plague, but it gives you a sense of how the people tried to make sense of who died and who survived this strange disease.
The last hours by Minette Walters
This is certainly my least favourite novel on this list. The story is about a small village in Dorsetshire where a mysterious disease arrives and lady Anne forbids anyone to leave or enter the town. Not even her husband. The story is set during the first few year of the pandemic and this makes for a nice introduction into how devastating it raged throughout England. But it also heavily focuses on the characters and events happening within the town and I must admit that I was a bit bored with them. There is a sequel which is called ‘The turn of midnight’ and follows the same characters.
Plague land by S.D. Sykes
The title seems to incline that the plague is heavily featured in this historical mystery and in some way that is true. But actually, it is set a few years after the pandemic but you can still see the effects of it weighing heavily on the people. And on the lord of Somershill, Oswald De Lacy, who was the third son destined to become a monk but after the death of his father and two older brothers he needs to return home to become lord.
The black death was one of the biggest causes of the abolition of serfdom in medieval England. So many people died that there was almost nobody anymore to plough to fields. In fear of starvation, lords began to offer better conditions for workers and even distribute land among farmers.
The last adventures of H. by Sarah Burton
This is the first novel I mention not set in the 14th century. It’s set in 17th century London during some of the most dramatic years in the city’s history. We all know about the devastating Great Fire of 1666, but did you know that in 1665 there was a major bubonic plague epidemic in the heart of London? This plague killed over a quarter of the city’s inhabitants within 18 months. It was the last major outbreak of the plague on English territory. The strange adventures of H. is an entertaining story about a young girl who tries to survive in a world full of men.
A company of liars by Karen Maitland
I thought I had read more books featuring the plague, there is one more that is set in 15th century Italy that I read ages ago but it’s a German book (I read it in the Dutch translation) and not translated to English. So to add a fifth, I decided to go for Karen Maitland’s ‘A company of liars’ with the subtitle ‘a novel of the plague’. I’ve read her other book set in the 14th century, ‘The vanishing witch‘, which takes place after the pandemic. Her novels include dark characters, a bit of magic and a lot of filth.
Do you have any other recommendations featuring the plague?