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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Black Humour from a Dark Age

by Ben Soton

Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson. Faber & Faber 2021. Hardback: 256pp; rrp £14.99; Paperback: 272pp; rrp £8.99; Kindle: 208pp; £5.03.

A COMEDY set during a global pandemic is inevitable in an era dominated by the Covid plague. Christopher Wilson’s 2021 novel, however, is set during the much deadlier pandemic of the mid 1300s known as the ‘Great Pestilence’. We now call it the Black Death. Hurdy Gurdy

The central character, Dickory, is a monk in the fictional Order of St Odo the Disfigured and the book, named after a popular medieval musical instrument, delves into many of the similarities between the two pandemics. The most obvious being the bizarre conspiracy theories that spread across the highways of medieval Europe and today’s Information Superhighway.

European Jews were heavily scapegoated during the Black Death. In Germany, the Jews were blamed for poisoning water supplies, and many were drowned in the Rhine. Meanwhile today conspiracy theorists blame the super-rich, the Rockefeller dynasty and the Rothschilds (who just happen to be Jewish) for using the pandemic as a means to establish World domination.

The novel takes the form of an innocent’s odyssey through plague-ridden England. After his fellow monks are wiped out by the plague, Dickory is forced to venture into the world beyond the monastery walls. Brother Dickory, who had spent most of his life confined to a monastery, discovers the outside world. For the first time in his life, he discovers the pleasures of women. He also experiences the ignorance and superstition of the age.

He comes across a band of blind men led by a one-eyed man. These men were led to believe that the plague was spread through the eyes, hence removal of the said organs would protect you from the plague. Dickory is himself put on trial for witchcraft along with a pig whom his accusers believe to be a man in disguise.

The message of the novel is that we live in age where human knowledge, medical and otherwise, has come a long way since the Middle Ages. Medieval medicine had changed little since Roman times and was based on the teachings of Galen (129 AD–216 AD) and his theory that ill health was caused by an imbalance in the bodies of four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

Science has certainly moved on since the Middle Ages – but even today there are still those who oppose science with their bizarre and dangerous conspiracy theories.