To Calais, in Ordinary Time

James Meek

Canongate, £18.99

It is 1348, one of the blackest dates in history. There had been pestilence before, and there would be more to follow, but this was the year when the Black Death made its name. An estimated third or more of Europe’s population perished as the flea and rat-borne disease spread from the east into every hovel and hut, each high-built tower and castle.

Killing with terrifying speed, it made no distinction between rich and poor, with the possible exception that those who were well fed had a marginally better chance of being among the lucky few who caught it, but survived.

The plague, and its social and economic ramifications, was one of the most pivotal episodes of medieval life, a prefiguring of the carnages of world wars to come. Just as the biology of the disease continues to fascinate epidemiologists, and archaeologists are still unearthing burial pits for plague victims, so historians and novelists persist in wondering what it must have been like to live with such dread stalking the land.

Ebola is the closest modern equivalent, its name a byword for unimaginably swift and too often lethal contagion. In the middle ages, however, nothing was understood of how the bubonic plague worked or was transmitted – nothing, that is, that could help.

In To Calais, In Ordinary Time, James Meek hints at the attitudes of the high and mighty to news that the affliction was among them: “These maladies must course through the poor like a forest fire, and the tall trees go untouched.” So says the lofty Laurence Halket, whose hauteur and arrogance are matched only by his ignorance.

The worst pandemic of the medieval world is the crucible in which this novel burns, but though much talked about in the early pages it does not arrive until more than half the novel has passed. Thus Meek allows himself ample space in which to dress his stage. As with a play, the novel unfolds with the stately, mannered, self-conscious air of a troupe of travelling players treading the boards, each delivering lines in a different accent, their voices creating a chorus from another age.

Though there are several strands, To Calais... is above all the tale of Will Quate, a Cotswolds villein or serf. As the Hundred Years’ War between England and France rumbles on, he joins a party of archers heading across the Channel to fight. With him is Hob, the village pig-boy who, having stolen a lady’s wedding dress, which he persists in wearing, is in imminent danger of execution.

It is not long since the Battle of Crecy, and one of Will Quate’s party describes that exceptionally vicious English triumph: “It was all but night, and by the light of the moon and stars and an on blaze mill King Edward had bidden be fired on the hilltop, we saw the gleam of steel of many thousand helms and sets of harness as the living crope away, and saw the shadowlike rough lumps of the dead and wounded they left behind, like to the sea that ebbs and leaves on the strand empty shells and the timbers of drowned ships.”

Meek has written about the past before, notably in The People’s Act of Love, which was set in early 20th century Siberia, but this is something new. Using a language of his own making, bolted together from archaisms, and embellished by imagination, he attempts to enter the mouths and minds of people so far distant from us the gulf feels too wide to bridge. With some characters he is more successful than others. The noblewoman Berna and her kind speak in such a stilted, artificial way it defies suspension of disbelief.

Only in the late stages of the book does Meek partially explain his reasoning for these clunky, ugly passages. Thomas Pitkerro, a Scottish proctor, and one of the narrators, is travelling home to his French villa, his bureaucratic prose little more felicitous than Berna’s. At one point he describes the conversation he has with an Oxford student: “We speak in a curious dialect, the locution, I suppose, of the privileged young of the south of England, in which popular English and the French-rich English of the gentry is augmented by liberal use of Anglicised Latinisms.” As this, and other pointers suggest, in these times comprehension between those of different ranks and stations was often a matter of guesswork.

Yet despite its many flaws, there is a mesmerising quality to the way in which the more lowly characters talk, and reflect, that turns To Calais, In Ordinary Time from a worthy attempt at historical imagination into something altogether more inventive and risky. Meek does not go so far as Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake in rendering the alien past in a wearying version of Old English, but there is an element of such experimentation here. It will not be to all tastes but for those who surrender themselves to the flow, it gradually exerts an almost magnetic pull. Managing to convey psychological and chronological distance and thereby setting readers at one remove, at the same time it allows us to draw close.

Several share in Will Quate’s journey to France, who, like Chaucer’s Pilgrims, on foot and by horse and cart, straggle through the rural scene. There is high-born Berna who is fleeing an arranged marriage to be with the handsome Laurence Haket. Among the archers, whose role veers at times towards the slapstick comedy of rude mechanicals, there is a self-contained French girl. She is owned by the most feared of the archers, who beats her. How she happened to be among this group, and what comes of it, is the wire on which the plot hangs, a gradual unfurling that leads to a memorable finale.

Unlike in football, this is a game of thirds, and by far the best of these is the last. By then, the plague is raging. As it begins to accumulate victims, Meek conveys genuine fear and tenderness. With so little chance of escaping, the urgency of expressing love, of understanding who each of them is, and what their legacy will be, becomes all-consuming. Meek’s conclusion is a powerful and theatrical denouement. The pity is that too much of what came before was neither easily comprehensible, nor half as compelling.