When discussing the aftermath of the Black Death, many general history books mention that it was an historical turning point which ultimately brought about the demise of the feudal system. With possibly up to 60% of the population of Europe dead from plague, labourers were in short supply and despite laws intended to freeze wages at pre-plague levels, they were able to win, over time, not only higher wages and better conditions but freedom from feudal obligations. This is history presented as a grand vista; Carolyn Hughes’ Fortune’s Wheel puts a human face to these upheavals of the 14th century.
Beginning in 1349, the novel follows a year in the life of the Hampshire village of Meonbridge as the survivors of the plague, here called the ‘mortality’, attempt to struggle on with their lives. No family has been left untouched—husbands, wives, parents, children are missing, in some cases whole families have died. Many believe that the plague has been God’s punishment despite the mortality often having taken the godly and left the ungodly to survive. Cottages now lie empty and fields are untilled.
The hierarchical system that ruled village life is still in place with the lord and lady of the manor at its apex. Below them are ranged the manor officials such as the bailiff and the reeve, tradesmen like the miller and the blacksmith, villeins holding land subject to their lord, and landless cottars as well as freemen and women. Hughes provides a wealth of detail surrounding the structure of village life and land tenure woven seamlessly into the narrative. Beyond the usual tensions of village life, there are new problems to be faced. With so many dead, appointments of new village officials need to be made and not all are happy with the decisions. As well as their duty to work on their lord’s land several days a week, the villagers are desperate to tend their own strips in order to survive. Resentments simmer as labourers, particularly the landless, realize the increased value of their work – they want to be paid what their labour is now worth.
Although there is a large cast of characters, all are individual enough to be quickly recognized and there is a helpful list at the front of the novel. All are believable with the same qualities, hopes and failings as we still have, yet they are in no way modern people in period dress, their aspirations and actions are in keeping with their time; even the minor characters are well drawn. At the centre of Fortune’s Wheel are three women whose lives overlap. Alice atte Wode is the widow of the former reeve, a competent and likeable woman; in many ways, she is the heart of the novel. Eleanor Titherige, a freewoman and daughter of a wealthy merchant and farmer, is along with her step-brother sole survivors of her family. Eleanor is now struggling to tend her father’s large flock of sheep, something she has not been trained for. Lady Margaret is the wife of Sir Richard de Bohun, lord of Meonbridge. A kind woman with genuine care for the villagers, she tries to ameliorate the excesses of her husband and son as they attempt to maintain the old order and enforce its obligations. Intertwined with their stories are those of the other inhabitants including Joan Miller brought to such despair by the death of her young son that she cannot even stir herself to care for her newborn daughter; feckless Bart Couper, a landless cottar, and his struggling wife Emma; John atte Wode, Alice’s son, who has been called upon to fill his father’s shoes as reeve before he is really ready for it; and the bailiff, Robert Tyler, a hard, ambitious man with aspirations of increasing his wealth and influence in the village.
Beneath the struggle to adjust to the changed world and the slow rebuilding of life, there is the underlying mystery of the disappearance of Alice’s daughter, Agnes, who went missing just before the arrival of the plague in Meonbridge. Alice and John have not been able to search for her, prevented at first by the plague and later John ‘s duties as reeve. Both Alice and John are certain that Lady Margaret’s children know more of Agnes’s disappearance than they are letting on.
This is a gently told story in an unadorned prose which works as a vehicle for the story rather than drawing attention to itself. There are moments of real fear, tension and excitement in this ultimately uplifting novel that has a genuine resolution despite being the first of a series. Fortune’s Wheel invites comparison with Minette Walter’s The Last Hours for no other reason than they were published within a year of each other and both deal with a village coping with the plague, although Walters’ book begins with the arrival of the plague. The major characters of The Last Hours are, in many ways, extraordinary people for their time who, I imagine, would adjust quite quickly to living in the 21st century. In my opinion, Fortune’s Wheel is a far more thoroughly researched book, with care given to ensuring that the characters have 14th century attitudes and knowledge. It also gives a strong sense of the reality of the past and the rhythm of the year, the mundane but important tasks that follow one on the other. If you only have time to read one novel about life during and after the 14th century plague years, I would certainly recommend it be Fortune’s Wheel. A more detailed review can be found here.
Carolyn Hughes’ blog also has a great deal of background information on the area of Hampshire where she has set the Meonbridge Chronicles.