Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, the fabulous winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Science Fiction, provides, in my opinion, an equal if not superior depiction of the Middle Ages to the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, which won the Nobel Prize in 1928.
In both books, we get a look at the horrible effects of the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death. As Willis informs us:
“[The Black Death] started in China in 1333, and moved west on trading ships to Messina in Sicity and from there to Pisa. It had spread through Italy and France – eighty thousand dead in Siena, a hundred thousand in Florence, three hundred thousand in Rome – before it crossed the Channel. It had reached England in 1348, ‘a little before the Feast of St. John the Baptist,’ the twenty-fourth of June. … ‘It had reached Oxford in December, London in October of 1349, and then moved north and back across the Channel to the Low Countries and Norway. It had gone everywhere except Bohemia, and Poland, which had a quarantine, and oddly, parts of Scotland.’”
Doomsday Book begins in the year 2054. The history department at Oxford University studies the past by actually sending would-be experts back to specific dates for two week periods. Kivrin, an enthusiastic student of the Middle Ages, is set to go to 1320, but is delivered to 1348 by mistake. She arrives just before Christmas, at the exact time the Black Death is due to reach Oxford. Mr. Dunworthy, a professor who has been tutoring Kivrin in customs of the 1320’s, realizes something is wrong, and spends most of the book trying to find Kivrin and bring her back.
Kivrin, who doesn’t realize at first she is in the wrong year, ends up taking care of the villagers as one by one they succumb to the Bubonic Plague. She keeps track of her experiences by speaking into a recorder implanted in her wrist, and calls her journal the Domesday Book. (The Domesday Book is the name given to records of the great survey of England completed in 1086 for William I of England, also known as William the Conqueror.)
While Kivrin is off dealing with the Black Death in 1348, Mr. Dunworthy and his contemporaries are dealing with a lethal outbreak of influenza in 2054. Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy keep trying to get information from others around them, but it seems that their silent messages to each other over 700 years have more a chance of getting through than messages to and from their cohorts in time.
Back in 1348, Kivrin is taken in by a family with whom she becomes very close: a young mother Eliwys, and her daughters Agnes and Rosemond (the latter, only twelve, soon due to marry a fiftyish nobleman). She also grows fond of the local priest, Father Roche, as they work together to help the sick. Meanwhile, in 2054, Mr. Dunworthy becomes attached to Colin, the great-nephew of his colleague Dr. Mary Ahrens. How all of them learn to overcome their initial misgivings and to know and love one another is one of the themes of this book.
Another strong theme is the difficulty of clear communication, and the ability or lack thereof to get messages through to others. In this book, the problem is reified by the communicability of diseases, even across the centuries. In Kristin Lavransdatter, we also see barriers to communication: by ignorance, superstition, and pride. Undset, however, does not highlight communication as a focal point of her narrative. Yet it is just as salient. It is interesting how many problems arise in both stories from saying too little, not saying enough, or just not getting through to another person. Both Kivrin and Kristin ardently count on their men being mind readers. That, too, seems to be an enduring characteristic across the ages.
We learn a great deal about the Middle Ages through the modern Kivrin’s eyes, as she suffers from frustration and desperation watching the people she has come to love sicken and die because antibiotics have not yet been invented; Kivrin’s horror at seeing young girls, barely out of puberty, betrothed to older men (who often repel the girls) in a property exchange made by the parents; the daily activities that consume Kivrin’s new family (so many of which have become alien and/or unnecessary by modernity); and the persistence of good and evil, childishness and girlishness, and love and piety throughout all ages.
The Willis book has several built-in advantages. One, it comes out of the British-American cultural milieu, and therefore has an overall tone more familiar to such readers. Second, the introduction of a modern character into the Middle Ages enables the author to provide a modern perspective and commentary on what the customs and habits were like. Third, a more up-to-date voice is also more appealing to contemporary readers. And finally, while Undset’s book sometimes sounds a bit like a “bodice-ripper,” the Willis book is more strictly concerned with history.
There is also a big difference in the attitude toward religion in both books. We know that Undset herself was struggling to find meaning in her own life, finding the answer in the Christian God. When she was 42, she converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, after receiving instruction from the Catholic priest assigned to her home district. Similarly, she has her main character Kristin constantly seeking advice and guidance from priests, and being lectured in depth by them.
Willis, like Undset, reports on the juxtapostion of a strict religion with the tenacity of superstition, but allows the modern voice of her character to inject doubt into the equation. Kivrin can see the irony in the juxtaposition, and the lack of modern education that fuels some of the beliefs. Kivrin is not disrespectful, and indeed, is somewhat religious herself, but her modernity allows her to give religion a place and perspective more familiar to present readers.
Summary: What makes Doomsday Book so much more appealing to me?
I related more to it’s modern voice.
I didn’t like the romanticism of Kristin Lavransdatter [i.e., in the sense of the artistic and intellectual movement characterized by a heightened interest in nature, and emphasis on the individual’s expression of emotion and imagination].
I learned so much more about the Middle Ages in Doomsday Book.
I thought the characterization was better in Doomsday Book and the characters more likeable.
Doomsday Book had an element of suspense that made it much more fun to read.
Anyone else read both and/or have some thoughts to share?