James Meek likes to use major historical or political events as backgrounds to his fiction. In his most celebrated novel, The People’s Act of Love (2005), the action takes place in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, while in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008) the plot pivots on the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In To Calais, In Ordinary Time, the Black Death of 1348 provides the ominous background for a complex tale about class, gender, language and Englishness, among many other things.
To Calais, In Ordinary Time begins simply enough, in a fictional Cotswold village called Outen Green. A young noblewoman, Bernadine, is due to be married off to an elderly friend of her father. Swept up by ideals of courtly love drawn from her reading of Le Roman de la Rose, she plots to escape before the wedding to find her lover ‘par amour’, a knight named Laurence Haket, who has fought against the French. Simultaneously, Will Quate, a good-looking ploughman and Outen Green’s finest archer, is commanded by Bernadine’s father, Sir Guy, to join a company of bowmen travelling south to the English garrison at Calais in order to fulfil the quota of men he is obliged to send. Quate agrees to go on the condition that Sir Guy gives him written proof that he is a free man and no longer bonded to the manor.
The third main character is an educated Scottish proctor called Thomas Pitkerro, who is returning to his home in Avignon. He is the only character who is already aware of the devastation wrought by the plague on the continent. Pitkerro acts as a sort of stand-in narrator, writing reflective