Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson
Brother Diggory, a young monk in the minor Order of Saint Odo of Whye, is continually visited in his dreams by some kind of succubus ‘come to steal his innocence and the seed of his generation’. But his troubles, and his sinful thoughts, are only just beginning – soon, the much-rumoured Black Death reaches the monastery, and all but wipes out the brotherhood. Diggory is forced to leave behind everything he has known and make his way in the big, bad world of 14th century England, at which point he renames himself Jack Fox, ‘so I rhyme, face and arse, with the Black Pox’. His wanderings see him duped by a Simon Mostly, a one-handed, one-legged bandit, acquainted with the fairer sex (and, predictably, bonked senseless), and accused of colluding with a Satanic pig. Amongst other adventures.
Much of the humour in Hurdy Gurdy stems from Diggory’s twisted logic, such as his reasoning that the deadly pox prefers to travel north, or the many deceptively pious excuses he comes up with for his newly rampant libido. When he’s left to fill a mass grave, he typically overthinks and arranges the bodies according to Pythagoras’ theorem, to economise on space.
Another seam of jokes is St Odo’s The Great Unhappened, an absurdly prophetic tome that foresees a future age of ‘giant metal birds that held people in their bowels’ and ‘icy cold drinks, in small squat suits of armour, bursting with bubbles that prickled your tongue’. These tangents recall Blackadder and Upstart Crow, even though the historical setting is quite different to those sitcoms.
With its slimness and episodic nature, Hurdy Gurdy is a bawdy, breezy blast to read, so it hits the spot during this grim winter we find ourselves in. Though it was written before the current pandemic, of course it can’t help but invite parallels. Most of the alleged cures for the bubonic plague that pop up – e.g. consuming crushed emeralds or ten-year-old fermented treacle, or smearing the skin with excrement – are about as ridiculous and dangerous as injecting oneself with disinfectant or blasting diseased bodies with ultraviolet light (both helpfully suggested by the leader of free world in April 2020).