Brother Diggery, formerly called Jack Fox, tells us that he was given to the monastic order of St Odo at the age of seven in 1341. For another seven years, he is raised in innocence within the strict rules of the community, serving the brother healer, learning herbal remedies, and playing the hurdy gurdy.  

As plague arrives in 1349, he is assigned to help care for the anticipated sick – and immediately falls ill. The brothers seal him inside his cell, where he suffers greatly, narrowly escaping death; however, when he recovers and forces himself out of confinement, he discovers that everyone else has died or fled. After filling a mass grave with the remains of his brothers, he sets out on a picaresque series of adventures, blithely unaware that he and his fleas spread illness wherever they go.  

Like a fourteenth-century Candide, Brother Diggery’s gullibility and curiosity lead him to discover the wonders of good food, sex, and marriage, the cruelty of lies, theft, and wrongful imprisonment, and the corruption of the church (p. 164). He closes his account in 1352, age 18, already twice widowed, but set for life as a lay physician and father of a young boy whom he plans to give to the monastery of St Odo when he reaches age seven.


Published in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this playful, first-person narrative, full of tepid, black humour, has encountered widely varying reviews.  

The author wrote his doctoral thesis on the psychology of jokes (LSE 1977, published 1979). The oblique (and not so oblique) references to the absurdity of Diggery’s treatments and his naïve confidence in the ‘truth of both religion and science make the work a satire of our own times. Nevertheless, the humour is sometimes heavy handed. 

Long lists of rules or sins appear catechism-like throughout, evoking the closed-box, false security of guidelines. Some medical claims are drawn from history, but anachronistic liberties are taken. For example, Diggery closes his account with a description of his own experiments; however, the experiments he describes were in fact done by Santorio more than two centuries later. For readers of this database, perhaps the most interesting aspect is the embedded critique of pandemic management in our own time. 

References to music are disappointingly absent, despite the book’s title – but the hurdy gurdy is a “vielle-à-roue” in French, and the word “roue” indicates a wheel: the title may refer to the cyclic foibles and futility of human responses to the inevitable (and equally cyclic) return of pestilence.



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