Viral Days

The Plague Year

The more things change, the more they stay the same

By David Guterson | January 27, 2022
"Bring Out Your Dead," depicting a death cart and mourners in 17th-century London, by Edmund Evans (Wikimedia Commons)

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus (2016) begins with the claim that pandemics, among other human scourges, are behind us. That he was wrong seems more obvious right now than nearly anything.

By happenstance, I first opened Homo Deus a few days before Americans, in a panic about a new communicable disease, began hoarding toilet paper. A few days later, when the shelves were nearly empty, I started Albert Camus’ The Plague. It was as advertised, but it was also an allegory, which would have been fine with me in nearly any season, but wasn’t then, since I wanted to read about an actual plague. (In this I was like other people who live among books. I wanted to understand reality through them.) And so, in sequester, I opened Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which deceived me for some pages because I took it at face value, out of a fundamental ignorance of biographical facts, that Defoe was himself the Citizen of mention “who continued all the while in London” during the plague that unfolded there in 1665, and that the book constituted, as it purported, “observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences” made by him.

As it turned out, Defoe was five or six in 1665 (it’s unknown which). Either way, A Journal of the Plague Year, which appeared in 1722 when Defoe was in his 60s, is narrated by a saddler, a fact I incorporated by assuming, ignorantly, that Defoe had been one. But no. He did, though, have an uncle who’d been a saddler in London during the plague, and this uncle had kept journals believed by Defoe scholars to be the primary source material behind A Journal of the Plague Year. That was real enough for me, so I read on.

According to Defoe, the travail began when two men, “said to be Frenchmen,” died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane, toward the end of 1664, or so it was asserted via rumor to the point that two physicians and a surgeon went to the house in question to make an inspection, and found there evident tokens of the sickness upon both bodies, so that the subsequent bill of mortality indicated, in the first week of the long pestilence, two dead of plague and one parish infected. There was no question of it, plague being then a known quantity that expressed itself in surges when it wasn’t lurking in the background of public consciousness as a visitation in the offing against which there were no defenses—meaning that religion, hysteria, and desperate merrymaking were stimulated by it, and also that, with each eruption, all three burst forth with potency.

Defoe’s narrator reports that the shutting up of certain houses was soon accomplished by order of the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, and by the city’s Privy Council. It was ordained that every house visited by the plague should be “marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with the usual printed words, that is to say, ‘Lord, have mercy upon us,’ to be set close over the same cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same house.” The searchers, keepers, doctors, surgeons, and buriers of the plague were “not to pass the streets without holding a red rod or wand of three feet in length in their hands.” Laystalls—bovine dung heaps—were to be moved as far as possible from the City. Care was to be taken of musty corn. No stinking fish or corrupt fruit would be suffered to be sold about London. The brewers and tippling-houses would be looked into for unwholesome casks. “The multitude of rogues and wandering beggars that swarm in every place about the city” would not be suffered in the streets in any fashion or manner whatsoever under penalty of law to be duly and severely executed upon them. Plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or suchlike causes of assemblies of people were utterly prohibited. Public feasting and dinners at taverns and alehouses were by order to be forborne. Disorderly tippling in the same locales, or in coffeehouses or cellars, would be severely looked into. No hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or ponies would be suffered to be kept within any part of the city. Swine in particular were singled out especially as not to stray in streets or lanes, lest they be impounded by beadles and their owners punished according to Act of Common Council.

All able from material advantage made exodus at the most immediate opportunity. The richer sort of people thronged out of town with their families and servants in the usual manner. Nothing was seen but wagons and carts, filled with people of the better sort and with horsemen attending, and all hurrying away; next wagons and carts were seen returning empty, and spare horses with servants, sent back to fetch more people of a superior nature, and their baggage and goods, and to squire all off to healthier climes. Which, Defoe writes, was a terrible and melancholy thing to see, or for his narrator to see, and a sight his narrator could not but look on day and night, such was its prevalence. As well was he struck by a sense of abandonment, for among the fled were a large swath of clergymen, not to mention the king himself, along with his family, his court, and anyone sufficiently connected to his noblesse oblige, presumably including certain mistresses he could not do without while in retreat at Salisbury. (This latter cohort is a staple of Charles II biography, and incorporates in its numbers the actress Nell Gwyn, an erstwhile crossdresser; the 1st Duchess of Cleveland, also known as the Lady of the Bedchamber; Hortense Mancini, whose husband arranged for his female servants to go toothless, out of fear they would otherwise attract sexual interest; Catherine Pegge; Elizabeth Killigrew; Lucy Walter; and Winifred Wells, who, according to the French nobleman Philibert de Gramont, had “the physiognomy of a dreamy sheep.”)

Meanwhile, souls of lesser means spread the infection further in the city by wandering about with the distemper upon them. Many were driven to dreadful extremities, and perished in the streets out of mere want, or went forward into the countryside wherever their desperation guided them, only to perish at roadside or in barns they had gotten into, none daring to come near or relieve them. And in the weekly bills there now began to appear as a cause of death “frighted,” these frighted joining the larger caste expiring more directly of the plague, and like them they were cast into pits dug for the purpose of communal disposal, by order of the magistrates excavated to such a depth that no corpse would lay less than six feet below the surface.

There was no surcease from plague through the long summer and fall of 1665; on the contrary, its terror and madness expanded such that London was convulsed; rioters abounded, as did thieves and lunatics. Many people in the time of this visitation, Defoe’s narrator reports, never perceived that they were infected until they found, to their unspeakable surprise, the tokens come out upon them, after which they seldom lived for six hours; sometimes a man or woman dropped down dead in the very markets and died in a few moments, without warning, while others found time to make it to the next bulk or stall, or to a porch-door, before succumbing. Defoe’s narrator’s surmised that infection generally came into the houses of citizens by means of their servants, who were sent forth to procure provisions from bakehouses, brewhouses, shops, and markets, where inevitably they met distempered souls who conveyed the fatal breath to them, and brought it home to the families to which they belonged, though regarding this fatal breath Defoe’s annalist did not wish to suggest that such was the sole means of transmission, since there were certain steams or fumes, which the physicians called effluvia, that might be equally culpable, or more so. Or perhaps the stench of sick people was the essential conduit of the plague’s rampancy (the first known use of the word rampancy was in 1664), penetrating the vital part of sound people and thereby putting their blood into immediate ferment. Among the proliferating theories of the plague’s conveyance, though, not all were equal in the eyes of Defoe’s narrator. He looked askance at those who claimed vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures entered the body with the breath or at the pores, there generating or emitting “most acute poisons, or poisonous ovae of eggs,” mingling themselves with the blood and infecting the body, which we know in retrospect is not far from the mark, the actual point of entry being the incising punctures of fleas and the poison being the bacterium Yersinia pesta.

However it was, the calamity “made people humble,” for they were now dying at a rate of near a thousand a day, with the death-carts working through the night hours and the clerks and sextons overwhelmed in their attempts to keep the bills, and with people suffering tortures such that they threw themselves from windows or shot themselves, or vented their pains by incessant roarings and lamentable cries. Mothers murdered their children. Some fell into melancholy madness, some went wringing their hands along the streets, some went praying and lifting up their hands toward heaven. And all the while, few had room to pity the distress of others, for everyone had death at his door, so that children ran away from their parents as they languished in the utmost morass of pain. The danger of immediate death reduced love to shambles; empathy and compassion were banished to a distant shore; hearts hardened and across the city a numb retraction of pity to a cold inner core seized the majority of citizens. About this Defoe’s narrator spoke in general, for there were instances, he reports, of immoveable affection too, and of selflessness and duty.

It should be said that most of London burned to the ground in the year following the plague year, in a firestorm that began in the ovens of the king’s baker and spread from there to nearby haylofts, thence to storehouses stocked with lamp oil and coal. The incineration of the city was believed by some to have been executed by Catholics, while others lay the blame to Dutchmen, still others to the French. It seemed unnatural that buildings well removed from the conflagration inexplicably burst into flame, even though windblown embers were an evident feature of this holocaust. Soon, suspicion of malevolent intent was percolating unremittingly.

Meanwhile circumstances were in all respects unendurable. Over the city, so recently devastated and aggrieved by the ferocious plague, fell a penumbra of further and deeper sorrow. A million cinders fell on ruin; from the gutted buildings, a beleaguered citizenry extracted meager salvage. Under unmitigated duress, the populace fled into nearby fields, and then, as the flames fell lower, and amid a great turbulence of smoke and falling ash, and with their spirits ratcheted up into a ravenous anger, Londoners returned in roving packs to ferret out the culpable and punish them accordingly, and brought extreme brutality to bear, in the end, on anyone whose difference from the mass of Anglo Protestants was tangible, doing them grave harm while in a terrible rage, and in taking vengeance on various Catholics and continentals—going so far as to cut off the breasts of a Frenchwoman—scorning the explanation for the inferno transmitted in the remaining churches, namely, that since the fire had sprung to life on Pudding Lane and expired on Pie Corner, it should be seen as the act of a God in condemnation of the city’s unrepentant gluttony. For the era of both the plague and the fire was also an era of insatiable merrymaking for those of means or noble birth, or, as Defoe put it, people were grown gay and luxurious. Dressed in splendid attire that included hats adorned with plumes of ostrich feathers, the men with their hair falling in ringlets and the women in lace ruffles, situated among carved wainscoting and lush tapestries, ascending or descending marble staircases, lolling on furniture of velvet and brocade, they were licentious in the extreme, and loved feasts, games, pageants, revelry, drunkenness, and jollifications. They included in their schedules ample time for debauchery and were often dissolute. They indulged in and sought pleasure everywhere. Voluptuousness was their deepest concern. If we ascend to a relative height and look down, the astounding madness of this panorama-—the combustible and riven city seething with intoxicated desires—might make all appear like puppetry of a sort, child’s play, or eternal folly.


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