Last week, I participated in the Humanities for Young People webinar ‘A Blast from the Past‘, at the generous invitation of co-Directors Dr. Sarah Clift and Dr. Laura Penny. Following a superb presentation on plagues in ancient Greece by fabulous FYP Fellow Hilary Ilkay, I was asked to speak on plague in 17th-century London. I opted to focus particularly on Daniel Defoe’s classic account of the Great Plague of 1665, A Journal of the Plague Year. What would a historical novel written in 1722 reveal about the Great Plague, in which London was undone?
Defoe (ca. 1661-1731), the English author most famous for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and mentioned in this recent piratical issue of Early Modern Times, was only about 5 when the plague hit London in 1665. He wrote A Journal of the Plague Year in the early 1720s as a response to the threat of the plague’s return to London following an outbreak in Marseilles in 1720, briefly described in this Mar. 14, 2020 issue of Early Modern Times (posted soon after the WHO declared the Covid-19 pandemic). Thus, A Journal of the Plague Year relies not on Defoe’s own recollections but contemporaneous accounts in the 17th century, and possibly the memories of Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe, who may be represented by the fictional narrator ‘H.F.’. Of course, unlike the pneumonic plague with which we are struggling, the 1665 plague was bubonic: this affects the lymph nodes, causing buboes–as Defoe puts it, ‘gangreen Spots, or mortified Flesh in small Knobs’–and untreated, leads to organ failure within days or even hours. This deadly, rapid disease could affect any member of society, from knob-leman to gan-greenhorn to bu-bonny lass, and was something the Grim Reaper could bu-boast about.
H.F.’s narration is both familiar and foreign to us living under the current pandemic. H.F. reflects on the ‘bills of mortality’, weekly death-counts due to plague and other ailments, evoking the dread and anxiety when deaths from plague are on the rise and relief when numbers drop: a familiar experience for us tracking daily infection rates. The scale of the Great Plague at the local level is sharply different, though. At its height, it caused some 10,000 deaths a week (estimates vary) in a city roughly comparable to Halifax in population. Thus, unlike Canada–though these are scenes not wholly dissimilar to Brazil and India now–‘dead-carts’ would patrol the city picking up corpses (as pictured above), at great risk to those working the carts, and deposit the bodies in burial pits around London. Such pits in London and elsewhere from various plagues continue to be uncovered. The sight of death-carts and these mass burial sites must have been deeply pit-iful, though digging up a random spot of ground to find a plague skeleton would be rather pit-and-miss.
We know nowadays that the bubonic plague is spread by a bacillus contained in fleas, themselves carried by rats. But Defoe’s narrator dismisses the idea that the plague could be caused by ‘insects and invisible creatures’ perceived only by the novel technology of the microscope. He rejects germ theories in favour of plague as ‘effluvia’, i.e., bad air or miasma which would be emitted by victims’ breath, sweat, and stench off their sores. It was thought that dogs and cats carried the effluvia in their fur and hair while running back and forth between different houses, and so hundreds of thousands of these perceived causes of pet-ilence were killed. To combat the plague, Londoners burned substances such as sulfur (known as brimstone), pitch (distilled tar), and gunpowder–though the latter would literally blow up in their faces sometimes. It was also thought that an infected person’s breath could poison or kill a bird, and leave a layer of scum on warm water. Thus talking to a plague victim would be a breath-sentence, and it may be that a Kenneth Tuckie emitted his deadly breath on poultry, in which case Ken Tuckie fried a chicken.
Aspects of Defoe’s Journal may seem very modern and even scientific to readers nowadays. For example, H.F. is sceptical of miracle cures and quack-doctors, as well as of madmen like Solomon Eagle who went naked around plague-ridden London calling on fellow citizens to repent for their sins, with a pan of burning charcoal balanced on his head. Clearly, this coal-erful figure was a real hothead who would tell Londoners, ‘the heat is on’ and repent for this pan-demic as a sign of the apo-coal-ypse. He was, however, panned for his performance, and left spectators like H.F. coal.
Another example is H.F’s scepticism of the public health measure of quarantining, or as Defoe puts it, shutting up the infected in their houses. H.F. relates how the infected and their families would flee their houses before quarantining took place; or trick ‘watchmen’ assigned to these houses by persuading them to fetch medicines or other necessities, and then break the locks or escape through windows. Many of these abandoned houses were then raided by thieves, or sometime thieves would break in and steal from the plague victims at great danger to the bandits. These houses were, then, often quaran-sacked, as stealing from plague victims was a dis-easy way to make a buck.
This kind of commentary may appear very rational to us. Indeed, at one point, H.F. remarks–against those who see the plague as a divine punishment defying the laws of nature–that God only acts through natural causes: a seemingly proto-scientific worldview. We should not, however, overlook the fact that the 17th and 18th centuries were still deeply religious eras, and that Defoe himself was a Presbyterian. We may know now that the Great Fire of 1666 helped to stamp out the plague by wiping out unsanitary neighbourhoods in London, but Defoe makes no reference to the Great Fire’s role in ending the plague. Instead, H.F. attributes the gradual decrease in mortality after some 100,000 deaths to the ‘secret hand of God’. In other words, the final end of the plague was for Defoe all part of God’s plan-demic.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Bubonick of time Studies Program