“Death reigned in every corner.” wrote Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731) in his 18th century account of the black plague in Britain, Journal of the Plague Year.
Although the black plague hit Europe many times from 1347 to 1666 the final episode was the worst. More than a quarter of London’s population died in less than two years.
Defoe’s poetic language “Death reigned in every corner” tells us much: death – not the monarch – reigned; those infected died shut up their homes, only corners to hold them; and the word death rather than illness, sickness or even plague – reminds us what was at stake.
In September of 1664 news began to circulate in England that the plague had returned to Holland. Then as now information was scarce and unreliable.
It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland, for it had been very violent there. … We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men … but such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed the word of mouth only so that things do not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but it was all kept very private.
Society’s suspicion and fear multiplied as the scourge reached Britain and the numbers of dead began to toll. The parish councils weekly Bill of Mortality showed the grave sitution.
The whole bill also was very low, for the week before the bill was but 347, and the week above mentioned was 343. We continued in these hopes for a few days, but it was but for a few, for the people were no more to be deceived thus; they searched and houses and found that the plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every day…the infection had spread beyond all hopes of abatement
With the plague spreading “beyond all hope of abatement” those with the most money and means relocated to the countryside where it was considerably safer. Defoe notes:
The richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner. […] Coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horseman attending them, and all hurrying away; the empty waggons and carts appeared, and spare horses with servants, who, it was apparent, were returning or sent from the countries to fetch more people; besides innumerable numbers of men on horseback, some alone, others with servants and, generally speaking, all loaded with baggage and fitted for travelling…
This was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, as it was a sight which I could not but look on from morning to night, it filled me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it.
The “misery that was coming” was very real, and after a few more weeks Defoe notes “the presence of London was greatly altered.”
Government officials who remained to execute affairs enforced a lockdown and marked houses with a red cross to denote infection. Wardens and nurses tended the sick, mainly ensuring infected individuals did not leave home.
That if any House be Infected, the sick person or persons be forthwith removed to the said pest-house, sheds, or huts, for the preservation of the rest of the Family: And that such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for fourty days, and have a Red Cross, and Lord have mercy upon us, in Capital Letters affixed on the door, and Warders appointed, as well to find them necessaries, as to keep them from conversing with the sound.
From “Charles II Rules and Orders for prevention for the Spreading of Infection of the Plague”
Defoe began his professional life as a merchant and trader and wrote novels late in life as a by-product of journalism and religious dissention. Interestingly enough, however, Journal of the Plague Year is not about science, morality, or institutions. It is about people, in aggregate and sometimes specific. Defoe appointed himself guardian of the human story.
One mischief always introduces another. These terrors and apprehensions of the people and them into a thousand weak, foolish and wicked things, which they wanted not a sort of people really wicked to encourage the to: and this was running about to fortune-tellers, cunning-men, and astrologers to know their fortune, as it is vulgarly expressed, to have their fortunes told them, their nativities calculated, and the like; and this folly presently made the town swarm with a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the black art, as they called it.
Defoe was as much one of the first social journalists as he was novelist. I keep saying “novelist” and you are probably wondering if this is a Journal of the Plague Year, surely literature plays no part?
Ah well, Defoe was born in 1660, which means he was five in 1665. Defoe wrote and published Journal in 1722. Personal narrative like “My brother, who had already sent his wife and two children into Bedfordshire, and resolved to follow them, pressed my going very earnestly” is fictitious. 1
Regardless, we owe so much to the fact that Defoe was born in 1660 (and survived the plague). Had he written from the field, as we now say, I wonder if he would have had such distanced compassion.
As dead bodies pilled up dead carts were used to pick up the deceased. Bodies tumbled into mass graves like cataracts.
I was indeed shocked with this sight; it almost overwhelmed me, and I went away with my heart most afflicted, and full of the afflicting thoughts such as I cannot describe. Just at my going out of the church, and turning up the street towards my own house, I saw another cart with links, and a bellman going before coming out of Harrow Alley .. very full of dead bodies, it went directly over the street also toward the church, it stood a while, but I had no stomach to go back again and see the same dismal scene over again.
Dafoe ends the Journal with a week that sees a significant drop in the weekly Bill of Mortality death numbers. It is a cautiously joyous moment.2
But we move on. To perhaps Wilfred Owen’s poetic admonitions to feel something about death; C. S. Lewis on the
layered anxiety of grief, Susan Sontag’s study of the limits of empathy for others, and – rather powerfully – T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a poem that gives landscape to feelings of sorrow, deprivation and fear.
Or you can do what I did after reading Journal of the Plague Year, which is grab a very stout beer and reflect on just how sinisterly familiar this feels.
Fitting lines from William Butler Yeats: “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”