Monday, March 16, 2020

The Journal of the Plague Year

Annamaria On Monday


One of the great things about writing and reading historical novels is that one sees dreadful past events safe in the knowledge that the human race has survived, even thrived in their wake.  One also can see the lessons to be learned from history.  Today, the historical novelist in me wants to compare what is going on now with the experience of a long ago epidemic, the 1665 Great Plague of London.  There are many similarities, but quite a few differences, all of which are very encouraging.  My source is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.**


The paperback I read in college looked like this


 Defoe’s account begins, as our experience of COVID-19, with statistics. (Coincidentally, by the way, their outbreak—like ours—began in December and began to grow in earnest January through March.)

His stats in early days of the outbreak:





Ours also in early days:



Right there, you can see how much better off we are now.  We have better data and know a lot more about how to use it. 

When it comes to identifying causes of the disease, we have an enormous advantage, which better informs us how to behave in the face of it.



Not surprisingly, the Londoners of old were totally wrong about what caused the plague.  There was a comet over London in the winter of 1664, and the disease hit with a vengeance the following year.  To Londoners of the time, a comet was a warning from the Almighty and the plague was God’s vengeance, punishing them for the sinful excesses of the Restoration.  The cure then would be to appease an angry God.



Because the seventeenth century Londoners thought God was punishing them, they ran to church to pray for respite.  They packed houses of worship, and not only on Sunday.  In Defoe’s description, many went to pray daily.  Such gatherings, of course, only made cross infection more likely.

Like us, they shut down theaters and music halls, venues of that sort.  Their motivation, however, was not like ours—to achieve social distancing.  They wanted to put a stop to the sinning and frivolity carried on in such places.  An angry God demanded that people stop having any fun. 

The “why” of our current pandemic is a proven fact:



 And knowing the true cause elicits (I am tempted to insert “Thank Heaven” J ) a much different response. We may not know exactly which bat bit which wild animal, but we know that bats can carry around lots of viruses without harm to themselves.  And they can transport them, in a bite, to other animals, including homo sapiens (I am tempted to insert, “sometimes not so sapiens L ).  Once the virus gets into one of us, it multiplies, makes us sick, and one way or another we start passing it on to each other. 



Some people may still see the wrath of God in this.  In researching this post, I visited one website where a minister answered the question: Is the corona virus going to bring on the End of Time?

Let's compare the Londoners of old and our behaviors in the face of an epidemic.  Well, despite their ignorance of the underlying cause, Londoners actually did some commonsensical things.  When a house was discovered to shelter victims, the place was “shut up.”  Quarantine was enforced with gargantuan measures.  Infected houses were marked with a red cross.



Some also carried the inscription, “Lord have mercy upon us.”  Such buildings were guarded 24/7.



London set up pest houses where sick people were forced to go into quarantine.  Any hackney coach that was used to transport a sick person to a pest house or a corpse to the graveyard was cleaned and put out of service for five or six days.

They practiced a certain amount of social distancing.  Samuel Pepys in his diary, talks about avoiding “noxious pestilential vapors.”  Defoe describes people walking in the middle of the street to avoid what they thought was poison air that might be coming from open windows.  He also says that the streets were deserted.

London 1665:

  “…if I have been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street…and seen nobody to direct me….”


Florence 2020:

My friend Nicoletta sent me these stunning pictures of Florence near my apartment.








 Nobody!  Absolutely nobody!!


One reason for the deserted streets in 1665 London was that folks who could left town.  There is an exodus from cities today too.  For instance, a friend told me that her boss took her children to their house in Vermont.  In both cases, of course, those who travel risk spreading the disease.  Then as now, people often think only of themselves.  But that is not true of everyone.




In London in 1665: There was no organized medical service.  Medicines and remedies from both doctors of The Royal College of Physicians and from the neighborhood quack were equally ineffectual.  They ranged from anti-pestilential pills to carrying around a magical piece of paper that looked like this:



“Physik” was on offer.  Defoe describes quacks who died with their own elixirs in their hands. 

The most important—the life-saving difference for us, of course, is that we have scientists who can help us work out what we need to do to stay safe.  And trained doctors and nurses who will treat us if we fall ill.


One thing Defoe got completely right was his praise of those who cared for the sick.  He says “..to their praise they ventured their lives to lose them in the service of mankind.  They endeavored to do good and to save the lives of others.”

My favorite scientist in this fight: Dr. Anthony Fauci


We, who in 2020 are hiding out from the infection, need to think about those heroes and heroines who are acting with the very same courage today.  They are saving lives at the risk of their own.  


Thank you, Nurses
Thank you, Doctors
Thank you, Technicians
Thank you, Orderlies.
We pray you will be safe!



**Defoe was only five years old in 1665.  He presents his story as an eyewitness account.  When he first published it in 1722, he wrote as H.F.  The account is based on the journals of his uncle Henry Foe.  Nowadays, some scholars categorize the book as an edited version of Uncle Henry’s eyewitness account. Others call it a historical novel.  The jury is still out on this question.  What the book certainly does is what well-researched and well-written historical fiction always does.  It makes the reader feel like an eyewitness.  Reading it at this moment made me feel a sense of kinship with those poor suffering 17th Century Londoners.  And enormous gratitude to the scientists who give us all a much better chance to live through our 21stCentury pandemic.






6 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Pat! It's been years since I read Defoe's Journal. Now I'll have to scour the house looking for my copy :)
    You're right, too, to commend the doctors, nurses, orderlies and others who are fighting this.

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    1. I am glad you liked it, Jamie. I looked at Pepys's Diary too, because I remembered laughing with my classmate about "noxious pestilential vapors," his phrase that we have used in jest ever since. But old Samuel is more taken up with his own life at the time (interesting as that may be.) Daniel and his Uncle Henry had more to say about what the population of the city were doing, thinking, and feeling.

      And yes, the medical folk! I am always in awe of people like firemen, cops, and especially doctors and nurses - who take up work that forces them to run toward what the rest of us are running away from. They deserve our thanks.

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  2. I don't carry around a piece of paper, but I mutter abracadabra as often as I can. Keep safe; keep distant.

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    1. Muttering is recommended for those of us who are self-isolating. I have no symptoms, but I have been on airplanes twice in the last ten days, so I am keeping to myself. I also made chicken soup, to ward off evil spirits. Stay well!!

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  3. One advantage they had in 1665 was no planes. We seem to be heading that way too!

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  4. Dr. Fauci is my favorite too! Though only slightly ahead of you, sis. Stay safe.

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