Defoe’s account of 1665 plague offers insights for 2020

Posted 6/4/20

by Hugh Gilmore A fellow reader, Margaret Guthrie, of Wyncote, wrote to say that she’d recently read with interest Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” published originally in 1722, …

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Defoe’s account of 1665 plague offers insights for 2020


by Hugh Gilmore

A fellow reader, Margaret Guthrie, of Wyncote, wrote to say that she’d recently read with interest Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” published originally in 1722, three years after Defoe’s famous “Robinson Crusoe.” I’d never read the book. It didn’t seem pertinent to my interests. But given the times we live in, and the 24/7 convenience of dialing up just about anything on the internet, I found a copy for my Kindle and read it last week.

Writing about the Great London Plague of 1665, Defoe opens with “It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague had returned again in had been very violent there, brought, some said, from Italy...” Others said the Levant...Turkey, perhaps Cyprus. “It mattered not from whence it came,” Defoe says, “all agreed it was come into Holland again.”

There were not such things as printed newspapers then, he writes, “to spread rumours and reports of things.” Instead the news accrued from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, “so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.” Several government councils were held to devise ways of keeping the plague from coming to England, “but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true.” But in December two people died of plague in London. The Secretaries of State sent examiners to verify this claim and then it was printed in the weekly Bill of Mortality, a publicly placed poster that stated: “Plague, 2. Parishes infected,1.” 

Defoe’s narrator (identified only as H.F.) goes on to relate that relating that the numbers in the weekly bills increased, but still, by the beginning of May, the ninety-seven parishes of London buried only fifty-four people. In the “unvisited” (i.e. no cases known) neighbourhoods, people felt free to think that the problem was just a local one affecting regions of the city other than their own.

In the meantime, however, people began suspecting that the numbers being reported were not accurate, that they were, in truth, being understated through “knavery and collusion.” The burial numbers and the plague-diagnosed numbers didn’t jibe. Rich people started leaving town to ride out the epidemic in their country estates. It was near impossible for most people to get a certificate of health to travel the roads or stay at an inn. And then the quarantining began.

Much of what proceeds to happen stands in interesting parallel to our current situation. Denial, medical quackery, bravery, heart-breaking loyalty, religious fervor, stubbornness, selfishness, kindness, generosity and all that human nature is capable of, abound. Many of the individual stories told in fascinating and ironic detail by a master storyteller. When the following September rolled around and the numbers had slackened, the people rushed out to resume normalcy. A fresh spike of cases followed. But eventually the plague settled down. The plague of 1665-66 is often referred to as the Great Plague and was the last major plague to besiege England.

In the search for similarities to today, one major difference stands out. The cause of the plague, a bacterium named Yersinia pestis, introduced by infected flea bites – was not known then. People knew that the skin and clothing and bedding of the afflicted were contagious, but they didn’t know how. Persons who were symptomatic were shut in at home, along with all other residents of the domicile, healthy or not. A red cross was painted on the door and a watchman sat outside to see that no one escaped. The fear and paranoia that spread with a disease of unknown origin was far worse than what we are going through today with COVID-19.

It’s worth noting that, as with “Robinson Crusoe,” Defoe presented this book as a true account at first. Today it’s said by most literary scholars to be a work of fiction. (He was only five years old during the 1665 version of what had been a hundred-years-long plague struck London.) The book was put together as a combination of family stories he’d heard, local lore, and copious historical and medical research. It reads like a true first-person account. Defoe’s descriptions of medical details and 17th century practices for dealing with epidemiological disaster are said by most latter-day experts to be accurate. However, Defoe’s insights into human nature and his extraordinary ability to create compelling scenes make this book come alive.

It’s not an easy read because it’s not broken into chapters and gets long-winded at times, but it’s certainly worth pushing through whenever it’s not pulling you along.

Hugh Gilmore is a former biological anthropologist and novelist who lives and writes in Chestnut Hill.