In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe relates the horrors of the black death pandemic that swept through London town in wave after merciless wave between 1665 and 1666.
As I am swept downstairs to isolation in my living-room, now dining- and bed- and whatever-else-room, I quickly survey my library of books to decide which will make the journey downstairs, and this one jumps out at me.
Despite being three and a half centuries ago, and their plague being infinitely more deadly than is ours, there are many things that are strikingly similar, as well as strikingly different.
As the manner and mass of death in London mounted to apocalyptic proportions, an order was issued, ‘Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London concerning the Infection of the Plague,’ the contravention of which was punishable by law.
Examiners were appointed in every parish in London. If any refused to subject themselves to examination, the recalcitrant were ‘to be committed to prison until they shall conform themselves accordingly.’ Likewise, Guernsey regulations enable Bailiwick Law Enforcement to detain those considered a risk due to the spread of COVID-19.
Homes housing the infected had to inform these examiners of health within two hours of the appearance the symptoms of plague (described in the edict as ‘blotch or purple, or swelling’), after which their homes were ‘shut up for a month’ under lock and key, in enforced isolation.
Visitation was only allowed by nurses, or by family members who would then have to be isolated under lock and key themselves. Though Guernsey’s (currently) laissez-faire self-isolation sounds benevolent by comparison, we’ve only to look over the horizon to France to see that we are not too far removed from this harsher kind of enforcement.
Like France, ‘infected homes,’ as they were named, are guarded by watchmen day and night, with ‘a special care that no person go in or out upon pain of severe punishment.’
Houses were marked by ‘a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door’, under which the following prayer was printed: Lord, have mercy upon us.
Large gatherings were ‘utterly prohibited’: ‘all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads,’ all of which are likewise prohibited for the meanwhile in our fair isle. Again, any who did not comply were to be ‘severely punished by every alderman in his ward.’ (Come to think of it, I don’t remember the States cancelling bair-baiting?)
All ‘public feasting’ was prohibited, in particular in the ‘taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment,’ which were forcibly closed by 9pm. Our own pub curfew was much earlier, unless it serves plated food. The frantic ordering and chugging, the displeasure as the pub calls last orders, the bell ringing in plague year, now echoes into our own. Interestingly, the London order notes that the money saved from staying out of the pub could be better spent on caring for the infected.
Though these precautions were taken and strictly enforced in the plague year, social distancing was considered a superstition, and the physical and respiratory passage of infection ludicrous. Thankfully, many of that era were superstitious in this regard.
Defoe actually mocked the idea of infection ‘by the breath, or by the sweat, or by the stench of the sick persons,’ and the misguided physicians ‘who talk of infection being carried on by the air only, by carrying with it vast numbers of invisible creatures, who enter into the body with the breath, or even at the pores with the air, and generate or emit the most acute poisons, which mingle themselves with the blood, and so infect the body: a discourse full of learned simplicity, and manifested to be so by universal experience.’
Thankfully our universal experience is bolstered by a scientific understanding, by the now-imperative precautions of hand-washing and general hygiene; even if some act like backwards Middle-Age peasants by greedily hoarding the community’s essentials.
This book reads like an unmitigated tragedy, but from where we are sat, it teaches us a precious lesson: things could be worse. So much worse. But they’re not, and thank God for that. Lord, have mercy upon us.
A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year