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ise NE of the most striking facts presented to us by history
is the recurrence, at irregular intervals of time, of virulent diseases of an extraordinary character, which, breaking
out unexpectedly in particular localities, have spread
NS sometimes over certain defined districts, sometimes over entire countries, sometimes over all the civilised world, and sometimes even, it would appear, over the whole surface of our planet, everywhere defying the power and skill of man, and sweeping off myriads to their graves. To these awful visitations men have given the name, at once vague and appropriate, of the Pestilence or the Plague ; reserving the name, however, especially for those cases in which human beings are the victims, and distinguishing similar recorded instances of unusual mortality among the lower animals by the name of the Murrain.
Of a general or universal plague, the best known instance in modern times is the famous pestilence, or “Black Death,' as it was called, of 1348-9, which, taking its rise in Asia, spread westward into Europe, and raged fearfully for many months. The best account we have of this pestilence is that given by the celebrated Italian writer Boccaccio, in the introduction to his Decameron, where there is a vivid description of its ravages in the city of Florence. Of all the other narratives of a pestilence extant, the two most celebrated are that of the plague at Athens, in the year 430 before Christ, by Thucydides, and that of the Great Plague of London, in 1664-5, by Daniel Defoe. No other narrative of the same description can be
compared for truthfulness and accuracy with these two accounts, which, though written at an interval of two thousand years, the one by an ancient Greek, the other by an Englishman of the reign of Queen Anne, yet resemble each other in many points. There is this difference, however, between them, that while Thucydides was an actual eye and ear witness of what he describes, and was himself ill of the plague, Defoe wrote his account upwards of fifty years after the calamity to which it refers, and could have been but a mere infant in the arms when the plague was raging. Still, there is abundant evidence that Defoe took pains to make his account an authentic one, by collecting such anecdotes and ininute particulars as could be obtained from acquaintances who had survived the plague, as well as by consulting all the public and parish records and printed pamphlets by medical men and others relative to the plague-year. His account, accordingly, may with perfect confidence be taken as, what it pretends to be, that of an eye-witness, who describes from personal recollection. In the following tract, therefore, we will present our readers with an abridgment of Defoe's Journal of the Plague-year in London; retaining the whole substance of that inimitable account, and interweaving, as we proceed, such additional particulars as we can obtain from other sources.
BREAKING OUT OF THE PLAGUE IN LONDON. During the early part of the seventeenth century, London had been repeatedly, if not almost yearly, visited by the plague : the generally confined thoroughfares, and the absence of any proper sanitary regulations, affording it on all occasions more or less scope. These visitations, common as they were, usually created some degree of alarm; and therefore, when it was announced, in the month of September 1664, that plague had made its appearance in the metropolis, a certain excitement in the public mind was created. Little, however, appears to have been done to avert the contagion, and it may be said to have existed till the ensuing spring without any decided means being taken for its suppression.
At length, in March 1665, things became more alarming; it was ascertained that in St Giles and the neighbouring parishes several persons had died of plague. In May the weather became warm, so as to aggravate the complaint; and 'in June, proceeds Defoe, 'the infection spread in a dreadful manner. I lived without Aldgate, about midway' between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars, on the left-hand or north side of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the city, our neighbourhood continued very easy. But at the other end of the town their consternation was very great; and 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; and this was more particularly seen in Whitechapel ; that is to say, the broad street where I lived. Indeed, nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts with goods, women, servants, children, &c.—coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away. This hurry continued some weeks; and the more so, because it was rumoured that an order of the government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road, to prevent people's travelling; and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass, for fear of bringing the infection along with them ; though neither of these rumours had any foundation but in the imagination, especially at first.
These accounts by Defoe of the rapid spread of the plague, and the alarm which it caused, are borne out by other authorities. Thus, on the 13th of May, we find a privy-council held at Whitehall relative to the infection, and a committee of the lords appointed to consider the means of checking its progress. Under the auspices of this committee, the College of Physicians drew up a small pamphlet containing directions for the cure of the plague, as well as for preventing infection. One of the articles of this precious medical code is somewhat amusing. It is as follows: 'Pull off the feathers from the tails of living cocks, hens, pigeons, or chickens; and holding their bills, hold them hard to the botch or swelling, and so keep them at that part till they die, and by this means draw out the poison. It is good also to apply a cupping-glass, or embers in a dish, with a handful of sorrel upon the embers
An extract from Pepys's Diary will help to give an idea of the excitement in London at the time the plague was beginning to rage.
June 7, the hottest day that ever I felt in my life. This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “ Lord, have mercy on us.” writ there; which was a sad sight to me.' Again, on the 17th of the same month, Pepys writes : “This afternoon, going with a hackney-coach from the Lord Treasurer's house down Holborn, the coachman I found to drive easily and easily, at last stood still, and came down, hardly able to stand, and told me that he was suddenly struck very sick, and almost blind; he could not see; so I alighted, and went into another coach with a sad heart for the poor man, and for myself also, lest he should have been struck with the plague.'
To resume Defoe's account. 'I now began,' he says, 'to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London, or shut up my house and flee, as many of my neighbours did. After much anxious considering, sometimes resolving one way, sometimes another, I came to the conclusion that, upon the whole, it was my duty, and expedient for me in my trade and business, being that of a saddler, and though a single man, with a house
and shop full of goods to take care of, to remain in town, casting myself entirely upon the goodness and protection of the Almighty. I had an elder brother, however, a married man, who with his wife and children went out of town. During the month of July, and while our part of the town seemed to be spared in comparison of the west part, I went ordinarily about the streets as my business required, and generally went once in a day or in two days into the city to my brother's house, which he had given me charge of, and to see it was safe. But the city also began to be visited with the disease; and all this month of July people continued to flee. In August they fled in still greater numbers, so that I began to think there would be really none but magistrates and servants left in the city.
'Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets, which were usually so thronged, now grown desolate. One day being at that part of the town on some special business, curiosity led me to observe things more than usually, and indeed I walked a great way where I had no business; I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people, but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side nor other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scents from houses that might be infected. The inns of court were all shut up, nor were very many of the lawyers in the Temple, or Lincoln's Inn, or Gray's Inn, to be seen there. Whole rows of houses, in some places, were shut close up; the inhabitants all fled, and only a watchman or two left.
'It must not be forgot here that the city and suburbs were prodigiously full of people at the time of this visitation-I mean at the time that it began. The town was computed to have in it above one hundred thousand people more than ever it held before; the joy of the Restoration having alone brought a vast number of families to London.
"The apprehensions of the people were strangely increased by the error of the times, in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams and old wives' tales, than ever they were before or since. People took to reading Lilly's Almanac, and other such exciting works, almost all of which foretold the ruin of the city. Many persons, frantic from these or other causes, ran about the streets predicting all sorts of horrors. The trade of fortune-telling became so open, and so generally practised, that it became common to have signs and inscriptions set up at doors : “ Here lives a fortune-teller," “Here lives an astrologer," &c. Certain it is that innumerable attendants crowded about their doors every day; and if but a grave fellow, in a velvet jacket, a band, and
a black cloak, which was the habit those quack-conjurers generally went in, was but seen in the streets, the people would follow him in crowds, and ask him questions as he went along.
'Gay and luxurious as the court then was, it began to put on a face of just concern for the public danger; all the plays and interludes which, after, the manner of the French court, had been set up and began to increase among us, were forbid to act ; the gamingtables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppetshows, rope-dancers, and such like doings, which had bewitched the common people, shut their shops, finding indeed no trade, for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people ; death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of his grave, not of mirth and diversions.
On the other hand, it was incredible, and scarcely to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors' bills, and papers of ignorant fellows quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these ; namely, “Infallible Preventive Pills against the Plague :” “Neverfailing Preservatives against the Infection :" “Sovereign Cordials against the Corruption of Air :" "Exact Regulations for the Conduct of the Body in Case of Infection; Anti-pestilential Pills :” “Incomparable Drink against the Plague, never found out before :” “A Universal Remedy for the Plague :" “ The only True Plague-water:” “ The Royal Antidote against all kinds of Infection :” and such a number more that I cannot reckon up, and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.
Others set up bills to summon people to their lodgings for direction and advice in the case of infection; these had specious titles also, such as these : “An eminent High-Dutch physician, newly come over from Holland, where he resided during all the time of the great plague last year in Amsterdam, and cured multitudes of people that actually had the plague upon them.” “An Italian gentlewoman, just arrived from Naples, having a choice secret to prevent infection, which she found out by her great experience, and did wonderful cures with it in the late plague there, wherein there died 20,000 in one day.”
But there was another madness beyond all this. “This was in wearing charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations, to fortify the body against the plague, as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of a possession of an evil spirit ; and it was to be kept off with crossings, signs of the zodiac, papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly that famous word ABRACADABRA,