“Again he shook his head. The world’s gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it. The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough!”
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
I’ve just finished reading Old St. Paul’s: A tale of the Plague and the Fire by William Harrison Ainsworth (1841), which, as I mentioned last week, details the 1665 plague of London, culminating with the Great Fire.
Several hundred years later, here I am (you are) in plagued-London (fill in the name of your city here).
Even if you are not a lover of classic novels, you will appreciate this … the parallels are simply uncanny!
The plague story told though chronological quotes from a book:
The Media Storm
“The consternation now began. The whole city was panic-stricken: nothing was talked about of but the plague – nothing planned but means of arresting its progress – one grim and ghastly idea possessed the minds of all. Like a hideous phantom stalking the streets at noon-day, and scaring all in its path, Death took his course through London, and selected his prey at pleasure.”
“Being of a superstitious nature, he placed full faith in all the predictions of the astrologers, who foretold that London should be utterly laid waste, that grass should grow in the streets, and that the living should not be able to bury the dead.”
“He read the bills of mortality daily; ascertained the particulars of every case. He talked of the pestilence by day, and dreamed of it by night;”
The Armchair Expert
“By his mother’s advice, he steeped rue, wormwood, and sage in his drink, and carried a small ball of his hand compounded of wax, angelica, camphor, and other drugs. He likewise chewed a small piece of Virginian snake-root, or zedoary, if he approached any place to be infected. A dried toad was suspended around his neck, as an amulet of sovereign virtue. Every nostrum sold by the quacks in the streets tempted him.”
“Leonard, if I were you, I would not go to the Examiner of health. Poor Stephen may not have the plague, after all. It’s a dreadful thing to be imprisoned for a month, for that’s the time appointed by the Lord Mayor.”
Flouting the Rules
“The rigorous measures adopted by the authorities (whether salutary or not has been questioned), in shutting up houses and confining the sick and the sound within them for forty days, were found so intolerable, that most persons were disposed to run any risk rather than be subjected to such a grievance.”
Empty Streets and Morbid Times
“London now presented a lamentable spectacle. Not a street but had a house in it marked with a red cross – some streets had many such. The bells were continually tolling for burials, and the dead-carts went their melancholy rounds at night and were constantly loaded.”
“If things go on in this way,” said the porter, “London will soon be deserted. No business is conducted, as it used to be, and everybody is viewed with distrust. The preachers, who ought to be the last to quit, have left their churches, and the Lord’s day is no longer observed.”
End of World and Judgment Predictions
“I am Solomon Eagle,” replied the enthusiast, “and I am charged with a mission from on high to warn your doomed people of their fate. Be warned yourself, dire! Your end will be sudden. You will be snatched away in the midst of your guilty pleasure, and with little time for repentance.”
Cautious Easing of Lockdown
“Sometimes, indeed, when the deaths were less numerous, a hope began to be entertained that the distemper was abating, and confidence was for a moment restored: but these anticipations were speedily checked by the reappearance of the scourge, which seemed to baffle and deride all human skill and foresight.”
“A young and richly dressed man issued from a tavern in Broad Street, and with a wild and inflamed countenance staggered along. The next person encountered by the drunken man was a young female. Suddenly catching her in his arms, he imprinted a kiss upon her lips, and then with a frightful laugh, shouted, ‘I have given you the plague! Look here!’ And tearing aside the collar of his shirt, he exhibited a large tumour. The young woman uttered a shriek of terror and fainted.”
“The conditions of the prisons at this season was really frightful. In Newgate, in particular, where the distemper broke out in late June, it raged with such violence that in less than a week, more than half go the prisoners were swept off.”
“The distemper had by this time increased to such a frightful extent that the pest-houses being found wholly inadequate to contain the number of sick persons sent to them, it was resolved by the civic authorities, who had obtained the sanction of the Dean and Chapter of Saint Paul‘s for that purpose, to convert the cathedral into a receptacle for the infected.”
The Top of the Curve
“Out of every hundred persons attacked, five did not recover; and whether the virulence of the distemper increased, or the summer heat rendered its victims more easily assailable, certain it is they were carried off far more expeditiously than before.”
The End / The Beginning of the New Normal
“It is astonishing how soon hope and confidence are revived. Now that it could no longer be doubted that the plague was on the decline, it seemed as if a miracle had been performed in favour of the city. Houses were opened – shopkeepers resumed their business – and it was a marvel to every one that so many persons were left alive.Dejection and despair of the darkest kind were succeeded by frenzied delight.”
And so, there we have it.
Give or take a Zoom meeting, some online orders, Twitter and a bit more soap in 2020, that pretty much sums it all up, right?
P.s. Some quick facts about the Black Death: 1. Spread by: flees on black rats; 2. Caused by: Yersinia pestis bacterium, but at the time it was thought it was caused by ‘pockets of bad air’; 3. Symptoms: Tumours (buboes or gavocciolos), acute fever, vomiting of blood; 4. It resurged in wave after wave through the 14th – 17th centuries; 5. Death: 75-200mill people; 6. Mortality: 30-50% of those infected died; 6. The term ‘quarantine’ was coined during this time; 7. Shakespeare witnessed the plague in London; 8. The plague was rife all of Europe, not just London (1665-1666, pre-fire). The Middle Ages where not a very hygienic time so cities were particularly badly affected by the critter-carrying-vermin; 9. Dung and urine were among treatments prescribed by doctors; 10. Purported cures: Avoiding lechery, not eating fruit, drinking good wine, avoiding bad thoughts, eating and drinking in moderation, staying happy, various aromatic herbs, vinegar … I’m sorry to say that bathing was actually discouraged! Oh vey!
P.ps. Thank your lucky stars that plague-2020 first and foremost encourages washing!
Plague facts courtesy of: facts legend.org, Wiki and facts.net
One thought on “London 1665: an old story, retold in 2020”
Hi .A great read and good to get the comparisons with 2020.Love the historical facts .x