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The Great Plague of London: A Lesson from History

By Anthony Anderson

23 March 2020

The Decameron (unabridged)In the Peak District of England lies the small picturesque village of Eyam. With a population of less than 1,000 it has received media attention in recent weeks due to its reaction in the wake of the Great Plague of 1665–66. Infection was caused by the delivery from London to the village tailor of cloth infested with fleas carrying the plague. The tailor’s assistant, George Vicars, was dead within a week with other members of the household perishing shortly afterwards. In this time of crisis the villagers turned to their church leaders who introduced measures such as social distancing and quarantining the whole village to prevent (successfully) the disease spreading further. The exact number of villagers who survived is disputed, but there is no doubt that the plague killed many of Eyam’s population, although some people, including the village gravedigger, survived despite coming into regular contact with the infection.

This episode from history has an obvious resonance in the current situation the world is facing. The effect of the plague on London was devastating with about a quarter of the population being wiped out. We have several accounts of the effect on the capital city, notably from Samuel Pepys in his Diaries and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (thought to be based on the journals of the author’s uncle, Henry Foe). The Journal is punctuated by lists of the dead in the various parishes of London as the epidemic ravaged the city. However, at the beginning of the outbreak, the number of fatalities showed signs of decreasing and there was hope that the epidemic would be short-lived:

This episode from history has an obvious resonance in the current situation the world is facing

This was the beginning of May, yet the weather was temperate, variable, and cool enough, and people had still some hopes. That which encouraged them was that the city was healthy: the whole ninety-seven parishes buried but fifty-four, and we began to hope that, as it was chiefly among the people at that end of the town, it might go no farther; and the rather, because the next week, which was from the 9th of May to the 16th, there died but three, of which not one within the whole city or liberties; and St Andrew’s buried but fifteen, which was very low. ‘Tis true St Giles’s buried two-and-thirty, but still, as there was but one of the plague, people began to be easy. The whole bill also was very low, for the week before the bill was but 347, and the week above mentioned but 343. We continued in these hopes for a few days, but it was but for a few, for the people were no more to be deceived thus; they searched the houses and found that the plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every day. So that now all our extenuations abated, and it was no more to be concealed; nay, it quickly appeared that the infection had spread itself beyond all hopes of abatement. That in the parish of St Giles it was gotten into several streets, and several families lay all sick together; and, accordingly, in the weekly bill for the next week the thing began to show itself. There was indeed but fourteen set down of the plague, but this was all knavery and collusion, for in St Giles’s parish they buried forty in all, whereof it was certain most of them died of the plague, though they were set down of other distempers; and though the number of all the burials were not increased above thirty-two, and the whole bill being but 385, yet there was fourteen of the spotted-fever, as well as fourteen of the plague; and we took it for granted upon the whole that there were fifty died that week of the plague.

The plague then took hold. Pepys paints a grim picture of a London in the grip of the plague in the following diary entry:

Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician. And but one apothecary left, all being dead

Plagues had broken out in European cities – there were cases in London in 1592, 1603, 1625 and 1636. The cause was normally infected fleas carried by rats on merchant ships and the seemingly random nature of the infection may have just been down to the fact that some humans were more appealing to fleas than others. In a diary entry from 1662 Pepys comments, when sharing a bed with a friend in Portsmouth, how ‘all the fleas came to him and not to me’.

Many of the rich were able to relocate from the city to country estates – King Charles II eventually moved his court to Oxford. This wasn’t an option for the poor who consequently bore the brunt of the outbreak, though Pepys himself remained in London.

Flea-carrying rats are also thought to have been the cause of The Black Death, the most devastating plague in history, which peaked in Europe in 1347–51 and wiped out more than half of the population of Europe. Florence, a city of great wealth under the control of the Medicis, was particularly badly affected. This is the context for The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio – ten young people (we are told they are aristocratic and, presumably, therefore rich enough to vacate the city) relocate to Fiesole for a fortnight to isolate themselves from the plague. While some of those days are spent on chores and observation of holy days, ten days are spent telling stories, normally on the theme prescribed by one of the party who take the roles of king or queen for the day. Each person tells one story on each of the ten days and these give us 100 stories in total. The range of these narratives is broad indeed – and they include humour, eroticism, tragedy and romance. The escapism from the troubled outside world The Decameron offered to readers in the mid-14th century is still there today – making this a perfect audiobook to which to return often.

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