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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year. Daniel Defoe. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.


In light of the COVID 19 virus now spreading around the world, it seems appropriate to revisit Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, a fictionalized account of the Bubonic Plague in 1665 London. The contrast of our unfolding experience with that of 17th century Londoners provides elements of examination of how we carry ourselves in times of crisis, personally, culturally, and politically.

In 1665 the Bubonic Plague spread throughout London and the surrounding countryside, killing over 100,000 people. Fifty years later Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictionalized remembrance of those dark times. Defoe was a journalist by trade, and by extension, a seeker of truth and fact. Anthony Burgess, in an introduction to the 1966 edition of “The Journal,” reminds readers that Defoe, who had a “passion for plausibility,” is sharing with us a real account of events in London. Wherever Defoe shares with us unsubstantiated events extraordinary in nature, he is careful to remind the reader that the facts are unconfirmed. Burgess reminds us, however, that records verify many of the stories Defoe relates to us.

Defoe was intimately connected to the events of the Plague in London. He was six years old at the time of the “visitation,” and many of his family members experienced events first hand. Furthermore, as Defoe grew up into adulthood in London, firsthand accounts of the Plague would have been told in his presence by family, neighbors, and strangers at the “inn and coffee-house.” In other words, the Plague was an easy “story” to research.

The first rumours of Plague in Europe reached London not through city or national newspapers, of which Defoe reports there were none, but rather through the letters of merchants, and letters home from acquaintances in Europe. Holland, it was said, appeared to be suffering from Plague. Eventually, the first cases appeared outside the city walls of London. Two Frenchmen in the same house contracted the illness. Doctors were sent to the house and they confirmed the men died of the Plague. Six weeks of silence then ensued where no signs of Plague appeared, when in February of 1665 a third man from the same house also died of the Plague. It was speculated that this third man snuck away from the house of the two dead before it could be quarantined, and that in his unblemished condition he may well have spread the disease in his neighbourhood before falling to the visitation himself.

People in this area of the city were alarmed at what they heard, and in observing the rising death rates over subsequent weeks within that particular parish, began to suspect that authorities were not sharing knowledge of these events with the public. At the same time, many people inside London’s city walls who caught news of the outbreak did not panic or concern themselves deeply with the disastrous possibilities that lay before them, because London was so large and the outbreak so far away.

Through the spring months, however, as the Plague numbers continued to grow, and to spread further afield threatening the entire city of London, many people did begin to mobilize. The wealthier families in particular, “the nobility and gentry,” who had destinations to travel to, packed up and joined a long procession of Londoners fleeing the city, not only with their most important possessions, but with the servants of their house. At this time, a “clean bill of health” was required to travel outside the city, and the government authorities, pressed by the onslaught of eager travellers, were quick to authorize passage. These tickets had to be shown at crossroads outside London, all in an attempt, naturally, to suppress the spread of Plague in the surrounding countryside. Of course, one can imagine that as clean bills of health were handed out, more than a few infected persons not showing any signs of the visitation slipped out of the city as well, and began infecting roadside inns and villages as their travels continued. Defoe makes a point in saying that it was the people who were “well” that were the most dangerous to the population, outside the city and in. The apparently healthy citizens moved about without “tokens” of the Plague, happily visiting family and strangers in the markets and inns, carrying the Plague with them and unwittingly spreading it to unsuspecting souls.

The Plague seemed to present itself as either a silent killer, or a torturous ogre. Some people, showing no outward marks of illness, would travel to the market and fall over in a swoon, dead as they hit the ground. Others, suddenly overcome with some intuition of impending doom, would have time to step away from the crowds in the street, find a quiet doorway in which to comfortably sit, and then die without a whimper. Defoe suggests in these cases that the plague had rooted itself inside the person, in their blood, and that the “gangrene” then began to spread about, “working on the vitals.”

For most, the Plague seemed to show itself in the form of ‘boils’, or as severe rashes. The boils, particularly if they grew hard, could be terribly painful. By Defoe’s telling, it was a familiar experience to  hear the screams of the suffering, and the beseeching or grieving cries of loved ones while walking down a London street. Sometimes the pain was so great that people would throw themselves out of their windows to bring on a quick death, or shoot themselves, while parents “in their lunacy” might even kill their own children. Others would break free of their nurses, or the watchmen outside their doors, and run or dance into the street, screaming and gesticulating, and possibly infecting others, before collapsing in a dead heap. During the height of the Plague, there was “confusion among the people,” and a growing terror “so at last the courage of the people appointed to carry away the dead began to fail them.” Some of the collectors on the dead carts would fall dead themselves, some while in the act of throwing corpses into the burial pits.

Defoe’s description of London streets and those dying in them tells a horrific tale. “Sorrow and sadness sat upon every face,” and “all looked deeply concerned.” The cries from the suffering and grieving “was enough to pierce the stoutest heart,” and eventually the streets that usually thronged with people grew desolate. In some cases, the streets were so unused that grass grew on them, giving some streets the appearance of being a meadow. The court houses grew quiet, for everybody appeared to be at peace with their neighbour, and “there was no occasion for lawyers.” At the same time, “the power of avarice” was so strong that often times the dead were robbed where they lay, often enough by collectors of the dead, and nurses, not only having their pockets picked, but if they were wearing expensive garments, having those stolen too. There were also tales of nurses or watchmen murdering their suffering charges before robbing the household. Defoe tends to downplay the stories of murder and robbery, but it does suggest there was something to these tales as he mentions these practices more than once.

Sometimes physicians would try to lance the boils since it appeared that when the boils burst on their own it was possible for the patient to recover. From Defoe’s telling, there doesn’t appear to be any proof that bursting the boils in a medical procedure ever worked. The boils had to burst in their own good time. This did not stop doctors from causing great pain for the patient when they tried to cut open the boils in a desperate attempt to save a life. Often it was the case that boils grew so hard that a scalpel could not penetrate their armor, so “caustic” solutions were applied to burn the boil, causing great screams of agony from the soon to be dead patients. But, screams and grievous wailings were part of London streets where the Plague had come to rest, and this combined with the sight of people dead in the streets compelled many citizens to grow hard of heart. As the Plague continued to grow, people learned to ignore the dead, and to shut out the blood curdling screams coming from the windows over the street.

Suffering illness during the time of the Plague was more than mere inconvenience. Not only was it difficult to find a doctor, many citizens were misdiagnosed as suffering from Plague when eventually a doctor or health authority was found. In some cases misdiagnosis led to helpless souls being quarantined with others who had Plague. Often, repeated visits by doctors and city authorities to the misdiagnosed in quarantine led to the unintended transmission of the Plague. Defoe also carefully notes the difficulty many women had giving birth because midwives had grown scarce. Not only did a large number of women and their babies die because of clumsy hands seeking to help them give birth, many women and babies also died because they were suffering from Plague already, and the trials and efforts brought on by labour overwhelmed the poor women.

There are some darkly humorous tales Defoe shares as well. One man, covered in boils and in fits of agony, ran screaming out of his house. He began running up and down various streets and avenues at full speed, trailed by his nurse who screamed to the watchman to stop him. But the watchman, seeing this screaming and obviously infected man running toward him at full speed, stepped aside. The patient reached the Thames and jumped in. He swam across the river still screaming, and when he reached the far bank, continued to run up and down the streets. Eventually, he found himself at the Thames once more. He jumped back in, swam back to his side of the city, and ran screaming home, where he collapsed in a heap upon his bed. As the patient’s good fortune would have it, his boils then burst, and the man recovered his health. Some wondered if the excessive movement inspired the cure, or if it was the cold water of the Thames that did the trick. As was the case in almost every instance where potential cures or actions of prevention were discussed, there was a conflict of opinion amongst the experts.

In another moment of dark comedy, “The Piper,” as he was called, was given too much ale to drink after entertaining the people with his music. Eventually he passed out, falling asleep in an empty market stall. That night as the Piper slept the dead-carts came out as was their practice, and coming upon the sleeping Piper, took him to be yet another corpse. So, the collectors heaved him onto their wagon and continued, collecting more corpses as the night continued. When they reached the burial pit the cart’s attendants prepared to dump their sad load when the Piper awoke. “Hey! Where am I?” he asked. “You are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you,” said the frightened attendant. “But I ain’t dead though, am I?” asked the Piper. This brought on a short burst of laughter before the macabre work continued.

Once acclimatized to the horrors present during the time of the Plague, Defoe’s book becomes fascinating for its revealing of human nature, culture, and governance. Many people reacted differently through this time of troubles. At the beginning of the Plague Defoe notes that fortune-tellers and astrologers were highly popular, aided by the fact that in the months preceding the Plague’s visitation, a “blazing star or comet” had appeared over London. All of them, it seemed, could forecast the fortunes not only of the client approaching them, but of the entire city. Defoe, a practicing Christian, considered these characters with their pseudo-magic to be a moral distraction for London’s citizens.

As the Plague grew and burial pits began to fill, some citizens grew cynical, inspired by a nihilistic dread of humanity’s apparently meaningless existence. In the case of three men who perched themselves in a pub across from a church, they ruthlessly made fun of people who prayed for help, mocked funeral processions loudly, and worked excessively hard to break anyone’s spirit whom they came into contact with. As Defoe reports, these three would not survive the Plague. Perhaps taking advantage of the same fears and instincts as the astrologers did, there were also people selling medicines to prevent the Plague from visiting oneself or one’s family. Others sold charms, exorcisms and amulets that were designed to protect people from harm, but of course, at the end of the day the Plague rolled on, quickly sobering people up.

As one can easily imagine, another reaction to the horrors of the Plague involved the apocalyptic. One man would walk about the city half naked, with burning coals perched upon his head, warning everyone to repent while time allowed. In the call for repentance, others were more sober, based on practical experience. For example, it was not uncommon for people to die alone. Sometimes family members of the dying person had already passed away, or run for the proverbial hills, or the nurse had died, and physicians or ministers of the church could simply not be found. And as people died alone, calling out for help, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the dying beseeching the Lord for mercy, even as they called for a minister so they could confess their sins.

Defoe notes, perhaps somewhat sardonically, that many unsolved crimes involving burglary, rape and murder were confessed during this time, but that on account of the widespread death of the confessors, to say nothing of the overburdened city authorities, little earthly justice resulted in these deathbed confessions. Nevertheless, many citizens, however nominally Christian they may have been during the good times, found themselves praying and repenting earnestly, for no one knew when their time would end. As the Plague worsened in August and September of that year, Defoe reports that people, with a certain despair or resignation, would continue to attend church services, despite the dangers of mass gatherings, with a sincere attitude toward prayer. At the same time, the fortune tellers and astrologers disappeared completely from city streets. The impression left from these observations is that as times remained difficult and grew evermore serious, patience for the superficial disappeared, and a serious reckoning with reality took place, often in the presence of the Church.

Defoe notes that in the pre-plague days of London, the Christian community was clearly divided. The doctrines and forms of worship that each Christian sect followed would create prejudices that appeared insurmountable. As the Plague worsened, however, those borders dividing people quickly evaporated. The Church of England seemed to experience a resurgence of popular appeal during this time. Regardless, people would gather in houses of worship in order to hear whichever minister happened to be at the pulpit that day. Defoe leaves the reader with the impression that these church goers were not there to bend nature with hope of a miracle, and neither were they there fearing the apocalyptic return of God. Rather, there was simply a desire to pray in community. Regarding the ministers themselves, Defoe notes that the scriptures reveal a God who is loving and gracious, and one who can bring hope in even the darkest hour. Yet the ministers preaching from those same scriptures seemed to be inordinately focused on God’s wrathful judgment and the fires of hell. Was this absolutely necessary? Defoe’s wish is that the ministers could have struck a more hopeful chord. Defoe’s own faith is easy to discern in his writing. A person who survived the Plague did so because of the gracious “Hand of God,” but Defoe also recognizes the practical efforts people needed to make in order to survive. Defoe’s faith did not make him a fatalist, and in fact he is sure to condemn those who would recklessly place themselves in God’s hands while neglecting common sense approaches to surviving danger.

The people of London certainly understood enough of the spread of Plague to know that human contact was something to avoid. When buying a “joint of meat,” for example, it was a practice for customers to pick the meat off the hook themselves, and to drop their money into a bowl full of vinegar where it could be cleaned. In this way, the butcher and his customer never made contact with one another. As a side note, the butchers were hit heavily by the Plague. It was interesting to read Defoe’s accounts of people who could not avoid contact with the infected, and how they fared. Many nurses and doctors perished, of course, and so too did the men charged with collecting the dead. Nevertheless, Defoe describes a couple, the man who worked collecting the dead, and his wife, who nursed the infected. Both would survive the Plague, the man living twenty more years. He worked while keeping onion and garlic in his mouth, and smoking tobacco. His wife, who tended to the sick and dying, washed her hair and body with vinegar, and while working, kept a cloth soaked in vinegar over her face, and her clothes damp with vinegar.

Throughout the Journal, Defoe returns to the fate of the poor. He criticizes the Lord Mayor and the sheriffs for taking “no measures for the relief of the poor,” such as setting up storehouses for corn and meal. He laments the poor’s exposure to danger which poverty forced upon them. For example, people in general had to pay for their food and lodging in some way, despite the reportedly large amount of money donated for the well-being of the poor by those wealthier people who had escaped London at the beginning of the Plague. This charity did support many poor people, but others still found themselves in a position of needing to find work. Finding traditional lines of work, however, was difficult for the poor.

International trade had been closed off since nations on the continent wanted to avoid London, so the merchants suffered and hired no helping hands. The wealthier families, meanwhile, had already left London, so there was no possibility of being hired as a servant for the stables or houses. So, most often the poor had to take jobs at the burial pits, or on the carts that collected the dead every night. Other poor people were brought on as nurses for the sick. This work obviously exposed the poor to a disproportionate amount of danger. On the other hand, the poor could be crassly irreverent to dangers. Defoe charges the poor with a near sense of fatalism for the way they brashly entered into human contact with others, including those with symptoms of Plague.

It is interesting to note that the food markets, even if many of them eventually moved to the outskirts of the city, remained open. Farmers in the country obviously had to move their produce, and the Lord Mayor and his magistrates made sure access to food remained an open and relatively easy process. Not only did food remain available, but prices remained quite modest despite the stresses being felt across England. For much produce, the prices remained at pre-plague levels. There was also a surplus of fruits like apples, pears and berries, which could be purchased at low prices. The Lord Mayor also led great efforts in making sure that any ships that did sail up the Thames to London could safely discharge their cargo without fear of possible contamination. This was done with small boats relaying cargo, and sending payment in ways similar to the butcher’s bowl of vinegar.

Defoe praises the government of the day for a number of practices besides ensuring food security. First, he recognizes the courage of the Lord Mayor and his magistrates. Although they had the means to flee the city, the city leaders remained, and made themselves available to the people every day so that complaints and concerns could be heard. This meeting with the public was obviously done at great personal risk. The Lord Mayor would even ride about London on horseback, making sure his instructions for the benefit of the people were followed through the city. Defoe recognizes this courage, incidentally, in the context of not only the wealthier families who fled London for the sake of self-preservation, but in relation to the many physicians and Christian clergymen who fled London when the going got tough. He recounts the disdain many of these returning community leaders faced when they arrived back in London after the Plague had passed. In many cases, the condemnation of these “deserters” was enough for them to eventually leave London altogether, or, to at least move across the city where they could live without notice.

The Lord Mayor and his government also paid careful attention to quarantining houses where the plague was known to have arisen. Watchmen were stationed at these houses, and were charged with attending to the needs of the house as they arose. For example, they could be asked to obtain food or medicine for the house, and if they neglected their duty or had fallen into a drunken stupor, complaints could be made and investigations undertaken. Swift justice, and punishments of the neglectful, ensured that watchmen did not shirk their duties. The hierarchy established for keeping London running, and for maintaining order during the worst of the Plague months, is something admirable to witness, if Defoe’s retelling of the events are at all accurate.

The sufferings of London during the Plague inspired many different human responses, from the nihilistic and cynical, the apocalyptic, despair and hopelessness, insanity, and finally to the faith filled acceptance of the reality of the day. Defoe does not concern himself with judging people too harshly in how they responded to the crisis. He understands that different people are blessed with different amounts of courage. His two pieces of advice for the authorities are related. He wishes there had been more “pest houses” to serve the infected, and second, he wishes whole families or groups of people could have avoided being locked up and quarantined in houses where perhaps only one or two of their group were infected.

Defoe makes the point clear that many people died because they could not get away from the sick. Pest houses would have relieved many healthy people of having to wait for their own infections to inevitably arrive, by having the sick removed for care and observation in a secure environment. Finally, he acknowledges the general negligence of many citizens at the beginning of the Plague. Because many people did not take the rising threat of Plague seriously, they did not store enough food and other provisions for themselves. Without provisions, they could not remain indoors during the worst onset of the Plague, and so families and their servants made weekly if not daily outings into the streets and markets, often times exposing themselves to the Plague, and contributing to the transmission of it among the citizens of London.

In the end, the Plague lessened as winter arrived, and eventually disappeared. Life returned to normal. Defoe notes that people carried a genuine sense of thanksgiving to God that the Plague had ended, and that life had returned. That said, he remembers the Israelites who sang their praise to God when delivered of the Pharaoh at the Red Sea, and how soon after they forgot the works of God. In post-Plague London, the churches re-erected their barriers against each other, and the mundane complaints of the day were shared loudly. So it is we continue to move through the trials and tribulations of history today, experiencing life as a human community as though for the first time.

If COVID 19 reached 17th century London, we can wonder if there would have been any serious reaction from the State, or the citizens in general. The slight up-tick in death notices would have been noted, and undoubtedly attributed to a bad cold virus that year. On the other hand, we can ask ourselves how we would fare if we were visited by an easily transmitted illness like the Bubonic Plague with its attendant sufferings and high death rate. The many dystopian books and movies that entertain so many of us these days, like the Hunger Games, Maze Runner, The Day of the Triffids, the Chhrysalids, I Am Legend, World War Z, The Road, or The Book of Eli, suggests that the question is one many people have been asking for some time.

Michael BuhlerMichael Buhler

Michael Buhler

Michael Buhler is the Pastoral Care Worker for the Northeastern Catholic District School Board in Timmins, Canada. He has a B.A. from the University of Alberta in History and Comparative Religious Studies, and a M.A. from Wilfrid Laurier University in Religious Studies. His studies included two years of work for a M. Div. at Newman Theological College, Edmonton.

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