What We Can Learn from 'The Great Plague' of 1665

by James Burkinshaw

The literature of the past always informs our understanding of the present. The Covid-19 pandemic has led me to Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, which describes the impact on London of the "Great Plague" of 1665.

In his pioneering novels, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Defoe portrayed men and women surviving extraordinary challenges without losing their sense of identity. A hybrid of  novel, history, autobiography and journalism, published in 1722 (half a century after the Plague), Journal of the Plague Year is no less preoccupied by human resilience in the face of extremity.

In Journal, the (fictional) narrator is referred to only as "HF". In 1665, Defoe himself was just 5 years old (and quickly evacuated from London), but his uncle, Henry Foe, is known to have stayed in the city during the Plague and survived, so it is thought that much of the 1722 narrative is based on Henry's recollections. However, Defoe's extensive supplementary research is what lends Journal its journalistic quality, packed with statistical evidence and convincing anecdotal detail, lent immediacy by the first-person narrative.

Much of the fascination of Journal of course derives from parallels between our own experiences and those of our forebears three and a half centuries ago. Social distancing and self isolation were clearly as central to their lives as to ours: "The best Physick against the Plague is to run away from it . . . People walk'd in the middle of the great Street, neither on one side or other , , , they would not mingle with any Body . . . would stand and look at them and sometimes talk with them at some space between." One of the most heart-breaking aspects of Covid-19 has been the fact that those most seriously ill cannot be visited in hospital by close relatives; Defoe describes how "People . . when they have had the Distemper, have been so far from being forward to infect others that they have forbid their own family to come near them . . . and have even died without seeing their nearest Relations lest they be instrumental to give them the Distemper . . . but sent his Blessing and Prayers for them by the Nurse, who spoke it to them at a Distance." 

There were disagreements in 1665, just as there are now, about the right time to end what we now call "Lockdown". The narrator, HF, describes people, prematurely judging the Plague to be over, despite "Physicians . . .telling (people) how a Relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole Visitation that had been already . . . but it was all to no Purpose . . . they open'd shops, went about the streets . . . and convers'd with any Body that came in their way to converse with . . . This imprudent rash conduct cost a great many their lives who had with great care and caution shut themselves up and kept retired . . . from all Mankind and had by that means . .  been preserv'd through all the heat of that Infection."

The courage and dedication of health workers was as appreciated during the Great Plague as it is now; the narrator notes that "Physicians . . . ventured their Lives so far as even to lose them in the service of Mankind." Then, as now, the situation brought out the best in people: "there were many instances of immovable Affection, Pity and Duty in many." However, there were also those that sought to exploit the fear of others: "They ran to conjurers and witches and all sorts of Deceivers . . . who kept them always alarm'd . . . to pick their pockets" just as some unscrupulous individuals have been hawking false "cures" for Covid-19. In recent weeks, there have been depressing stories about individuals cruelly coughing or spitting on others, claiming to be passing on the virus; Defoe describes a man who "kiss'd (a woman) and which was worst of all told her he had the plague and why should she have it as well as he." In both the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, extreme situations revealed human nature at its most inspiring and its most dispiriting. And people were just as inventive in 1665 as they are now; there was no contactless payment 350 years ago, but "one Butcher would not touch the money but have it put into a pot full of vinegar" and another trader "takes up the purse with the Tongs and shakes the money out".

Defoe convincingly presents the shift among Londoners from initial complacency to incipient anxiety. At first, people "had a mighty fancy that they should not be visited or at least that it would not be so violent among them." However, HF chronicles his own growing insecurity and paranoia: "It was a very ill Time to be sick in for if anyone complain'd it was immediately said he had the Plague . . . I was not without apprehension that I really was infected." At the heart of this anxiety is the invisibility of the Plague, the fact that it can be passed on by what we would now refer to as "asymptomatic" carriers: "The Infection was propagated insensibly and by such Persons as were not visibly infected, who neither knew who they infected or who they were infected by. . . We see Men alive and well to Outward appearance one Hour and dead the next." He reflects on the tragic irony that "a Person had been a walking Destroyer, perhaps for a week or fortnight . . . how he had ruin'd those that he would have hazarded his life to save."

Last week, the BBC's Newsnight presenter Emily Maitliss drew attention when she argued that Covid-19 "is not a great Leveller . . . those on the front line right now . . . are disproportionately the lowest paid members of our workforce", from delivery drivers to transport workers and care home assistants. Defoe's narrator is equally clear that it is the poorest members of society who are most at risk: "The richer sort of People . . . throng'd out of Town with their Families and Servants . .  all hurrying away . . . the Poor . . .  push'd into any kind of Business, the most dangerous and the most liable to Infection." 

While HF praises the Mayor and other City officials for remaining in London to manage the crisis (contrasting them to Charles II and his Ministers who precipitously fled), he is not uncritical of their  initial hesitation to take action: for want of timely entering into Measures and Management . . . such a prodigious Number of People sunk in that Disaster which . . . if proper steps had been taken might . . . have been avoided" which mirrors current debates over the timing of the shut-down. And just as some people have recently questioned perceived heavy-handedness on the part of certain police officers, Journal records a recognisable encounter between individual and officialdom: John: "Why do you stop us on the King's Highway?" Constable: "We have a right to stop it up and our own safety obliges us to it."

English society in the 1660s was more religious than our own, but this was also the century of the Scientific Revolution. HF notes that "We must consider (the Plague) as it was really propagated by natural means . . .No one in this whole nation ever received the sickness or infection but who receiv'd it in the ordinary way of Infection from some Body . . that was infected before."  Wondering about the nature of the Plague, he also speculates whether "There might living Creatures be seen by a microscope of strange, monstrous and frightful shapes." Just as our daily governmental press briefing invariably begin with the number of Covid-19 fatalities, Defoe's narrative is punctuated by the "Bills" - daily and weekly tallies of the dead. He also notes that then (as now) there were concerns that the numbers were being under-reported: "It was found that there were more who were dead of the Plague . . . but had been set down of the Spotted Fever or other Distempers, beside others concealed." The sheer numbers become overwhelming: "The funerals became so many that People could not Toll the Bell, mourn or weep or wear Black for one another as they did before; no, nor so much as make coffins for those that died." The combination of relentless statistics and the appalling descriptions of the nightly delivery of the dead to mass-graves lend several passages a nightmarish, Gothic quality.

Journal ends on a cautionary note. In recent weeks, there has been much hope expressed that, once the current Covid-19 crisis has passed, we can transform ourselves, our society and our world for the better - changing our practices, our attitudes and even our values. Defoe reflects, "I wish I could say that as the City had a new Face so the Manners of the People had a new appearance . . . the general Practice of the People was just as it was before and very little Difference was to be seen . ..  there did not cease the Spirit of Strife . . . which was really the great Troubler of the Nation's Peace before." One of the most important things we can learn from history is how not to repeat it.