Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, about the London epidemic of 1665, sounds so familiar.

Plague year“It was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street… and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up… 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 or other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses…

It was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster, which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from…

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 the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague’… ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An universal remedy for the plague.’ ‘The only true plague water.’… and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book…

Even when it appeared violent, yet seeing it did not presently spread into the city, or the east and south parts, the people began to take courage, and to be, as I may say, a little hardened. It is true a vast many people fled, as I have observed, yet they were chiefly from the west end of the town, and from that we call the heart of the city: that is to say, among the wealthiest of the people, and such people as were unencumbered with trades and business…

 

Lord have mercy on London

Such as had received the contagion, and had it really upon them, and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances, nay, even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several days, these breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them; nay, their very clothes retained the infection, their hands would infect the things they touched…

I remember my friend Dr Heath, coming to see me the week before, told me he was sure that the violence of it would assuage in a few days; but when I saw the weekly bill of that week, which was the highest of the whole year, being 8,297 of all diseases, I asked him what he had made his judgement from… ‘Look you,’ says he, ‘by the number which are at this time sick and infected, there should have been twenty thousand dead the last week instead of eight thousand, if the inveterate mortal contagion had been as it was two weeks ago; for then it ordinarily killed in two or three days, now not under eight or ten… Observe it from me, the next bill will decrease, and you will see many more people recover…’

And accordingly so it was, for the next week… the bill decreased almost two thousand… It is true the plague was still at a frightful height, and the next bill was no less than 6,460, and the next to that, 5,720; but still my friend’s observation was just, and it did appear the people did recover faster and more in number than they used to…

Such is the precipitant disposition of our people… that as upon the first fright of the infection they shunned one another, and fled from one another’s houses and from the city… so now, upon this notion spreading that the distemper was not so catching as formerly, and that if it was catched it was not so mortal… they took to such a precipitant courage, and grew so entirely regardless of themselves and of the infection, that they made no more of the plague than of an ordinary fever, nor indeed so much… This I could not see rational…

The people of London thought themselves so plague-free now that they were past all admonitions; they seemed to depend upon it that the air was restored, and that the air was like a man that had had the smallpox, not capable of being infected again. This revived that notion that the infection was all in the air, that there was no such thing as contagion from the sick people to the sound; and so strongly did this whimsy prevail among people that they ran all together promiscuously, sick and well… made nothing of going into the same houses and chambers, nay, even into the same beds, with those that had the distemper upon them, and were not recovered…

Some, indeed, paid for their audacious boldness with the price of their lives; an infinite number fell sick, and the physicians had more work than ever… there did not die above a thousand or twelve hundred in a week, then there died five or six thousand a week, so entirely negligent were the people at that time in the great and dangerous case of health and infection, and so ill were they able to take or accept of the advice of those who cautioned them for their good.”

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year, at Project Gutenberg

More at The Guardian

~ by lolarusa on May 6, 2020.

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