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Consider the plague. I mean the actual, literal, bubonic plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. In this pestilential season the subject has been impossible to avoid, because so many people are calling coronavirus “plague” — even though, as pandemics go, they have almost nothing in common. Plague has an astonishingly high fatality rate — between 50% and 80% of its victims die — but is rarely transmitted directly from person to person, traveling instead through the bites of infected fleas. Covid19, by contrast, is much more contagious but significantly less fatal. And there are other distinctions. While the plague comes with painful, swollen tumors, running sores, and putrid secretions, coronavirus leaves no visible marks on the body. Most victims will survive it. Some might never even know they had it.
There has also been plenty of talk about Ebola and AIDS and influenza and what all of them have to tell us about the present crisis. (I have no intention of interpreting the present crisis). But plague has retained a special hold on the imagination. To Thomas Dekker, the Elizabethan hack pamphleteer, it was simply “the sicknesse,” a disease with “a Preheminence above all others...none being able to match it for Violence, Strength, Incertainty, Suttlety, Catching, Universality, and Desolation.” The Black Death is still the most deadly pandemic in recorded history. At its height, between 1348 and 1351, the disease may have killed half the population of Eurasia. It has only two close rivals for sheer morbidity: the Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 and the smallpox pandemic brought to the Americas by Europeans after 1492. Both events caused untold human suffering, but neither left behind the same long history of written records. That was because the plague kept coming back. Its periodic recurrences swept through Europe with devastating regularity until the 1770s, and continued to ravage the Ottoman Empire into the 1850s. For almost five centuries, it was not unusual for cities to lose a quarter of their population in a year.
So when Asiatic cholera spread to Europe in the 1830s, a century after the last plague outbreak, it was swiftly termed “the new plague.” Newspapers from 1918 proclaimed that influenza was “just like a plague of olden times.” Yellow Fever was called “the American plague” when it struck Philadelphia in 1793, and early coverage of AIDS in the 1980s demonized its victims by calling it “the gay plague.” Like coronavirus, none of these diseases are particularly similar to bubonic plague. They have different symptoms, causes, biological agents, and epidemiologies. What they share is a particular social profile: all are epidemic diseases of unusual suddenness and severity. They take populations by surprise. Cholera was the most feared disease of the nineteenth century, not the more deadly and more familiar tuberculosis. Endemic childhood illnesses killed more people than the plague before the invention of vaccination, but they did not inspire nearly the same terror. Fear of plague is not just about death or pain: more fundamentally, it is the fear of not knowing what comes next.
Unsurprisingly, plague literature is currently having a moment. Publishers have announced a flood of upcoming books about the coronavirus experience. Recent months have seen rising sales of everything from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (a novel about a fictional bioweapon called the Wuhan-400 virus). Camus’ The Plague is a best-seller in Italy and Korea; Penguin is currently issuing a reprint. For a couple of days in March, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was actually sold out on Amazon.
Defoe might not be the best-selling plague author of the moment (though it’s close), but he has almost certainly been the most reviewed. After all,the Journal is the original plague novel, and arguably the only genuine historical narrative of the lot. By reading Defoe, we can tell ourselves a story about what really happened in 1665, when the Great Plague swept through London — and by extension, what has really happened to us now. In just a few days I read that it “speaks clearly to our time,” offers “some useful perspective on our current crisis,” and gives an “eerie play-by-play” of recent events. And at times, reading the Journal really did give me an uncomfortable sense of familiarity. Vague rumors of the plague reach London. The threat is discussed, then dismissed. The government waffles. Deaths start to mount through the winter of 1664 and the spring of 1665. By the time quarantines are established, schools closed, and public events banned, it’s too late to prevent the worst. There is flight, uncertainty, panic, and lots of hoarding. Grocery shopping is perilous — careful vendors make sure never to touch their customers and keep jars of vinegar on hand to sanitize coins. Quack doctors peddle toxic “cures” and citizens obsess over mortality statistics. Everyone is constantly terrified and also somehow really bored.
And then there is the famous ending:
A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls Away; yet I alive!
I suspect that this is the true appeal of plague literature: the narrator always survives to tell the story. The glimpses of the present that we find in Defoe or Camus or Manzoni have a kind of talismanic effect, somewhere between a mirror and a security blanket. The more similarities we find — and judging by the current spate of writing about plague literature, there are always a great deal of “striking parallels” — the easier it is to tell ourselves that things will play out the same way. This, too, shall pass. My copy of the Journal is only 192 pages long and at the end of it the outbreak is over.
There is nothing wrong with seeking this kind of comfort, but it does make me wonder: what is hiding behind the reassuring promise of human universals? If you read a lot of plague novels, you will notice that they tend to hit similar beats. The threat is dismissed, things get worse, quarantines are imposed, city-dwellers flee, the rule of law breaks down, we learn a very valuable lesson about man’s inhumanity to man and emerge on the other side not unscathed but wiser. Another advantage of fiction over reality is that everything occurs for a reason. Epidemics create a natural backdrop for extreme heroism or extreme selfishness. The disease itself, an inhuman killer that turns fellow-survivors into existential threats, naturally lends itself to allegorical interpretation. Plague is a divine punishment (Defoe) or a parable for totalitarianism (Camus). If we expand the genre a little, it is the inevitability of mortality (Edgar Allen Poe), a device to pare civilization down to stark moral binaries (Stephen King), or whatever it is Thomas Mann is doing in The Magic Mountain — it is anything at all, that is, except a real disease. By treating fiction as a window into the past, we substitute a particular author’s attempt to make meaning out of meaninglessness for the full, complicated, messy range of responses which every outbreak has inspired.
A Journal of the Plague Year is a particularly strong object lesson in the creative and purposeful appropriation of history. Defoe was five years old in 1665, too young to remember the epidemic in much detail. He wrote the book almost sixty years later, in response to an outbreak of the plague in Marseilles. Then as now, it was a good time for plague writing: 50,000 of the city’s 90,000 inhabitants had perished, and fears were high that the disease would cross the channel. Parliament issued new quarantine laws. Public fasts were proclaimed. The book was an instant success. Defoe paints a truly apocalyptic picture of London in the grip of the worst outbreak in its history: mass hysteria, corpses rotting in the streets, infants smuggled out of infected houses by desperate parents, the agonized screams of the dying in an unnaturally quiet city. Above it all, there is the omnipresent fear that an incidental touch or stray breath from a seemingly healthy person could spread the contagion.
Critics have spent the better part of the past three hundred years debating just how accurate this portrait really is. Defoe liked to mix fact and fiction. Just four years earlier, he had published Robinson Crusoe as an authentic travelogue (it sold thousands of copies). The Journal also purports to be a factual account, “written by a Citizen who Continued All the While in London.” When the book was published in 1722, the great plague was still within living memory, and Defoe’s account rang true enough that his contemporaries largely accepted it as fact. His pseudonymous narrator, H.F., freely cites real mortality statistics, veiled or overt references to historical figures, and anecdotes found in genuine accounts of the plague year. Few scholars would go as far as his most peevish defender, Watson Nicholson, who asserted in 1919 that “there is not one single statement in the Journal, pertinent to the history of the Great Plague in London, that has not been verified” — but there is no denying that Defoe did his research.
At the same time, Defoe’s concerns in the novel have at least as much to do with the present as the past. In the first place, horror sells. Defoe, who ghost-wrote the memoirs of a notorious thief to sell at his execution, was well aware of the commercial value of ghoulishness. He also had definite opinions about public health legislation. Defoe was a vocal advocate of the government’s new and highly unpopular maritime quarantine laws, which included an embargo on trade with plague-stricken countries. In the Journal, he portrays the similar restrictions put in place in 1665 as necessary life-saving measures. True, he acknowledges, they are costly and inconvenient — but that hardly seems relevant in the face of his catastrophic account of the alternative.
While in favor of maritime quarantine, Defoe was one of a growing number of critics in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries who opposed the practice of impris-oning whole families in their homes at the first sign of infection. Some of the book’s most bone-chilling anecdotes are devoted to this “cruel and Unchristian” practice, which increased death tolls, he argued, by shutting up the healthy with the sick, and was in any case ineffective, since the plague was most contagious before its symptoms were evident. (Notably, household quarantine was not one of the provisions adopted in the controversial Quarantine Act of 1721. Here, too, H.F.’s recommendations for containing the disease support the tottering Whig government.)
Defoe’s account of London in 1665 reflects the particular polit-ical conditions of London in 1722, but it also draws on a much older tradition of English Protestant plague writing.
By 1665, plague was a very familiar occurrence. “It was a Received Notion amongst the Common People that the Plague visited England once in Twenty Years, as if after a certain Interval, by some inevitable Necessity it must return again,” wrote Nathaniel Hodges, one of the few physicians to remain in London during the Great Plague. In fact, its recurrences were even more frequent: an elderly Londoner in 1665 would have witnessed seven plague outbreaks in his or her lifetime, and only one interval of more than two decades without a visitation.
The plague inspired unequaled terror, accompanied by intense religious fervor. Since it was universally accepted that the disease was a manifestation of divine vengeance, plagues made for powerful rhetorical tools in sectarian disputes. Under Queen Mary, plague was the consequence of Protestantism; when Queen Elizabeth restored the Anglican church, it was blamed on Catholics. Nonconformists were especially well-placed to take advantage of the revivals which nearly always accompanied outbreaks. Thomas Vincent, a Puritan minister who continued to preach in London through the worst months of 1665, noted that his sermons had never been so well-attended: “If you ever saw a drowning man catch at a rope, you may guess how eagerly many people did catch at the Word, when they were ready to be overwhelmed.” It didn’t hurt that Puritanism stressed emotional piety with an emphasis on sin, punishment, and predestination — all popular themes during outbreaks of a horrific disease that seemed to strike at the virtuous and the wicked indiscriminately.
For Anglican and Nonconformist ministers alike, the plague was an opportunity to frighten a very receptive audience back into God’s good graces. Their grotesque eyewitness accounts and graphic descriptions of the suffering of plague victims warned readers of the consequences if they failed to repent. Defoe was raised a Calvinist and once intended to pursue a career as a minister. His stock of metaphors, anecdotes, and moral tales recalls the preachers and pamphleteers of earlier outbreaks. Like them, the Journal features lengthy excurses on the plight of the poor, the corruption and hypocrisy of the court, the benefits of piety and charity, and the grisly details of what a bubo really looks like up close. Defoe waxes especially poetic on the stench they emit while being lanced.
The authors of these materials were quite willing to exaggerate certain details in the interest of leading their readers to religion. In reality, the Great Plague subsided gradually, with deaths returning to pre-plague levels by February 1666. Defoe, in one of his few outright falsehoods, has the plague end abruptly: “In the middle of their distress, when the condition of the city of London was so truly calamitous, just then it pleased God … to disarm this enemy.” This sudden reprieve cannot be attributed to medicine, public health, or anything but “the secret invisible hand of Him that had at first sent this disease as a judgement upon us.” This is where Defoe drops the pretense that he is writing a history book. His words are a warning to the reader: beware. Quarantine laws are all to the good, but if you do not repent, nothing on earth can save you.
The Great Plague provoked just as much apocalyptic preaching as any other outbreak, but intense religiosity was not the only or even the dominant response. Indeed, the
biggest difference between Defoe’s Journal and the diaries of actual plague survivors is how much less the plague features in them. When we consider the scope of the disaster — 100,000 dead, large-scale quarantines, the total cessation of public life — it is hard to imagine how anyone who lived through it could think about anything else. Remarkably, they could and they did. “It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague” wrote Samuel Pepys, the least inhibited diarist in seventeenth-century England, but “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague time.”
The Journal picks up in September 1664, with the first rumors of an attack of the plague in Holland. Pepys doesn’t mention the plague at all until the end of April 1665, and then drops the subject entirely for another month. By summer, the traditional peak of the plague season, the epidemic had grown impossible to ignore. John Evelyn, another diarist, first brings up the plague in his entry for July 16: “There died of the plague in London this week 1,100; and in the week following, above 2,000. Two houses were shut up in our parish.” Both men shared Defoe’s interest in mortality statistics. The numbers punctuate Evelyn’s diary for the next few months: “Died this week in London, 4,000.” “There perished this week 5,000.” “Came home, there perishing near 10,000 poor creatures weekly.” But between them, life goes on. Evelyn goes about his business as a commissioner for the care of sick and wounded sailors and prisoners of war. (Unsurprisingly, he is very busy.) He pays social calls. His wife gives birth to a daughter. The plague clearly weighed on his mind, but Evelyn treats it matter-of-factly. The disease is frightening, inconvenient, and a nuisance at work, but it is not the end of the world.
Throughout the months of August and September, Pepys manages to fit a regular diet of plague-related anxiety in and around more important topics such as food, sex, and earning large quantities of money. He worked as a naval administrator, and the Anglo-Dutch war provided good opportunities for business. In his diary, Pepys is equally assiduous in recording plague mortality, monetary gains, and the “very many fine journys, entertainments and great company” which he consistently manages to provide for himself. The frequent, intense, and jarring juxtaposition of life and death makes for a bizarre reading experience. In a typical entry, Pepys enjoys a venison pasty with some business associates, complains of a mild cold, spends a pleasant evening with his family, and remarks that fatalities have jumped by almost 2,000, bringing this week’s total to 6,000 — though the true number is probably higher.
It’s not that Pepys is insensitive to the suffering around him — in fact, he seems keenly aware of it. He records his grief at the deaths of friends and servants, his own fears, the dismal mood in the city. At the same time, he seems to possess a preternatural ability to experience everything fully, from existential dread to a particularly good breakfast. For him, the greatest disaster in living memory is just another part of life. In his entry for September 3, which I can’t help but quote at length, Pepys describes his morning toilette: “Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.” What indeed will the plague do to periwiggs? The question is so delightfully specific. Nobody but a fashion-conscious seventeenth-century Londoner could possibly think to ask it. In its concreteness it sticks in my mind more than any given passage in Defoe, or any observation about the universal effects of epidemics. Here the disease is human-scale, an event in a particular place and a particular time, a cause of small vanities as well as mass tragedies.
The specific has more sticking power than the general — which is another reason we look to Defoe. The Great Plague of London seems so familiar to modern readers not because there is some fundamental human response to outbreaks of infectious diseases, but because the reactions it inspired were so different from the medieval outbreaks that came before it. Everything from enforced isolation to widespread fear of infection and attempts to understand the plague’s progress were relatively new developments. The practice of quarantine emerged in northern Italian city states in the aftermath of the Black Death, along with systematic methods of state surveillance, recorded death tallies, and dedicated plague hospitals. This apparatus of plague regulation diffused gradually throughout Europe. By the turn of the seventeenth century, England had official mortality statistics and punitive sanctions to enforce home quarantine.
The outbreak of 1665 marked another transition. Rather than an unpredictable act of providence, the plague became a predictable act of providence: while still a manifestation of divine punishment, it was carried out through natural means and could be discussed in detached and objective terms. (This development also began in Italy, but there is no great English-language novel of the plague in sixteenth-century Milan.) The Great Plague was the first outbreak in which the discourse of naturalism prevailed, and medical treatises on plague outnumbered religious ones. This medical literature included recipe books of cures and prophylactics, lengthy volumes on the nature of the disease, and theoretical debates carried out in pamphlets and broadsides. While medical writers all acknowledged God as the “first cause” of the epidemic, they established a clear separation between religious and naturalistic inquiry.
It is tempting for the modern reader, looking back on the past with the benefit of hindsight and germ theory, to treat religious etiologies of plague as a response to a lack of available medical explanations. In fact, early modern Londoners had no shortage of naturalistic causes to choose from. A list by Gideon Harvey, a Dutch-born and Cambridge-educated member of the Royal College of Physicians, includes “great Inundations, Stinks of Rivers, unburied Carcases, Mortality of Cattel, Withering of Trees, Extinction of Plants, an extraordinary multiplication of Froggs, Toads, Mice, Flies, or other Insects and Reptils, a moist and moderate Winter, a warm and moist Spring and Summer, fiery Meteors, as falling Stars, Comets, fiery Pillars, Lightnings, &c. A ready putrefaction of Meats, speedy Moulding of Bread, briefness of the Small Pox and Measles, &c.” Other proposed sources of the plague included rotten mutton, imported carpets, and a particular dog in Amsterdam.
William Boghurst, an apothecary who remained in London during the plague, took a cynical view of these lengthy traditional lists: “because they would bee sure to hitt the nayle, they have named all the likely occasions they could think of.” Noticing that most of the commonly listed causes related to dirt or rot, he traced the origin of the plague to corrupt particles lurking in the earth. Like many others, his theory combined the two dominant explanatory frameworks for disease in Early Modern Europe. The classical explanation, derived from the Greek physician Galen, connected plagues and other infectious diseases to miasma, or poisonous effusions from rotting organic matter. The more modern contagionist view held that the plague could be transferred invisibly from person to person. Boghurst believed that outbreaks began when miasmas rose from disturbed earth, and quickly spread through contagion. In a similar vein, Harvey wrote that “the Plague is a most Malignant and Contagious Feaver, caused through Pestilential Miasms.”
The fear of contagion drove Londoners to measures that even Boghurst considered excessive. He complained of the extreme lengths to which his patients would go to avoid even incidental contact: “for example, what care was taken about letters. Some would sift them in a sieve, some wash them first in water and then dry them at the fire, some air them at the top of a house, or an hedge, or pole, two or three days before they opened them … some would not receive them but on a long pole.” He was right — though he had no way of knowing it — that the plague bacterium does not live for very long on paper. But frightened citizens were eager to implement the mass of medical knowledge suddenly made available to them.
As we have seen, this enthusiasm for information had a statistical bent. The city of London started to publish weekly bills of mortality during the outbreak of 1592. During times of plague, Londoners enthusiastically read, reprinted, and circulated the bills, which they used to track the progress of the disease from parish to parish. In 1662, John Graunt published the first statistical analysis of the data in his Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality. Graunt argued that the number of deaths which the bills attributed to the plague during past outbreaks was inaccurate, and speculated that reporting was less than reliable. When the plague struck again in 1665, many Londoners adopted a similarly critical attitude to the reported death rates, suggesting that some groups (Quakers, the poor) might be undercounted, or that fatalities from other diseases were being reported as plague deaths.
The weekly bills gave rise to one of the weirder genres of English plague publishing: the “Lord Have Mercy” broadside, named for the title which nearly all of them shared. These documents, which were reprinted almost identically in each outbreak, usually included a prayer, a woodcut, some remedies, maybe a poem, and mortality statistics from six or seven previous visitations. Examples from 1665 typically featured data from 1592, 1603, 1625, 1630, 1636, 1637, and the current week. They also included pre-printed headings for the next few weeks or months for the reader to fill in as the epidemic wore on.
For anyone who has checked the numbers, again, just to see if they have changed, it is not hard to imagine what people got out of this practice. But the historical data is harder to interpret. Knowing how many people died in 1636 is not particularly useful in 1665. Why did Londoners want this? And why did they want it again and again in exactly the same form? Of course, this is the central question of plague literature in general. When historians discuss it, they tend to use phrases like “conventional and derivative” or “a vast and repetitive outpouring.” It is, famously, boring.
In outbreak after outbreak, plague tracts featured the same assortment of prayers, cures, and exhortations to repent. They also shared the same stories. Some served as cautionary tales: a wealthy man refuses to assist a plague victim and immediately falls ill. Another is struck down after boasting abouthis own safety. Premature interment is a common theme. One of Defoe’s anecdotes concerns a drunk piper who passes out in the streets and is loaded onto a dead-cart, only to wake up just as he is about to be buried. In another variant of the story, he is tossed into a plague pit and terrifies the sexton the next morning by calling out from the grave. In yet another, he is thrown out of a tavern for fear that his dead-sleep willbe mistaken for actual death and the whole establishmentwill be declared infected.
The same tale appears in the memoirs of Sir John Rareseby, a bona fide survivor of the plague of 1665, who certainly believed it to be both true and current. “It was usual for People to drop down in the Streets as they went about their Business,” he reports, and it may well have been — but the tale of the drunk piper also appears in plague tracts from 1636 and 1603. Repeated over decades or even centuries, these stories imposed a kind of narrative order on outbreaks. The residents of an infected city knew what to expect when the plague came. They were so familiar with the cultural scripts that they began to see them everywhere.
The extent to which first-person plague narratives draw on earlier accounts makes it difficult to tease out the subjective experience of individual survivors. “To a degree, interpretations and responses to plague were copied and taught, not reinvented and coined afresh whenever plague occurred,” the historian Paul Slack has observed. When Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn talk about grass growing in the streets of London in 1665, they are quoting Paul the Deacon a thousand years earlier (whether they know it or not), and nearly everybody is citing Thucydides nearly all of the time. His account of the plague in Athens in 430 B.C. is the source of innumerable plague tropes, from the image of bodies lying unburied in the streets to the moral lesson that the disease brings about the collapse of social order. As with Sir John Raresby, there is no reason to believe that later chroniclers used these common-places intentionally to mislead. Expectations have a powerful ability to shape perception. Through them, the disease is tamed, familiarized, and given meaning.
We are among the first human beings for whom the experience of a disease outbreak so severe and wide-ranging is outside of living memory. Our generation has inherited no familiar stock of coronavirus parables; no script that tells us exactly why we are suffering; no sheets of mortality statistics with an empty space left over for next time. Our fascination with plague literature is a sign that some things never change: this desire to tell and retell stories puts us in the company of every other set of survivors in recorded history. The instinct to impart structure and purpose to a fundamentally purpose-less crisis might be the only truly universal response to life in a pandemic. That we should feel it so strongly is all the more remarkable in a society as blissfully and unprecedentedly pandemic-free as the developed world was at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But no more: now we have narrative resources of our own, stories of contagion and endurance and recovery, to bequeath to the vulnerable who come after us. When faced with the unimaginable, we did what we have always done: look back.