Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Report on Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

History is so strange, outlandish — unlike the present day — that it's a relief to escape into it and remind oneself this cannot happen again: people learn from the past and choose not to repeat it.

I'm reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, a novel that recounts what happened in the London plague of 1665. Defoe was born in 1660, and couldn’t have remembered this plague. The book is thought to be  based on recollections of Defoe’s uncle, along with other sources. In one year, the plague killed a quarter of London’s population — the last great excrescence of plague in England.

Reading the book gives one a feel for a time so far away, it's hardly imaginable. This was a time in which, for instance, English authorities got word that the plague was likely to reach the British Isles from Europe, especially from the Netherlands, with which there was much British trade — and they did nothing at all. They concealed information (p. 9).

Being good Christians and good capitalists, they realized that keeping the economy afloat was the supreme value, and so they did not tell people to prepare for what they knew was coming, for fear of disrupting the economy.

As a result, the plague silently made its way into the London area, and it began to be noticed that in some parishes, the numbers of deaths being tallied for given time frames were much higher than those for the same time frame in previous years, and people began to suspect that this excess mortality signaled that the plague was among them (pp. 11-12).

The response of public and parish officials to this development was, in many cases, to hide the actual number of deaths, using ruses like attributing the deaths to some cause other than the plague, so that people would not be alarmed and the economy disrupted — an approach that Defoe characterizes as “knavery and collusion” (p. 19).

Then religious fraudsters got in on the act, sensing that something serious was afoot: as a result, as Defoe says, many “pretended religious books” were published, telling people the plague was God's doing and touting this or that method to appease a wrathful God (p. 32). The “enthusiastically bold” ran into the streets preaching (ibid.). People “flocked to” the churches, which were so “thronged” that one couldn’t approach them at certain points in the day (p. 41).

Not only religious fraudsters, but medical ones, too, got into the act. People became, as Defoe says, “mad” about “running after quacks and mountebanks.” They poisoned themselves with “pills, potions, and preservatives” that not only could not prevent or cure the plague, but did harm to the body, weakening it so that it succumbed to the plague all the more readily (p. 42).

The people selling these fraudulent and harmful remedies continued “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, viz.: ‘INFALLIBLE preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘NEVERFAILING preservatives against the infection.’ ‘SOVEREIGN cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘EXACT regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘INCOMPARABLE drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An UNIVERSAL remedy for the plague.’ ‘The ONLY TRUE plague water.’ ‘The ROYAL ANTIDOTE against all kinds of infection’…” (p. 42).

The upshot, Defoe concludes, was this: “A set of thieves and pickpockets not only robbed and cheated the poor people of their money, but poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations” (p. 47).

It was quickly learned that one of the best remedies to keep the plague from spreading was to confine people thought to be infected to their houses, so that they could not move about and infect others: “In several streets, where the plague broke out, upon strict guarding the houses that were infected, and taking care to bury those that died, immediately after they were known to be dead, the plague ceased in those streets” (p. 51).

People did not like the regulations of London authorities requiring that they keep to their houses, and they would sometimes seek to defy orders to remain at home. When that happened, they were apprehended and brought back home and shut in for a longer period of time to keep infection from spreading (pp. 50-60). 

These were, it should be noted, the poorer or "middling" sort of London citizens, who could not afford to escape from the city: as Defoe tells us early in the account, as soon as folks got wind of the probability that the plague had reached London, the rich and prosperous closed their houses and fled to the safety of the countryside. Workers, who were considered essential to keeping the economy afloat, were not permitted the luxury of retreating, and were exposed to infection and death.

When anyone died of the plague, regulations forbade his/her neighbors and friends from accompanying the corpse to church for burial, and they also strictly forbade gatherings of family members and friends for the burial (p. 57). It was well-understood that permitting gatherings of any sort contributed to the spread of contagion. 

Because this basic principle of controlling a disease for which there was no known cure was well-understood, restaurants and pubs were shut down or permitted to open only at strictly regulated times: “Dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment” were forbidden, Defoe tells us, to try to stop the spread of the disease (p. 61).

This is a report based on the portion of the book I have read thus far. I may share some more notes later. It's fascinating, as I say, to look back at another period of history and see how very different things were then, and to congratulate ourselves on how much better things are now, how much we have learned from history — how we can never repeat the mistakes of the past again.

Can we?

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