The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year
Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Alain Lauzanne
The Great Plague is probably the most important disaster that struck London, together with the Great Fire and the Blitz. The plague that reached the capital in December 1664 was not the first epidemic of the sort, as, in the 14th century, the Black Death, whose most likely source was the steppes of Asia, devastated European cities and villages. A few minor outbreaks struck from time to time, but no one could imagine that Restoration London would go through such an ordeal. A. Lloyd Moote (an academic historian) and his wife, Dorothy Moote (a microbiologist), provide a study of the Great Plague that is all the more interesting as it uses different registers of knowledge and various approaches: science, social history and medicine enable the reader to understand what a traumatic experience this epidemic was. Individual voices such as that of Pepys, whom we follow from the beginning to the end of the epidemic, give a human touch to this grim tale.
The authors first give a useful description of London, where 10% of the English population lived. In those days, it was still composed of two centres, Westminster for the Court and the government, and the City for commerce, although both were interdependent. The City was a one-square-mile area with a multitude of narrow streets. Beyond the City walls London’s suburbs spread into the countryside. In some areas poverty was rife, especially beyond the walls. The winter of 1664-65 was very cold, and the poor suffered tremendously because coal and food became too expensive for them, which had an impact on their health. It was at that time that the plague, which was already on the continent, appeared in the metropolis. The quarantine of boats from the continent imposed by the king was often broken and when war was officially declared on the Dutch republic in February 1665, the arrival of many commercial sailors pressed into naval service increased the risks.
As soon as the first cases in St Giles in the Fields (outside London’s walls) were known, measures (the same that the king’s grandfather and father had adopted before him) were taken. An infected house was to be shut up and all the residents, whether well or sick, were confined to it. A “watcher” would guard it for forty days after the last plague death inside and a live-in nurse would look after the family. Medicine and food were passed through a window. Of course such actions were widely resented. As a consequence, in many cases, plague deaths were not reported to avoid such drastic and unfair measures. Instead people claimed the cause of death was some other ailment, such as spotted fever, even if the symptoms of the plague were easy to diagnose, especially when the buboes appeared. Such an attitude was the public expression of the fear that seized a vast number of Londoners.
Some people wondered whether they should stay or flee if they could afford to. The king and his court soon left the capital for Hampton Court, and many peers and members of the gentry decided to move out. Pepys convinced his wife to do the same. However, a vast majority of people had to stay because they could not afford to pay for the trip and more importantly they would have found themselves without any resources had they left. Some of these workers–servants, weavers, men in the building trade–could be particularly exposed to plague. There were also all the people who continued to bring food to the capital to earn a living. The category that was certainly most at risk was composed of all the men and women who looked after the sick. Many nurses were young women who had lost their husbands to plague. Some doctors fled the capital, but many stayed and died. At the same time quacks tried to make as much money as possible as desperate Londoners were willing to try all possible remedies, at a time when physicians and apothecaries were unable to offer any efficient treatment. In desperation, the Guildhall tried to find solutions of its own and decided to kill all cats and dogs rather than rats and mice. In September 1665, when the epidemic was at its peak, it was decided to light up fires to purify the air.
The departure of the elite, the death of a large number of people and the behaviour of hundreds of thousands struggling to survive had completely changed the way of life in the capital. Very few horses and carriages were to be seen except the dead carts. Dead bodies had somehow to be disposed of and the atmosphere had become deadly. Death was omnipresent and the frequent ringing of bells was a reminder of the tragedy. The number of fatalities was such that individual graves were almost impossible and many victims were buried in pits. The poor were often interred in a simple shroud.
The subject could lead potential readers to fear that the Mootes’ book is unpleasant reading, but the variety of sources often makes it captivating. The eyewitnesses’ accounts such as the excerpts from Pepys’s diary enable the twenty-first century reader to understand what living in a plague-ridden city meant. It was not necessarily all doom and gloom, as the authors explain. Pepys, for instance, “was making money in large accounts because of the pressing war needs of the navy” . Furthermore, he had not given up his amorous adventures, as the Mootes humorously relate: ‘“I had un design pour aller à la femme de Bagwell,” he wrote tantalizingly in the lingua franca he reserved for erotic entries in his diary, “mais ne savait obtenir algun cosa de ella” . The letters exchanged by Simon Patrick, St Paul’s new vicar at Covent Garden, and Elisabeth Gauden, who resided in healthier Essex, reflect the anxieties of individuals at a time when life was hanging by a thread. Symon, who had not received any letter from his dear friend for a whole week, was getting anxious: “What shall I think? Are you alive or do I write to another world? Is it possible that the post should be so unfaithful as to lose all the letters of the last week? ” A few days later he expresses his relief after receiving the long awaited mail: “My very deare [sic] friend, it was a singular joy to me when I did but see your hand last night” .
Well-chosen illustrations with useful explanations enable the reader to see what Pepys and his contemporaries could encounter. For instance, a frame shows an infected household with bed-ridden people attended to by a nurse and a doctor, but also a dead body and a coffin . Another one encapsulates what had become part of everyday life in some places. Watchmen are posted outside houses with a red cross on the door, meaning it is infected. In the street, there are two searchers (old women who viewed the bodies and reported the cause of death to the parish clerk), a dog killer attacking a dog, a parish raker carrying away dead dogs, two men taking away a victim to the pesthouse. In the middle of the street two fires have been lit, probably fires ordered by the authorities on 5 September 1665 . There is also an advertisement for medicines prepared by the “Society of Chymical Physicians. . . for the Prevention, and for the Cure of the Plague.” Those doctors were convinced of the efficacy of their drugs: “Remedies made by Chymical Medicines, are of greater Excellence than any other, for preservation from Diseases, as well as for the Cure of them, and that of the other failing. . .” .
The Mootes have doubtless managed to write a book on a grim subject that shows life in a city in crisis, but they never leave aside the individuals who lived, suffered and died in it. It is a work that anyone interested in London, in the 17th century or in social history should read, especially at a time when there is talk of a possible forthcoming pandemic, a prospect alluded to in the book’s epilogue.