The arrival of the plague: denial and the first concerns

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A smell of death and danger

As if the calamity of the plague falling upon the great city of London was not enough, Britain also had to go through one of the hottest summers of the century. Outside the capital, the sun was giving the countryside bountiful harvests which contrasted with the astrological predictions that had foreseen that 1665 would be a very lame year for crops. However, the very same weather that was making the joy of Britain— and which also allowed London to be fed during the outbreak — was, to say theleast, painfully lived in the confined capital.106 Pepys even recorded in his diary in mid July that he was then experiencing “the most extraordinary hot that [he] ever knew”.107 There, rain had barely fallen for months and the city dwellers were gasping for air.108 In the drought — that was believed to draw the faeces out of the earth and therefore to spread the infection — deaths had doubled in most parishes over just two weeks.109 The death toll kept massively increasing throughout the summer, until the point where people wondered how many inhabitants London contained, for it was incredible so many could keep dying and dying.110 This mad weather was often interpreted as an additional challenge thrown on earth by God,111 as if the year 1665 was aimed to be a year of suffering comparable to what hell must have looked like: a timeless hot place where you feel stuck at, and where your earthly sins are being punished through deep mental and physical sufferings.

The misery of the miserable, those who stayed

London’s General Bills of Mortality for 1665 revealed that among those who stayed on, the poorer communities outside the wall were the ones who suffered most losses.117 And while the city of London was pausing, the essential Human needs were not. Indeed, to the utmost fear of the disease was added the fear of starvation for the bulk of the needy whose jobs had been taken away from, from the very beginning of the infection, when “all the families retrenched their living as much as possible, as well those that fled as those that staid”118, leaving “an innumerable multitude of footmen, serving men, shopkeepers, journeymen, merchants, bookkeepers, and especially maidservants […] friendless and helpless”.119 In London’s Plague Sore Discovered, the author voices this double concern: “For why already trading’s grown so dead, our present gains will hardly yeeld us bread: our care are doubled and our hopes are vain […] we fear each day it will be worse tomorrow”.120 In parallel, besides this lack of means for the poor and despite the abundance of food and goods that came from the functioning countryside, many victuallers and farmers were too afraid of venture inside the much infected suburbs, making sustenance even harder to reach for the miserable.121 The poorer London was suffering from massive unemployment. When they were lucky, they had access to a subsistence wage mercifully offered by their country retired employers. Those represented a negligible number, and most of the destitute were left on parish relief or on their own with no wage at all. The most daring would try and find plague jobs. Extremely risky, they were virtually the only way to make a little money and fight hunger. In A Journal of the Plague Year, the main character describes the extensive and “odious” nature of these new jobs: And indeed the work of removing the dead bodies by cart was now grown so very odious and dangerous, that it was complained of that the bearers did not take care to clear such houses where all the inhabitants were dead, but that some of the bodies lay unburied till the neighbouring families were offended by the stench, and consequently infected.

Embodiment of the plague by God

As early as the first outbreaks in the Western World, the plague was immediately interpreted by the Church as a tool for God to punish the sinners. Paradoxically the plague was from the outset always tied to the divine and never to the evil.127 The traditional representation of the plague was hence always paired with an angel, and not a devil, holding a bow – embodying the hand of God – and throwing an air piercing arrow towards the earthly sinners.128 Throughout History, textual and pictorial representations of the higher retribution through this scourge and calls for repentance arose.129 In London’s Plague Sore Discovered, E.N. points out the role of God in the destruction of the city and evokes this traditional embodiment of his hand practically hitting London: « in every corner of our famous town, he sends his arrows of destruction down ».
This spacial travel of the plague in London is also strongly conveyed and articulated in Defoe’s writing. Halfway through his journal, the narrator decides to describe the way the plague progressed during the sickness, outlining the « merciful » nature of this « disposition of God »132: « as the plague began at one end of the town first […] so it proceeded progressively to other parts, and did not come on this way; or eastward, til it had spent its fury in the west part of the town; and so as it came on one way it abated another.”133 Continuing his chronological description of the plague’s travel, H.F. specifies that in September, « the case altered quite; the distemper abated in the west and north-west parishes, and the weight of the infection lay on the city and the eastern suburbs, and the Southwark side, and this in a frightful manner”.134 Later in the text, Defoe’s hero chooses to reinforce and insist on the idea that the way the sickness abated in London was a gift from God, who must have given a chance to the people to prove that their lives were worthy, by having the opportunity to help those in need: I cannot but mention again, though I have spoken several times of it already on other accounts (I mean that of the progression of the distemper), how it began at one end of the town, and proceeded gradually and slowly from one part to another, and like a dark cloud that passes over our heads, which, as it thickens and overcasts the air at one end, clears up at the other end: so, when the plague went on raging from west to east, as it went forward east, it abated in the west; by which means those parts of the town which were not seized, or who were left, and where it had spent its fury, were spared to help and assist the other.


Table of contents :

I. Confusion and commotion in the city
Chapter 1. The arrival of the plague: denial and the first concerns
1. The comeback of the disease and its denial
2. Spring fuss and the spread of the sickness
3. First reactions and initiatives
Chapter 2. The flight of Londoners
1. Leave or stay? Dilemmas and inequalities
2. London in the turmoil: the departures
3. The countryside
Chapter 3. London: city of chaos and desolation
1. A city at full stop
2. A smell of death and danger
3. The misery of the miserable, those who stayed
II. Theories and superstitions regarding the origins of
the calamity: justifying the plague
Chapter 4. God’s punishment for his subjects’ sins
1. Embodiment of the plague by God
2. Begging pardon to God
3. God punishing the sinners and sparing the good doers: between beliefs and reality
Chapter 5. Astrology and the occult
1. The origins of astrological theories
2. Predictions and the London plagues
3. William Lilly
Chapter 6. The miasmatic theory
1. The origins of the theory
2. Contagion Versus Miasma
3. Miasma in London
III. A medical effervescence
Chapter 7. Divisions and divisions: a state of the medical community.
1. The three official groups
2. Non licensed practitioners and other actors: the women
3. Blurred lines
Chapter 8. Preventive attempts and curing the pestilence
1. Avoiding the plague
2. Curing the plague
3. Predisposition, efficiency, social class: beliefs and realities surrounding the medical world
Chapter 9. Frauds and charlatans: a fruitful ground
1. A quackery frenzy
2. An economy based on fear
3. A dramatic sense of competition and vanity
IV. The Plague and its effects
Chapter 10. Death and destruction
1. Death en masse
2. A violent and dehumanizing death
3. The plague’s destructive dimension and its objects
Chapter 11. The deconstruction of society
1. Human reactions: a drive for self-conservation
2. Chaos and disorder in the city: a decadent society
3. Violence of the epidemic: An emotional and psychological shock
Chapter 12. The body and the spiritual dimension
1. The body and the scientific dimension of the plague
2. The soul and religion: a quest for salvation
3. An overall duality between the below and the above


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