Flat White

What can we learn from the journals of the plague years?

15 March 2020

3:37 PM

15 March 2020

3:37 PM

Two of Britain’s most famous writers have left us accounts of the plague years.  They were Daniel Defoe, journalist, pamphleteer, author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and general man about town and Samuel Pepys, an upper-middle-class civil servant with an eye for the ladies and the ear of those who mattered who did very well out of the plague year 1665. “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague time” he wrote in his diary that December.  

Pepys also noted, “Lord, how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the [Ex]’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”

While they weren’t fighting out toilet paper, nevertheless those terrified Londoners — and soon the rest of the country, as the plague spread — made some terrible mistakes that might have been easily avoided, to the benefit of their health which we, thankfully, some centuries later, have managed to avoid.  Much information,  in the sixteenth century, as today, was hearsay, gossip or simply wrong.  

One, perhaps of most concern, was the rounding up and killing of all dogs and cats.   Not ferals or strays but household pets. Believing plague was spread by domestic pets, the populace actually destroyed the animals that might have saved their lives since the Black Death was spread by fleas carried on rats.  Cats and ‘ratting’ terriers would have at least killed the rodents that infested houses, streets, and alleyways.  

The other big mistake, realised through the journal accounts centuries later, was that the King, the royal family and their huge entourage, left the capital for the country houses of the landed gentry, to escape the plague in the capital. They took the contagion with them, spreading it into towns and villages that up to then, had remained uninfected. 

(Several modern historical novels have taken as their plots the lock-down of medieval castles or fortresses, ordered by their lords, or in one case, their chatelaine, determined to safeguard her people from infection, for, the times being heavily dependent on farm labour, land workers were a precious resource. Factually, the wages for farmworkers rose after the Black Death, since so many had died during the infection.)  

Another serious error was allowing ships to enter and leave ports, for the rats and their infection-carrying fleas had travelled, it was believed, from as far as China and further inland, perhaps as far as Mongolia or the Eurasian plains.  

Plague in Europe was reported first in Venice, an energetic trading nation whose ships regularly visited eastern ports but it was ships carrying commodities into English ports and sailing out with cargoes of English wool for Flemish weavers that brought the plague to London.  

And as today, because the wool trade was so important, very little attempt was made to halt sailings of foreign vessels in and out of the ports; when their crews went ashore, so did the rats and their fleas.  

Modern medicine,  technology and mass media combined with sensible government mandates mean thankfully, we’ve come a long way from the devastation of sixteenth-century bubonic plague and scenes of death that were a familiar sight as the plague carts rolling through cobbled streets. 

There is now a tendency for the media, particularly ‘your’ ABC to castigate and keep nit-picking, overly critical of every action, “Should he have self-isolated, should there have been a more concerted, uniform plan of action’ etc.   

Well, events got in the way. It happens. Did anyone really ever imagine we’d be facing coronavirus, after the drought, after the bushfires? It’s been one of those black swan events that came out of nowhere and caught every government out, but, remarkably, we’re better off on our island continent than other.  

Stocking up on mountains of toilet paper, if it gives you comfort, may help you get through this time. (I’ve just popped down to Dan Murphy’s for their special on Cab Sav).  

Just don’t panic. And don’t exterminate your pets.  

Illustration: British Library.

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