Monday, September 19, 2011

Great Plague of London

Per Chambers’ “Book of Days”, the Great Plague of London reached its worst during the week ending September 19, 1665.  Approximately 20% of London’s population perished of the disease between 1665-1666.  During the week of September 19th, 10,000, or so, of the estimated 100,000 total deaths occurred. 

According to many, including Walter Scott, the best description of the plague came from Daniel Defoe.  From “The Works of Daniel Defoe”, by Defoe, George Chalmers, and John Scott Keltie, comes the following quote:

‘The History of the Great Plague in London,' says Sir Walter Scott, 'is one of that particular class of compositions which hovers between romance and history. Undoubtedly Defoe embodied a number of traditions upon this subject with what he might actually have read, or of which he might otherwise have received direct evidence. This dreadful disease, which, in the language of Scripture, might be described as "the pestilence which walketh in darkness, and the destruction that wasteth at noon-day," was indeed a fit subject for a pencil so veracious as that of Defoe. Had he not been the author of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe would have deserved immortality for the genius which he has displayed in this work.'

The Book of Days includes several paragraphs of Defoe’s description, including: 

'the face of London was strangely altered—I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for, as to the particular part called the City, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected; but, in the whole, the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face, and though some part were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned, and as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger: were it possible to represent those times exactly, to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that every-where presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds, and fill them with surprise. 

London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black, or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourning was truly heard in the streets; the shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their nearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard, as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end, men's hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.

As the infection spread, and families under the slightest suspicion were shut up in their houses, the streets became deserted and overgrown with grass, trade and commerce ceased almost wholly, and, although many had succeeded in laying up stores in time, the town soon began to suffer from scarcity of provisions. This was felt the more as the stoppage of trade had thrown workmen and shopmen out of employment, and families reduced their numbers by dismissing many of their servants, so that a great mass of the population was thrown into a state of absolute destitution.

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