The Great Plague, by Stephen Porter. Published by Sutton Publishing, 260 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001. 212-213-2775. 213 pages. $34.95 hardcover.
The outbreak of bubonic plague that ravaged England during 1665 and 1666 claimed roughly one-fifth of London’s population and as much as one-third of the inhabitants of some surrounding rural villages. Porter’s The Great Plague takes a close look–not at the nature of the disease, its effects, or how it was transmitted–but instead at the effects it had on the way people lived from day to day in the midst of this frightening reminder of their own mortality.
The ways that both public officials and private citizens reacted to the plague varied from noble to pathetic. The village of Eyam voluntarily quarantined itself to prevent the disease from spreading to nearby communities and, unwilling to leave, a third of the population died. In London, on the other hand, wealthy citizens who could afford to travel or who had country estates as retreats fled the city, leaving the poorer inhabitants to their fates. One account of the plague, written shortly after it had passed, noted, “The greatest number of those who died consisted of women and children, and the lowest and poorest sort of people,” and concluded with apparent relief that the victims included “not many of wealth or quality or of much conversation. . . .”
The story of the disease’s social impact and of medical science’s inability to cope overflows with poignant and heartrending necessities. The need to isolate the sick from the well, for example, led to the construction of “pesthouses” to which anyone exhibiting the slightest signs of illness were often whisked away. We will never know just how many unfortunate sufferers of nothing more serious than a headache died after being confined among scores of plague victims, but one contemporary writer estimated that “Infection may have killed its thousands, but shutting up hath killed its ten thousands.”
Other sufferers were locked up in their own homes and became dependent on neighbours for food and other necessities. The consequences of being identified as a plague victim were so severe and unfortunate that many deaths were apparently attributed to other causes in official records. This led to uncertainty over how badly areas might be affected, and to delays in implementing remedial policies.
The policies enacted to deal with the plague were minimally effective from the start. Such preventive measures as carrying nosegays and smoking tobacco appear again and again in the records, along with occasional instructions that all dogs and cats be killed. Only rarely were rats included among the list of animals to be destroyed.
Porter includes plenty of statistics to develop reasonable estimates of the numbers of deaths in various locations, the rates at which the population recovered afterwards, and so forth, but the real insight this book provides is into the way the English people reacted, for better or for worse, in the face of a threat that they could explain often only by attributing it to divine judgment.