In times like these, I find myself turning to literature to remind me that people haven’t changed that much in 300 years or so.
In 1665, the bubonic plague ravaged the city of London, killing in a ghastly way up to 100,000 people out of a population of half a million. Daniel Defoe was only a child that year, but in 1722 he published “A Journal of the Plague Year,” a fictionalized account of that terrible time.
An old Penguin English Library paperback copy of this book was lying around the house, so I opened its yellowing pages and started reading. It’s a novel, but it reads like reportage, written from the perspective of a businessman who chose to stay in the crowded city as carts rolled through the streets collecting corpses, and painted crosses marked the houses of the dying.
While most of the world has been spared from those images, so much of what Defoe wrote about the Great Plague of London resonates in the pandemic that has seized the world today.
The book opens with a discussion of the bills of mortality — the weekly tallies of deaths that were followed as religiously then as the coronavirus infection and mortality reports are today. Those statistics were then, as they are now, an undercount, as Defoe notes, with many of those who died from the plague not even registered by the authorities.
Then, as now, the plague exposed the glaring divide between rich and poor. The wealthy fled to the country with their servants, earning the hostility of rural people who feared they were importing the disease. Everyone else had no choice but to stay.
With thousands fleeing and others quarantined in their homes, the economy mostly ceased to operate, casting multitudes into a dependence on charity. Defoe then describes the economic trauma that results.
“Let any one who is acquainted with what multitudes of people get their daily bread in this city by their labour, whether artificers or more workmen, I say, let any man consider what must be the miserable condition of this town, if, on a sudden, they should all be turned out of employment, that labour should cease, and wages for work be no more.”
Economic disasters seem to go hand in hand with public health catastrophes.
Though they did not know exactly how people were getting sick, 17th-century Londoners understood something about disease transmission. “When any one bought a joint of meat in the market they would not take it off the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.”
He describes how people afflicted with the plague were infectious before they had any symptoms, “and this is the reason why it is impossible in a visitation to prevent the spreading of the plague by the utmost human vigilance.”
It would take more than a century for scientists to isolate the true cause of the Great Plague: fleas that had feasted first on infected rats and then on people. Once the plague spread to the lungs, people could also spread it to each other.
For his part, Defoe attributes the plague to a vengeful God, but also to the failure of people to prepare for it, and the confusion that prevented the “proper steps” from being taken, “and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from.”
Speaking for posterity, I am listening now.
James Eli Shiffer is the Star Tribune cities team leader and the author of “The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis.”