Epidemic: Were the Powers that Be Powerless to Prevent the Plague?: A Guest Post by Claire Canary

One of the many things to really slow me down in writing historical fiction is the level of interest I’ve taken in my research. Nevertheless, it’s been the best learning experience of my life! Thanks to works such as Rebecca Rideal’s 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, I’ve built the confidence to take Andrea up on her kind offer to host a guest post from me. So, set against the beautiful backdrop of this site, here’s a look at a bleak moment from the past.

Bubonic plague was an infamous killer in the early modern era. The infection had rampaged through Europe for centuries and England was no stranger to its presence. When it returned to London in 1665 though, nobody was prepared for just how fierce an enemy it would prove to be.  

The city’s last significant plague outbreak was nearly three decades earlier. In the intervening years, England had been through civil wars and an oppressive stint of republicanism. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he brought with him a sense of excitement for many, reopening theatres, encouraging advancement in science and embracing an age of libertinism. His popularity would suffer a nosedive by the summer of 1665, however, when he fled the capital as the epidemic took hold. In fact, virtually every moneyed individual upped and left, not least the physicians. The average Londoner, on the other hand, simply didn’t have the savings to relocate, and common citizens were left in the hands of charlatan doctors as mass graves started to fill.

Charles II coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, 1661-1662 – a time of relative adulation of the King

Did Charles and the authorities fail in their duties here? Could qualified medics justify walking away at such a time of need? The pestilence claimed 100,000 lives and traumatised the grieving survivors, but could better management have helped?

I’m actually quite impressed by the number of efforts made. The Lord Mayor of London the previous year had enforced quarantine for ships sailing from plague-infested ports on the continent, and shortly after London’s first plague cases were reported the King paid a visit to the College of Physicians, during which he asked about the matter of infectious disease. As concerns began to grow, the issue became high on the agenda at Privy Council meetings and a set of regulations was soon implemented, with a later proclamation also issued in 1666. While individuals with bubonic symptoms were to be taken to plague hospitals known as pesthouses, everyone they lived with was imprisoned in their homes. Ruling stipulated the properties would be boarded up for 40 days, nobody inside could leave and a guard was to be posted outside, through whom food and drink should be provided. To prevent the spread by anyone not yet identified as a possible carrier, restrictions were placed on the licensing of alehouses and, as if a return to the days of Cromwell’s republic, the playhouses were closed, the new-age spirit vanishing fast. Other orders included the culling of stray cats and dogs, while bonfires were to burn in public places so as to ‘correct’ the air. The nation was on high alert and many towns would only open their gates to individuals possessing a certificate of health. By high summer, this documentary proof was also required when leaving London.

Nobody could claim a blind eye was being turned, but many of the measures had detrimental consequences. The boarding up of houses was little more than a death sentence for some, especially as the provision of sustenance didn’t always go to plan and relatives or servants who didn’t succumb to pestilence could just as soon die of thirst. This wasn’t surprising when the number of infected homes skyrocketed and there weren’t enough wardens to go round. The bonfires, meanwhile, weren’t doing much beyond heating the metropolis up, harbouring the manifestation of plague – the death toll did, in fact, rise in line with the temperatures. As for the certificates of health, obtaining these was much more easily said than done in the capital, with the delay in procurement sometimes meaning the difference between life and death. And you’ve perhaps already guessed how the slaughter of feline and canine subjects backfired. With fewer such hunters pursuing the city’s vermin, rats bred like rabbits, and we now know it was fleas carried by black rats that spread the disease.

Illustration of a flea by Robert Hooke, from his ground-breaking publication Micrographia, coincidentally published 1665.

Back in the 17th century, medicine hadn’t yet proven a cause, let alone found a cure. The old-fashioned thinkers swore by such notions as wearing toads around your neck, and the application of chickens upon buboes was just one of the methods people were assured would save them. As fatalities mounted though, it was clear neither science nor superstition would be coming to anyone’s aid.

While plague is indisputably a physiological illness, it strikes me that part of the overall crisis was in fact psychological. Fear can be a debilitating phenomenon, and London life froze over the sweltering summer. Even the exchange of coins, not to mention goods, seemed risky, so trading dwindled as the impoverished cowered in their homes, falling to the hysteria erupting in the slums. The Palace of Whitehall was not so far away, however. As the big wigs discussed the disaster unfolding, they too would have felt the anxiety and, while they had a responsibility to the public, they were acutely aware that their own lives and those of their families were in imminent danger. Meanwhile, the doctors were in the firing line as long as they were in London to call upon. It seems inhumane to begrudge anybody the opportunity to run.

This was a time for both flight and fight though. Without the advanced communication we’re used to today, accomplishing anything remotely was a tall order, but it wasn’t impossible. Some officials such as aldermen were forced to stay in the city and information could have been passed via these individuals for better monitoring. I’m not saying significant inroads would have been made; after all, the real answer didn’t arrive till the advent of antibiotics in the 20th century. Nevertheless, emerging patterns can be starting points for great scientific breakthroughs. Details of survival stories and reactions to treatments had the potential to act as valuable data, with the key quite possibly lying within the recoveries. The only real data, however, came in the form of the weekly Bills of Mortality, which recorded fatality figures and causes. Beyond these, few tabs were kept. It clearly turned into little more than a waiting game. Plagues had come and gone and time would see this one off too, in due course.

Annual bill of mortality for London, 1665, recording 68,596 plague deaths.

For anyone writing historical fiction, it’s important to glean a sense of the mindset of the era, and for me the overriding feeling when it comes to plague times is one of hopelessness. Again, the psyche perhaps played a bigger part than we realise.

Our image of the Merry Monarch frolicking with his mistresses in the safety of royal-friendly Oxford hardly puts him in a good light, but you could argue that he conveyed a message of utmost pertinence – live life to the full while you can.

Claire Canary is a freelance proofreader and editor by profession. In her spare time, she tries her hand at more creative pursuits, working to bring the 1660s to life through a trilogy of novels. At present, she is also organising a conference focusing on the Restoration period, as a fundraiser for mental-health charity Mind.

Follow her on Twitter: @RestorationHat

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