BEING OBSERVATIONS OR MEMORIALS, OF THE MOST REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES, AS WELL PUBLICK AS PRIVATE, WHICH HAPPENED IN LONDON DURING THE LAST GREAT VISITATION IN 1665.
Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London.
Never made publick before.
In early April of last year, a package arrived: the Penguin Classics edition of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The gift note attached read: “Be careful with this. It might hit close to home.” The book came from my partner’s mom, who has three daily newspaper subscriptions and a Nook well stocked with British literature. She was right. It did hit home. As we mark this our second pandemic year, Plague Year describes scenes at once utterly bizarre and strikingly familiar.
Plague Year presents itself as the detailed record dutifully kept by one “H.F.” in 1665, when the “Great Plague” invested London. So compelling are H.F’s observations, so methodical the tally of mounting dead that it was long believed that Defoe had been in London when the plague hit. In fact, he was but a wee lad in 1665. As scholar Frank Bastian writes, H.F. may instead “be identified with Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, with complete certainty.”
Whether Plague Year is history, fiction, or hoax has long been debated, but at least some of Defoe’s tale may have sprung from his eyewitness uncle. Defoe could also have drawn upon contemporary reports—as he published in 1722, plague was just loosening its grip on Marseilles.
Three years ago, if you had read not this Journal of the Plague Year but Defoe’s, with its heaps of corpses, wails of lamentation, and smell-o-vision-caliber noxious fumes, you might have concluded that the past was clearly worse than the present and that, notwithstanding many strains and cracks, the great Enlightenment ideal of progress holds, if only on the medical front.
That was before 900,000 dead—and counting—in this wealthy nation of ours. It was before refrigeration trucks became mobile morgues and food-cupboard lines stretched around the block and over the horizon. It was before shoppers assaulted store clerks in the name of going unmasked. It was before crematoria became front-page photos and obituaries crowded out the usual news.
At some point in 2020, Defoe’s pages began to read less like dispatches from a safely distant history and more like stories ripped from the headlines. If ever it was possible to read Plague Year as a smug modern, it no longer is.
It's Covid Time
In July of the first pandemic year, Feilding Cage, a visual editor at Reuters, produced an interactive exercise called “Why time feels so weird in 2020.” Living amid the “pandemic has heightened our awareness that time is subjective,” Cage concluded. The hours feel longer when, instead of the usual harried round of things, we are in COVID isolation. But it’s not just our subjective perception of time that shifts—the difference, for example, between “time flying” when we’re having fun and slowing down when we’re depressed. It’s also the nature of historical time and how we locate our experience in it.
The pandemic evokes the pioneering work of mid-twentieth century French historian Fernand Braudel. In the 1920s, Braudel accepted a teaching position in Algeria. Thinking back across the water to his native France, he began to see that traditional national histories—accounts of what kings, ministers, or generals said and did in throne rooms and on battlefields—were simply the surface layers of time, beneath which deeper, slower currents moved.
Braduel’s historical imagination shifted from the geographic unit of the nation-state to a larger, older, and more rhythmic domain: the Mediterranean itself. Captured by the Germans while serving with French forces in 1940, Braudel eventually became a prisoner of war in Lübeck. There he trained his mind on a scale of history wider than the terrible episodes through which he was living. In prison camp he drafted a sweeping account of the Mediterranean world in the expansive age of Spanish and Ottoman rivalry.
Braudel’s sense of historical time was cultivated not in plague years, but in a time of war. Yet his notion of history looked beyond the drama of a stochastic event. A precursor of systems theory, Braudel gave us a sense that history is plural. Some historical temporalities are brief and allegro con moto—the length and pace of a presidency, for instance. Others are very long—like the Little Ice Age—and both literally and figuratively glacial.
Across a range of temporalities, we and Defoe’s Londoners are separated by epochal divides; the Stuart England of the Great Plague and the Georgian England of Plague Year’s publication are both long gone. But in terms of human mortality, and particularly mass death by disease, we and Defoe’s people occupy the same temporality. From that basic commonality, others emerge.
One Constant: Money Changes Everything
Among them is the recognition that, to quote Cyndi Lauper, whose parti-colored costumes evoke the wise fool of seventeenth-century England: “money changes everything.” This, too, was noted by Defoe, and it can hardly be missed when you look at the disparity between white-collar people fretting over their backgrounds for Zoom calls and the dangers faced by frontline workers. To take but one example: in stark numbers from San Diego County, California, farm workers’ share of the COVID death toll was 612 percent higher than their share of the working population, according to data reporting by the Voice of San Diego. Often, the less a job pays, the more physical danger it poses. The pandemic didn’t start that dynamic; it threw it into sharp relief.
Such disparities were not lost on Defoe, whose ups and downs were as dramatic as the plots of his novels. At one point, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and did time in a debtor’s prison. As his raucous novel Moll Flanders amply reveals, Defoe was acutely aware of the divide between rich and poor, and he was no friend of the former.
So it is no wonder that Defoe’s Journal notes the details of inequity with seemingly scientific precision, compiling a record of how the burden of plague falls upon all, but its distribution follows that of wealth. At the outset, when the plague reaches London, Defoe’s narrator, H.F. sees that “the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town.”
It’s not exactly AirBnb in the Catskills, but “all that had friends or estates in the country retired with their families.” The exodus includes H.F.’s elder brother who advised his younger sibling to do the same: “In a Word, he was for my retiring into the Country, as he resolved to do himself with his Family; telling me, what he had it seems, heard abroad, that he best Preparation for the Plague was to run away from it.” (His warnings went unheeded or there would be no Journal of the Plague Year.)
The emptying of London described by Defoe calls up images we’ve seen more recently, both real and doctored: painterly scenes of empty city streets, dolphins leaping in Venice canals. Defoe wrote that when “one would have thought the very city itself was running out of the gates, and that there would be nobody left behind; you may be sure from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.”
Those left behind had recourse to tactics also familiar: outsourcing risk and hoarding supplies. Londoners employing servants sent them to market in their stead, the Instacart of their day. And many wealthier Londoners, “foreseeing the approach of the distemper, laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up…so entirely that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased.” In contrast, “the poor people could not lay up provisions, and there was a necessity that they must go to market to buy.”
Like the epidemiological burden, the economic one falls most heavily on poorer folk. Many trades and what we would call service sector work were no longer viable, driving those employed in them from subsistence to lack of it. Economic necessity begets increased risk. Among the seventeenth-century counterparts of Instacart workers running to the market, “a great many that went thither sound brought death home with them.”
Viruses are indiscriminate, risk inequitable.
A plague that afflicts all requires more than individual action, one might think. How did Defoe’s government respond? The magistrates of London perform like the most principled politicians of our own time, and rather better than most, if Defoe is to be believed.
City officials put in place measures “for the general safety, and to prevent the spreading of the distemper,” H.F. tells us. “I shall have frequent occasion to speak of the prudence of the magistrates, their charity, their vigilance for the poor, and for preserving good order, furnishing provisions, and the like, when the plague was increased.”
When shutdowns arrive, they fall heavily on the entertainment sector, for which the decree is made “that all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such-like causes of assemblies of people be utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.”
Restaurants are shuttered too, with an element of economic justice. The order goes out:
That all public feasting…and dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, be forborne till further order and allowance; and that the money thereby spared be preserved and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.
That disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague.
Reasoning, like contemporary mayors and governors, that nighttime is the right time for incautious conduct, London officials set last call to inhibit transmission of plague, resolving that: “
...no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening.
The most stringent measure in Defoe’s London is quarantine in the form of household confinement. When plague is found in a residence, all who dwell there are locked in (literally, as opposed to our figurative “lockdown”) to contain contagion. By 1665, there would have been 300 years of precedent for such a measure: Milan dramatically reduced its death toll from the Black Death of 1348 by bricking up the homes of the infected.
In Defoe’s London, those “so confined made bitter lamentations” and brought their complaints to the Lord Mayor. Some do more than complain. Just as cities and states today have hired contact tracers, so London authorities appoint “examiners” to seek out cases of plague and “watchmen” to stand guard at the sealed homes of those found to have it. The latter is a particularly fraught employment, as “several violences were committed and injuries offered to the men who were set to watch the houses.”
We have in our time seen viral (indeed) videos of store employees being physically attacked by those who refuse to comply with mask requirements—a provocation hardly comparable to being locked in a house. Contemporary measures, like “shelter in place” orders, look mild compared to the “the shutting up of houses, so as to confine those that were well with those that were sick.”
As we might imagine, this arrangement “had very great inconveniences in it.” Just as Americans have fought public-health measures today, those locked down in Defoe’s rendering of London “broke out by force in many places,” resulting in “frequent scuffles and some mischief.”
Others proceed in more covert ways, as people employed “all manner of stratagem…to get out” of the magistrates’ constraints. We have seen stratagems too, not so much to break rules—little strategy in that—so much as to work creatively within them. The drive-in theater and the outdoor pop-up enjoyed a booming year. So did all manner of outdoor dining configurations and socially distanced socializing. The drive-by birthday was an event. But these accommodations did not satisfy everyone, and, as Defoe writes of London, so with us “confinements made many people desperate, and made them run out of their houses at all hazards.”
Hazards indeed, for in Plague Year as in our year, those who circulate propagate. Defoe makes that especially true of “those that did thus break out” of quarantine, for they “spread the infection farther by their wandering about with the distemper upon them.” Just as now, the afflicted in Defoe’s world carry the illness to others, often as unwitting accomplices.
“The infection,” H.F. observes, “is retained in bodies apparently well, and conveyed from them to those they converse with, while it is known to neither the one nor the other.” Anyone for whom the term “asymptomatic spread” sends a shiver down the spine will recognize how Defoe’s people became “exceeding shy and jealous of every one that came near them”—once they knew “that the infection was received in this surprising manner from persons apparently well.”
The plague that struck London in 1665 and that was burning out in Marseilles as Defoe published in 1722 was bubonic. While our coronavirus can take weeks to move from infection to severe illness, bubonic plague works quickly. The interval from seeming health to painful death could be brief, and few who fell sick recovered. Perhaps the most unusual COVID symptoms are the loss of taste and smell. Bubonic plague is relatively unsubtle, with swollen pockets called buboes appearing on the body—“mortal marks,” as Defoe puts it. Such illness was plain to the naked eye.
I am fortunate that in my locale there has been periodic free, rapid testing for asymptomatic people. Last winter, my partner and I took our socially distanced places in a high-school cafeteria, watching those in front of us receive their nasal swabs from personnel wearing the now-familiar full regalia of PPE: face shield, mask, gloves, surgical-style gown. When my turn came, the swab tickled my sinuses and I reared back for what felt like an irresistible rhinal revolt.
“Sneeze!” shouted the PPE’d attendant who had given me the swab, as if she were saying “Fore!” or, indeed, “Bomb!” Some ran for distance. Others ducked and covered. Thankfully, I was able to defuse without detonating.
Reflecting their own understanding of viral spread, Londoners reacted not so much to imminent sneezes as to offensive smells. When in Aldgate Church a parishioner “fancied she smelt an ill smell” indicating the presence of plague, she communicated her fears to those nearby and set in motion an exodus from “the two or three adjoining pews.”
A Philtre of Ivermection with Your Bear Baiting, Sir?
Our understanding of viral transmission has advanced since Defoe’s day. And yet, like Defoe’s Londoners, we have our rituals for protecting ourselves in public. Many of these habits are consequential, providing real benefit. Others, however, may be more reassuring than genuinely prophylactic. Today and in Plague Year, there is an emphasis on “hand hygiene,” as Dr. Fauci puts it, and the peril of “high-touch” surfaces. At London markets, H.F. relates, customers buying “a joint of meat…would not take it off the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves.” For their part, butchers “would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar.” All “carried bottles of scents and perfumes in their hands,” as I my trusty sanitizer.
Have you ever put sanitizer on other than your hands? H.F. describes one woman who subscribed to the precaution of “washing her head in vinegar…and if the smell of any of those she waited on was more than ordinary offensive, she snuffed vinegar up her nose and sprinkled vinegar upon her head-clothes, and held a handkerchief wetted with vinegar to her mouth.” That degree of vinegar use puts into perspective why sanitizer was sold by the 40-ounce jug at my corner drugstore—and frequently sold out.For every practice that provides actual safety or ritual that merely provides comfort, there is a sham, peddled by those seeking to translate suffering and uncertainty into profit. In Defoe’s London, “the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over” by advertisements from those “quacking and tampering in physic.” They peddle “Infallible preventive pills against the plague” and “Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.”
Such nostrums gain traction as much—or more—from the panic of the buyers as the hucksterism of the sellers. In a pandemic, people are wont to believe in miracle cures and infallible remedies. That we wish something were true does not make it so, but it does supply the will to believe. That will may overpower any checks supplied by reason and evidence, particularly when quacks and putative authorities put their fingers on the scales of belief in the service of their own narrow economic (or political) interests.
The desire to believe in, as H.F. puts it, “mountebanks, wizards and fortune-tellers” is not only a form of wishful thinking; it is an alternative reality to pit against what, in a pandemic, can be so frightening as to be unassimilable: reality itself. To place fake cures and powerless prophylactics in the light of reason is to acknowledge how truly vulnerable one is before the raging virus. So strong may be the impulse to deny this truth that it drives people not only to drinking bleach or ingesting light but, Defoe writes, “even to madness.”
What does madness look like? Desperate people take to “wearing charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what,” H.F. records disapprovingly. They act “as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of possession of an evil spirit…to be kept off with crossings, signs of the zodiac, papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly the word Abracadabra, formed in triangle or pyramid.”
As evidence of the “the insufficiency of those things,” H.F. relates how many who wore them “were afterwards carried away in the dead-carts and thrown into the common graves of every parish with these hellish charms and trumpery hanging about their necks.” We know a thing or two, ourselves, about hellish charms and Trumpery.
Plague is a more vivid word than pandemic, but both terms conjure worlds where illness and death have slipped the boundaries normally imposed upon them and intruded visibly, urgently, and jarringly into everyday life.
The sudden awareness of mortality, the rush of fear, all are familiar to a reader of Defoe; the solecism bursting in on our ordinary days like the comet that “appear’d for several Months before the Plague” in H.F.’s account.
Defoe's narrator tells the reader he could “almost” dismiss the superstitious beliefs that comets portend God’s judgment. Poised between the Irrational and the burgeoning hegemony of scientific thought, H.F. hedged his bets. In a masterpiece of political speech, he juxtaposes the fear of God’s judgment to “natural causes [are] assign’d by the Astronomers for such Things; and that their Motions, and even their Revolutions are calculated, or pretended to be calculated; so that they cannot be so perfect call’d the Fore-runners, or Fore-tellers, much less the procurers of such Events, as Pestilence, War, Fire, and the like.”
We, too, remain, in large part, strung between the rational and the visceral. The first impulse remains denial. When rumors of plague first emerge, H.F. reports, “the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private.”
Among the public, consequently, the “rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true.”
We had such reassurances ourselves. “It’s one person coming in from China,” the president said of COVID in January of 2020. “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” A month later, he predicted: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
Flourishing in tandem with our denial—not only Donald Trump’s politically motived strain, but the everyday denial of mortality that makes it possible for us to function—an insistent optimism—call it hubris—may be why we were not prepared for COVID. And it is why, the next time plague scythes the population, we may, once again, be unprepared.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
Nearly four centuries have passed since the Great Plague of London about which Defoe wrote, and though Homo sapiens has in the intervening years set foot on the moon, we have not put an end to such mass afflictions. As I write, the number of infected in the United States alone exceeds 75 million; the number of dead is soon to reach 1 million. The New York Times reports these numbers in a chart under the heading “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count.”
Plague Year, too, has its charts and counts. Defoe referred to them as “bills of mortality.” All this counting (as well as undercounting, which Defoe points to and which we see today, both in the U.S. and elsewhere) signals a potentially strong resonance between his time and ours: the illusion of control by measurement, as if the enormity of a thing could be contained by quantifying it. To put it more bluntly: Statistics give us the illusion that death can be managed.
Defoe’s reconstruction of the plague year—even if as much the product of his imagination as his research—shows Londoners acting then in a manner resembling us now. Viruses mutate. Our response to mass illness, it seems, less so.
The notion of history that lives in many of our heads here in the United States is a linear one. The trajectory reflects some of our deepest assumptions about the nature of history, including not only its linear character but also its direction. We are moving forward such that each passing second provides increasing distance from every point in the past. For many of us, that distance is a measure of moral as well as temporal change. It is Progress.
The alien world of the past—the strangeness of Defoe’s imagination and the London it limns—affirms this concept of history. Olde and plague-ridden England is a place where terrified people aver that “a flaming sword held in a hand coming out of a cloud” has its “point hanging directly over the city,” and a man called Solomon Eagle roams the streets, hurling down “judgement…in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head.” Our world is unlike that one. The distance we have from it is a mark of our progress. Or so we assumed until QAnon transformed our neighbors.
If the differences between Plague Year and our own years of plague harden our assumptions about history, time, and progress, then what do we make of the striking similarities between our time and the text? The unmistakable resonances between Defoe’s plague and our pandemic may leave us searching for a new model. Gone is the straight line. Instead, a cross-sectional image of the planet Earth comes to mind. There is a relatively thin crust along which all our building, talking, doing, and living takes place. Beneath that surface, there are strange depths that we see only seldom and about which we know very little. What we do know is vaguely menacing. What we do see—earthquakes and eruptions—is terrifying. Life on the crust has changed dramatically since Defoe’s time. We think differently, live differently, and are in many ways a new kind of people. But the vulcanian stuff below that crust does not so much change as simmer. From time to time, it surfaces.
The past is a foreign country, but the substratum beneath all countries is this ur-experience—of living, dying, and fear—to which plagues summon us. Like comets that cross the sky once a century lest we forget the vastness of the dark that surrounds us, plagues that come once a century (only once, we hope) recall us to a deep sense of fragility, casting us back into an experiential realm known, also, to those who lived long ago.
In La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (1949), Braudel asked readers to think of time as layered. One temporality was that of events—the headlines of the day, the latest TikTok dance craze. A second layer was a longer, more cyclical kind of time—the duration over which political dispositions shift or an economy arcs from boom to bust. A third layer, the longue durée, was a deep kind of time. It had an environmental rhythm to it, measuring the long horizon of interactions between geography and humanity that results not so much in events or governments as societies and cultures.
These layers of time co-exist, such that we presently live in the hubbub of headlines, the long-run of economic and political cycles, and the underlying, almost tectonic reshaping of human experiences all at once. In the briefer two of these temporalities, we exist in different eras than Defoe’s Londoners did. They were neither concerned with Joe Rogan versus Neil Young on Spotify nor with the broader rise of digital media. Those preoccupations are for us.
But when I fall through the topmost layers of time and history to land on what is—apart, maybe, from cosmology or liturgical time—the bottommost sort of duration, the one where humanity is beset by plagues, then I am startled to see there beside me the dwellers of seventeenth-century London.
Journals of the plague year are, then, perhaps a misnomer. The striking resemblance between our experience and the one Defoe presents suggests that we are not living in a plague year, but a plague age.
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Brian's Ode to Foe Playlist
Death Don’t Have No Mercy ::: Rev Gary Davis
Sickbed Blues ::: Skip James
Death, When You Come To Me ::: Moondog
Isolation ::: John Lennon
The Book of Numbers Dub ::: King Tubby
Diseases ::: Papa Michigan & Smiley
Transmission ::: Girl In A Coma
Stayin’ At Home ::: Fats Waller
Hide Your Love Away ::: The Beatles