“A Journal of the Plague Year,” Daniel Defoe’s short book about the 1665 outbreak in London of what is believed to have been bubonic plague, is never a comforting read; it is even less so in these times of a global pandemic. Published in 1722, it is a chilling, often graphic but always compassionate account of the yearlong epidemic that left tens of thousands dead. It is also a cautionary tale, with frequent exhortations to future generations urging them to avoid the missteps that, in Defoe’s opinion, made the calamity worse than it might otherwise have been.
The book has now emerged from the shadows to which it had long been relegated. Project Gutenberg, home to thousands of out-of-copyright editions of older literary works, reported over 40,000 downloads of the e-book in April alone, making it the fifth most popular item on the site.
The medieval world was no stranger to bubonic plague. First arriving in Europe from Asia in 1347, it claimed a staggering 20 million lives in five years — or up to two-thirds of the population. Outbreaks continued to flare up every few decades for three centuries.
The 1665 epidemic in London was the fourth that century and the last major outbreak in England. It decimated the population, killing an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Londoners, almost a quarter of the total.
Defoe’s book purports to be an eyewitness account of the events that year. The narrator is not identified; Defoe himself, born around 1661, would have been too young to form detailed memories of the epidemic. The initials H.F. that appear at the end of the book, however, have led scholars to suggest that the narrative may be based on the journals and recollections of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in London during the plague and survived it.
A prolific writer and critical thinker, Defoe was actively engaged in the political and social movements of his day. His 1697 “Essay Upon Projects” proposed a series of social reforms promoting the common welfare, including a subscription-based system for health insurance. A periodical covering current political events that he started in 1703 published continuously for 10 years. “Robinson Crusoe,” first published in 1719, was an immediate success.
As told in “A Journal,” it was clear by the spring of 1665 that an epidemic had once again arrived in London, though many in the city denied it. The number of deaths in the weekly bills of mortality, printed by parishes and included in the narrative, show an unexplained increase in the first two months of the year. In the spring and summer deaths increased dramatically, peaking in the third week in September, when 7,165 deaths from the plague were reported, six times higher than all other causes combined. Over the next three months the disease finally abated, and by early 1666 it had run its course.
As soon as it became apparent that another epidemic had descended on the city, the well-off with homes outside London began to leave. “On Broad Street,” Defoe writes, “nothing was to be seen but waggons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, &c.; coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them and all hurrying away.”
In June the mayor of London issued a series of orders aimed at containing the outbreak. Heads of households were required to notify the city’s health examiner within two hours if anyone in the residence developed symptoms; that person was then to be sequestered in the house, and the house itself would be shut up for a month. Watchmen were assigned to guard infected houses to ensure that no one left; healthy residents could only leave with a certificate of health issued by the examiner. Visitors to households later determined to house infected residents were themselves required to go into isolation for a term determined by the health examiner.
Public gatherings were banned. “All public feasting, … and dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, (shall) be forborne till further order and allowance,” one of the articles in the mayor’s proclamation read, “and money thereby spared (shall) be preserved and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.” The ban applied to funerals and graveside services; to enforce that, dead bodies were collected and buried in mass graves during the night. Among the dead were often those who had flouted the health rules.
All economic activity in the city came to a standstill; once the wealthy fled, demand for workers and craftsmen was nonexistent. International trade stopped.
The effect of the economic downturn on the working poor was devastating. Defoe invites those familiar with the large numbers of working poor to “consider what must be the miserable condition of this town if, on a sudden, they should be all turned out of employment, that labour should cease, and wages for work be no more.”
Defoe praises the mayor and administration for remaining in the city to combat the disease. Nevertheless, he holds the government responsible for its lack of preparation: “Surely never city, at least of this bulk and magnitude, was…so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation, whether I am to speak of the civil preparations or religious,” he writes. “They were, indeed, as if they had had no warning, no expectation, no apprehensions, and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way.”
Having experienced three epidemics that century alone, the city should have had the foresight to build more shelters to house the sick and remove them from the general population, and more food and provisions should have been stored to address the needs of the poor. If proper steps had been taken, Defoe adds, the disastrous effects of the epidemic might have been prevented, something that “if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from.”