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The Great Plague 1965

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LONDON IN 1665: THE GREAT PLAGUE

Ellery Kamp
HIST 4300: Junior Seminar
December 7, 2015

In 1665, Londoners experienced their last, and most detrimental, wave of the Bubonic Plague; this specific outbreak is known today as The Great Plague. Population analyses provided by the Office of National Statistics along with the Bills of Mortality that were published on a weekly basis during the plague have concluded that around one hundred thousand people living in England died due to the plague, which was extremely significant because the estimated population of England at the time was under four hundred thousand people. The devastation that Londoners experienced during this outbreak was unexpected and far worse than any previous outbreak, leading many people to search for both an explanation for the plague’s occurrence and a successful way to stop it.
Although modern research has attributed the origin of the bubonic plague to fleas and rats, medical and scientific technology was not advanced enough in 1665 to come to that conclusion; the invention of the microscope was necessary in order to study the specific mode of infection. At the time of the Great Plague, there was no revelation of the real cause of the transmission and infection of the plague; there were only general ideas of “pestilential miasmas” and “corrupted air” that were largely attributed to religious causes, such as being a punishment sent from God.
Just as during other outbreaks of the so-called pestilence, there was an exponential increase in plague literature both written and published by various intellectuals. These publications included numerous essays, both scientific and non-scientific, as well as sermons and poetry, all offering their own, but similar, explanations and interpretations of the causes of the plague. In a response to this dramatic health crisis and the people’s demand for a true explanation and cure, the government developed and enforced various public health policies, known as Plague Orders, in order to control the spread of contagion. Those orders can be seen as a reflection of the social and moral values of the time.
Although there are a multitude of explanations that can be found throughout plague literature from 1665, they can be divided into categories of the following: (i) a natural cause or (ii) a divine cause. However, as Ruth Oratz explains through her extensive research on the Great Plague, “it must be emphasized that this distinction [is] not an absolute one; during the Restoration period, physicians considered supernatural causes as valid, and theologians did not neglect natural explanations.” It was common for the people living in London in 1665 to attribute the occurrence of the plague to either one, or both of these two primary categories of potential causes: a naturalistic cause of a corrupted atmosphere and divine retribution, science and religion. Both of these concepts originated in the medieval outlook on disease and the responses to the Black Death of the fourteenth century. The naturalistic explanations and the divine explanations commonly intertwined with each other; however, by the middle of the seventeenth century, with a gradual shift in philosophical viewpoint and the scientific revolution looming in the near future, there was a profound evolution in the perspectives and attitudes towards how the pestilence should be handled. In 1665, right in the midst of this philosophical shift, theories of naturalistic causes and theories of religion remained similar for the most part, and it was a commonly accepted belief that this outbreak was so detrimental due to religious reasons; however, when it came time to provide different theories of successful treatments it seems as though every response provoked a debate between these two categories. What I am tracing out in this paper is that supernatural and natural explanations for the Great Plague were advanced together, and the chaos experienced during this time of urgency and tragedy caused many debates over potential cures for the pestilence. We can see this by examining several texts, which combine God and the atmosphere; however, despite the shared commonalities regarding causal explanations, these two sides failed to find a successful response to the plague due to the disagreements that arose as the plague became worse.
The most frequently cited and firmly believed explanation at the start of the plague year was that the plague was the consequence of “corrupted air,” or that it was caused by infected miasmas. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a miasma was traditionally believed to be a “noxious vapour rising from putrescent organic matter, marshland, etc., which pollutes the atmosphere”; miasmas were formerly believed to be the carriers of various infections, but most significantly, the plague. Hippocratic medicine provided an explanation of this in the miasma theory, which held that diseases such as cholera, chlamydia, and the Black Death were caused by a noxious form of “bad air,” which was a result of rotting organic matter. This theory can be explained in simpler terms; “when the air is infected by miasmas, which are harmful to human nature, then men are sick.” Variations of this Hippocratic theory remained prominent in literature during The Great Plague in 1665.
By looking back at various primary sources of plague literature, it is clear that the blending of divine and natural beliefs was relatively common. For example, John Gadbury’s book published in January of 1665 provided an explanation for “contaminated air.” However, instead of attributing the “infected air” to rotting organic matter, such as Hippocrates did in the miasma theory, he examined the historical correlations between the position of various constellations and the occurrence of previous plague outbreaks. Gadbury concluded with his research that astrological positions had previously correlated with the outbreaks of the plague, and he gained a following rather quickly. In March, only a couple months after Gadbury’s book was published, William Kemp, a fellow intellectual agreed with Gadbury that astrology was responsible for the plague. Kemp wrote:
“The plague is occasioned by the influence of stars, by the aspects, conjunctions and oppositions of the Planets, by the Eclipses of the Sun and Moon, by the consequences of Comets, by immoderate heat and excessive moisture, whereby Vapors and Exhalations being drawn up, and remaining unconsumed do rot and putrifie, and so corrupt and infect the air, with a venenate, malignant and pestilential quality.”
It is important to notice the slight variation from Gadbury’s argument; Kemp appears to have held the view of the traditional Hippocratic miasma theory, that it was ultimately rotting organic matter that caused the pestilence. This illustrates the variations of the general idea that the plague was a result of miasmas and astrological positions affecting the air quality. This was a very prominent theory, which contained minor variations, among London’s scholars; the idea of “bad air” was held throughout the Great Plague in 1665 in the intellectual fields of science as well as in the intellectual fields of religion.
Like the scientific literature previously displayed, divine literature from The Great Plague also pointed to the appearance of comets and the poisonous effect they had on the air quality, but manifests it in a slightly different way; religious intellectuals added a supernatural being. For instance, the famous novelist of the plagues, Daniel Defoe, kept a detailed diary in which he wrote his firsthand account of the plague. Near the end of the year prior to the plague, in November and December of 1664, he acknowledged a peculiar comet in the sky that he attributed as a warning to Londoners and a potential cause of the start of the Great Plague; he wrote in his diary that,
“A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague…. The comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid color, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow…. I was apt to look upon them as the forerunners and warnings of God’s judgments.”
Defoe thus integrated naturalistic theories of astrology with his religious beliefs. Even though Defoe made his observations at a time when there were minimal cases of the Great Plague and it was not yet a major concern in the eyes of Londoners, Defoe was not alone in combining notions of religion with notions of science. Just like the various naturalistic explanations, divine explanations for the plague’s occurrence were also widely held throughout the seventeenth century, and these explanations of causes largely overlapped. Defoe attributed his sighting of a strange comet prior to the start of the plague as a warning from God. Furthermore, John Gadbury, who had theorized that shifts in constellations were responsible for the plague, also took the theological point of view; he argued that God was the primary source of the plague, and God instigated astrological patterns of constellations and comets, making them only a secondary cause. Gadbury wrote, “God the chief and supreme Cause of all things! And that it is in his power to alter or suspend second Causes”, such as astrology. According to Oratz, there is significant evidence in plague literature that supernatural theories and scientific theories of origins of the plague often aligned with each other; she points out that the prominent scientific belief that the plague was due to miasmas and astrological movements also appears in various religious contexts, which I have already revealed with the writings from Defoe and Gadbury. The main, and most important difference between these two general categories is that the divine interpretations attribute the plague primarily to God, who is in control over the positions of the constellations and comets. Therefore, religiously minded individuals commonly agreed with various scientific theories and they held the belief that God controlled the plague’s occurrences as well as its duration. Additionally, there are beliefs regarding the particular course the pestilence took in order to ultimately infect humans. One of the most common and widely accepted plague-time notions about how humans became infected came from religiously motivated intellectuals, and it went as follows: when God put the constellations into a certain position, they produced a poisonous miasma. Many believed this “noxious vapour” that was produced interacted with the natural spirits within the human body, and that any type of corruption in the atmosphere would disrupt the healthy balance of the body’s spirits, thus initiating a particular disease, in this case, it was the Great Plague. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of the body’s “spirit” in the early English language was equivalent to “the soul of a person, as commended by God.” Oratz mentioned in her book that there was a highly regarded Christian principle that originated in pre-medieval times; it stated that health depended on the purity of one’s soul within the body, and Oratz argued that this principle was characterized in the belief of this process of infection because the air is directly affecting the body’s internal spirits, thus causing humans to get sick.
The Great Plague occurred during a time when intellectual thought was evolving alongside with a multitude of advancements in the fields of medicine, science, and religious thought, religious notions often blended together with scientific notions to provide well-rounded, potential explanations for the occurrence of the Great Plague; covering all of the bases of potential explanations of how the plague originated was believed to be important in delivering a successful cure to the population of London. This outbreak of disease was typically viewed in two ways: (i) as a punishment from God for the sins and wickedness of humankind and (ii) as a manifestation of the spiritual faults in all men. These two sides are largely as a result of divine beliefs, but also due to the devastation and chaos experienced by Londoners during this specific outbreak of the plague.
Despite the fact that the Great Plague first struck in late January of 1665, it was not until April, when there was a more substantial amount of cases, that the plague became widely examined and discussed resulting in endless debates. At this time the origin of the plague was widely agreed on by the common Londoner as the result of the contamination of air, but when the summer of 1665 hit the city and the plague spread like wildfire, naturalistic intellectuals and religious intellectuals alike, were forced to consider possible cures. London’s tightly packed houses along with the stifling temperatures brought by the summer, were ideal conditions for the plague to spread. As a result, the plague became increasingly worse; the city fell into chaos and panic. The swiftness of the disease was especially traumatic for the people, making the origin of the word plague, from the Latin plaga for “wound” or “stroke”, all the more relevant for those who felt like they themselves, family members, or close friends, could be struck dead at any minute. Plague writer, William Muggins, illustrated the horrors that resulted from these increasing sudden deaths in his poem, London’s Mourning Garment. He wrote that,
“The ioyfull Brydegroome married as to day,
Sicke, weake, and feeble before table layde,
And the next morrow dead and wrap’t in clay,
Leaving his Bride, a widdow, wife, and mayde.”
Furthermore, an English dramatist, pamphleteer, and prolific plague writer by the name of Thomas Dekker portrayed another incident of an abrupt death due to the pestilence. Dekker wrote in his book, The Wonderful Year, about the shock and distress felt by family members who had loved ones literally die overnight: “How often hath the amazed husband waking found the comfort of his bedde lying breathlesse by his side!” Because of the uncontrollable numbers of sudden deaths from the plague, mass graves were created and carts were driven through the streets at night; the driver’s call of “bring out yet dead!” broke the sorrowful and fearful silence that had encompassed the city, and it was the cue for those with a death in the house to bring the body of their loved one outside and place it onto the cart to be buried in one of the mass graves.
The peak of deaths in August and September of 1665 caused the public to put an increasing amount of pressure on the physicians and scientists, as well as the religious officials, to find a successful remedy. Because of this pressure during this time of panic, they were forced to think of the plague in a different way than they had previously thought, resulting in various new notions in both the naturalistic and the divine spheres, all prompting debates and disagreements. Those who believed in the divine started to focus more on their belief that God must have a reason for causing the plague. Many Londoners sought to uncover God’s reason by looking at London’s recent past and current society.
In the decades prior to the Great Plague, there was an abundance of conflict among the civilians, especially regarding issues between the government and the church. As a result, London’s society became viewed as increasingly sinful in the eyes of the general Londoners, due to violent riots and wars. The most notable, and main event was the occurrence of the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651, a series of three consecutive wars of conflict between the so-called Royalists and the Parliamentarians over, principally, control over England’s government. The outcome of the war was threefold: (i) the trial and execution of Charles I, (ii) the exile of his son, Charles II, and (iii) the replacement of the English monarchy with, at first, the Commonwealth of England and then the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell’s rule. With the end of the wars and the establishment of the Commonwealth of England, later referred to as the Protectorate Parliament, internal fighting failed to cease; some members wanted a republic, but others aimed to preserve the monarchical government in some way. Furthermore, most of England’s nobles and elites viewed this new institution as “an illegal government made up of regicides and upstarts…. High taxes, mainly to pay the Army, were resented by the gentry,” and “limited reforms were enough to antagonize the ruling class, but not enough to satisfy the radicals.” According to Stephan Inwood, author of A History of London, the continuous internal instability and conflict in England could be a possible reason for God to punish London with the Great Plague, and many of the common Londoners at the time held the belief that God was punishing their society until they fixed their problems. For example, Richard Kephale, a minister who lived and preached in London during the Great Plague wrote down that the plague was not a result of astrology like it was previously believed, but it was instead a result solely of God’s wrath on the sins of humanity. “But still, this is sure, no Plague but for sin: nor National Plague, but for National sins…. There are many publick and National sins, whereof the people of this Land are generally guilty.” Within the context of his publication it is apparent that the sins Kephale wrote about involved the ongoing conflicts and disagreements between London’s government and common people. Although the English Civil Wars had ended a few years before the strike of the Great Plague, there was still instability and conflict within London.
Furthermore, Charles Mullet, an associate professor at West Virginia University and a pediatrician at their children’s hospital, summarized a sermon given by the unidentified M.M. in his book about the Great Plague. According to Mullet, M.M. argued that London’s sins included those of violence from the war and conflict among the people, but he argued even further that they were far greater than conflicts between the church and the state:
“M.M. emphasized that God was punishing the plague in men’s hearts – lasciviousness, licentiousness on the stage, pride, gluttony, blasphemy, greed, profanation of the Sabbath, murder, contempt for God’s ordinances, non-execution of the laws, popery, and divisions among the people.” But M.M. had held out hope: “When these ceased, so would the ills of the flesh, whereupon men could hail the happy plague ‘which discovered to the inhabitants of England this plague of their own hearts, and cured them hereof, and reconciled them into a blessed lasting peace.’”
Aside from the various political and internal conflicts, there was a clear belief among many religious intellectuals of the time that humankind had become too focused on pleasing themselves with unnecessary luxury items, rather than focusing on their faithfulness and reverence towards God.
During the seventeenth century, London’s economy was booming like never before, and England became steadily richer as a result of the rapid growth of trade and commerce. The wealth and social status of merchants improved greatly as a result of increased trade and commerce. Overall, the improvement of London’s economy did little to help the poor, but the upper and middle classes were able to afford luxuries that were previously unattainable for many, including: grand homes, finely decorated furniture, clothes made with expensive fabrics to display their wealth to the public, corsets for women that were made of whalebone or wood, and even costly foods, particularly meat. Many of the religiously devout people viewed the newfound wealth during the years prior to the Great Plague in a negative and sinful light, leading them to believe that God caused the plague as a punishment to remind the society that material items are perishable and they are only a distraction from God.
Another theologian from London in 1665 named William Kemp, agreed with the anonymous M.M., he wrote, “I believe that the Plague is sent, not so much to afflict the City, as the Citizens; the Houses, as the owners of them.” Kemp argued that the plague would only harm the people who deserved it, which, according to him, were the wealthy people spending their money on unnecessary luxury items. He went even further to condemn those who were fleeing London because by doing so, they weren’t escaping the plague, but instead they were bringing it to a new region. He argued that one could not escape God’s plan for London and attempting to leave the city would only spread the disease. The belief that the plague could be spread to different regions shows a theory of contagion, which involves a naturalistic explanation to these evolving interpretations.
An alternate, less popular, supernatural explanation was that the plague was a result of the Devil’s evilness, and God did not have any part in the start of the plague. A claimed by William Kemp in his book, A Brief Treatise of the Nature, Causes, Signes, Preservation From and Cure of the Pestilence, “the Plague may be caused extraordinarily by the Devil…. He that can poyson the minds of men, by suggesting unto them, most destructive and pestilent notions, much more can he poyson their bodies with pernicious diseases.” Some Londoners and theologians believed that the Devil commanded the plague so that it would take everything that was important away from them, quashing their faith in God and turning humanity away from Him. In terms of religious and divine explanations, God was not the only potential source of the Great Plague; the evilness of the devil was also a likely source.
By looking at various primary sources from the Great Plague, it is clear that searching to find a substantial explanation for why the Londoners were stricken with tragedy was important. Between the two general categories of explanations, naturalistic and supernatural, it is evident that there was a general overlap of beliefs. However, along with all of these theories came a wide array of potential cures, the naturalistic theories for cures and divine theories for cures which sparked many debates resulting in failed attempts at successful cures. Most writers, physicians and poets alike, carefully weighed all of the available interpretive models of explanations of the plague. Physician, Francis Herring observed in his plague regimen, A Modest Defence of the Caveat Given to the Wearers of Impoisoned Amulets, as Preservatives from the Plague, for example, that although “one man hath carefully vsed some soveraigne and apposit Preservative, [and] another hath neglected or contemned all such courses,” one “scorneth and refuseth Physicians and Physicke, or els sendeth to the Physician.” Religiously minded individuals believed that God would decide one’s fate; yet it was not this simple, as Herring is careful to point out the caution that “all men are not poysoned that drinke poyson; nor all killed with the sword or shot, that goe to warre”; yet “poyson in lethall, and the sword devoureth as well one as another.” Like other practitioners, members of the general public, and government and church officials, Herring found himself in a precarious situation trying to decide what the best and most successful remedy would be; he struggled between remedies of faith and remedies of active disease management through medicine and naturalistic preventative measures. Both those who believed in naturalistic causes and those who believed in the divine hoped to combat the quickly moving, deadly disease by using the best means available, in spite of their continuously poor results.
As mentioned before, the notion of contaminated air was widely accepted across divine circles of religiously minded theologians and common Londoners, as well as naturalistic and scientific circles of educated Londoners, physicians, and scientists. This agreement in belief resulted in an agreement on one potential cure during the first few months of the plague in 1665. It had been a long held belief, beginning during previous outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague in the early 1600s, that high temperatures and smoke could rid the air of disease. In May of 1665, the College of Physicians issued a directive policy to the people of London that recommended the use of fire and smoke to clear the “bad air” that was the believed caused the plague; because of this, tobacconists were believed to have never contracted the plague since they were always around tobacco and smoke and people, even young children, were heavily encouraged to smoke. Although smoking was believed to be most effective in these early months, those who didn’t smoke, were encouraged to either have fires burning at all times, or throw tobacco or gunpowder around the house to cleanse the air of the pestilence. The belief that fire and smoke would clean the air was held for most of the Great Plague.
After a long, hard summer and a surge in mortality rates due to the extreme temperatures and compactness of the city, the lord mayor of London, Sir John Lawrence, developed and promoted a plan to disperse the diseased miasmas by lighting bonfires across the city, based on the traditional belief that high temperatures and smoke would have the power to save London’s remaining population. By September 1665 there were about ten locations of bonfires in London and more scattered throughout less populated, more rural areas. Sir John Lawrence ordered there to be a person tending the fire at all hours of the day, for three days and three nights, in order to keep each fire from burning out. According to A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote, there was great support from the majority of the common Londoners; all of those who held divine beliefs and all of those who held naturalistic beliefs worked together to build bonfires, which, in turn, boosted public morale by working together to improve the community. The bonfires were expensive to keep up, but taxes issued to London’s householders made the fires possible. “Householders were charged eighteen to twenty pence apiece on top of their poor rate and a special plague-recovery levy.” When these taxes were initially introduced in early September 1665, those who had money generally accepted the increase in taxes. In terms of the sphere of naturalistic beliefs, it was the generally seen as a duty of the wealthy to help the poor and the general community; and regarding those with divine beliefs, it was pleasing to God to help anyone in need. As the plague was quickly spreading, more people got sick and people continued to die abruptly; many people were unable to pay such high taxes, therefore, by October 1665, taxes implemented for the plague were optional and people could contribute if they wanted and were able to. As a result, less people were willing and able to pay for the various bonfires all over town, forcing the lord mayor’s policy of public bonfires to be terminated.
When tobacco and public fires ended with no benefit, new ideas for naturalistic cures and supernaturalistic cures were developed and experimented. First and foremost, although medical remedies had previously been developed during prior outbreaks of the bubonic plague, medicines were rarely used due to expense and a lack of availability; the field of medicine in London experienced a boom in late September and early October of 1665. It became especially important to physicians and scientists who believed that a natural cure was necessary to discover a successful medically based cure, and more importantly, make it widely available to the public. They aimed to find a way to preserve the health of Londoners by analyzing the disease in infected people, both alive and dead, through experimentation, and the prescription of various antidotes to prevent and cure the plague.
One of the many professional medics in London during the Great Plague was Gideon Harvey. He published his Discourse of the Plague in late September of 1665, when the pestilence, in his view, had reached its third stage; Harvey called this stage “the State”, and it was the time “at which people dye thickest.” Harvey, along with other physicians and surgeons, offered a wide rang of advice, from prevention and preservation through “avoidance of excess and dangerous encounters”, to potentially successful remedies if exposed to infection, which included bloodletting or purging, and antidotes made of various ingredients including sulfur, antimony, and camphor. Physicians pierced swollen spots, called buboes, as well as black spots, draining the blood of infected people, believing it would cure the victim by releasing bad bodily humors. Many people died as a result of bloodletting and purging, making this method the most widely rejected by religious individuals, and even some scientific individuals. William Boghurst, a general practitioner who also held beliefs in the divine, criticized the standard treatments of bleeding in his eyewitness account, Loimographia, in which he claimed it to be both unethical, unnecessary, and ineffective Many of the religious and non-religious Londoners alike in 1665 agreed with Boghurst’s view on bloodletting, and it was widely viewed as a method of torture instead of a cure; this method had been previously used in medieval times without successful results.
As previously mentioned, physicians prescribed various antidotes believing naturalistic measures and science can cure the plague. Paul Barbette wrote a pamphlet titled, “Medicaments against the Plague” in which he outlined various recipes for medicinal compounds. His 1665 London Plague Drink was possibly the most famous; it has been hailed as a “successful” remedy in medical and scientific plague literature because it was believed to cure numbers of people and preserve many Londoners from infection. The recipe is as follows:
“Take 2 Quarts of Canary (if you cannot get Sack, take Claret, or any other Wine: Poor People may make it of Good Beer) put into it of Rue and Sage of each, one good Handful. Boil these together in a Pipkin close covered, ‘till about a Pint is boiled away, then strain it off, and set it over the Fire again, and put into it one Dram of Saffron, One Dram of Long Pepper, Half and Ounc of Ginger, and two good large Nutmegs, all well beaten together. Then let it boil a quarter of an Hour, take it off the Fire, and dissolve in it Mitridate and Venice Treacle of each a full Ounce: and keep it close stopt for Use.”
The College of Physicians ordered all people residing in London to make use of Barbette’s drink recipe. According to Mullet, many Londoners who believed in a divine cause rejected the use of antidotes because they held the belief that “repentance was the best antidote, and pardon of sin the best cordiall.” For example, Kemp argued against the use of medicine saying, “how can anything help Nature against the God of Nature?.... Not one medicine has been found out to preserve the Doctor or make the Patient Immortal.” Those who believed that the plague was a divine punishment ordered by God, in turn they believed that man had no control over his fate and therefore he could not turn to medicine for relief from the plague; man and science were powerless in providing a cure for the plague.
Aside from medicine, one of the other new proposals for a cure was to “shut up” infected people inside of their homes, which was a policy implemented by the government in November 1665. This idea was a naturalistic cure to prevent further contagion during the Great Plague; it forcefully quarantined infected people, along with their families, inside of their homes in order to contain the disease, and protect the rest of the city from the spreading contagion. Watchmen were placed outside each infected home every day and every night to prevent any of the inhabitants from coming out, and also to prevent any others from going in the space around the infected home. Many scientists and physicians, particularly those working for the College of Physicians, did this because they began to believe that humans were incapable of combating the disease and that the antidotes available were insufficient to stop the plague from spreading. “Shutting up” was done to protect the rest of the city from a disease, which was view by some as incurable. This idea to protect the rest of the city over trying to save an individual life goes back to the seventeenth century notion that the individual’s life was not as important as maintaining social order. Charles Mullett wrote that, “the magistrates, it is true, held stanchly to the conviction that the community must take precedence over the individual.” The nation’s wellbeing came above an infected individual’s wellbeing.
There was great resistance to the idea of being shut up to die in an infected house; “shutting up” was widely rejected particularly by religious individuals, but also many others, due to the inhumane treatment of the sick as well as the healthy people who lived in a quarantined home. If one person in a household was infected, everyone living in that residence was quarantined, resulting in the unnecessary infection and death of more people. In a collection of all of the Bills of Mortality it is stated that, “infection may have killed its thousands, but shutting up has killed its ten thousands.” The process of “shutting up” was view by those who believed in the divine as extremely cruel. Defoe wrote that, “this shutting up of houses was at first counted a very cruel and Unchristian Method…. There were just so many Prisons in the Town, as there were Houses shut up; and as the People shut up or imprison’d so, were guilty of no Crime, only shut up because miserable, it was really the more intolerable to them.” Defoe argues that the policy was not only cruel, but ineffective; many numbers of infected people were made desperate by the prospect of being shut up like this, causing them to escape London and go out into the countryside of England instead of staying in their own homes. Because of this, the plague spread widely all over the country, and the attempt at containment failed.
Londoners who argued against the traditional way of “shutting up” infected people and they proposed a more humane way of containing the disease instead. The Pope appointed Cardinal Geronimo Gastaldi, a cardinal presiding in London, to be the Commissary General of Health, meaning he had full warrant to do whatever he judged necessary to prevent and cure the Great Plague in London. Taking advantage of his newfound power, Gastaldi ordered that “no sick or suspected Persons should stay in their own Houses” and he ordered them to be sent to a pesthouse to receive medical attention and prayer. Like those who believed in “shutting up” plague victims in their homes, Gastaldi emphasized the vital importance of the segregation between the infected and healthy individuals in order to fight against the plague; the difference is that he implemented the creation of pesthouses, which employed various physicians, scientists, and priests to give those infected with the plague the attention they needed to be cured, unlike the scientists and physicians who left victims to die because they believed there was no possible cure. Those who believed in a divine solution agreed to this alternative way of “shutting up” through the implementation of these pesthouses. Gastaldi’s order not only allowed the families of infected people to stay in their homes, if they were cleared from suspicion of infection, but it also helped to eliminate people from fleeing the city out of fear by aiming for an actual cure for the plague.
By looking at various primary sources, such as those written by Defoe, Gadbury, and Kemp, it can be concluded that Londoners believed that the infection was passed from person to person through direct contact and those currently healthy, but who had previous contact with the diseased could infect others. Aside from the fear of being quarantined during the Great Plague, in an effort to save themselves and their families from contracting the pestilence, numerous amounts of people with naturalistic beliefs of the plague’s contagion began to flee London as soon as they heard about a case of the plague near them. The idea of fleeing the city was controversial on both natural and supernatural sides because people unknowingly carried the pestilence with them to the outskirts of England, thus spreading the plague into further regions.
Although as previously mentioned, some religious individuals escaped London due to the very real fear of being “shut up,” many of those who believed in a supernatural cause of the plague disagreed from the naturalistic idea of fleeing the city in order to protect oneself from contagion. Those who believed in a divine cause argued against this because they held the belief that it was impossible to escape the wrath of God. Many thought that if Londoners refused to endure God’s punishment and persevere through the darkest days of the plague by fleeing the city then God’s wrath would follow them into new regions, thus providing an alternate explanation for the spread of the plague into England’s countryside. Defoe kept a detailed journal, which was later published, of his eyewitness experience of living in London during the Great Plague. He recorded his thoughts during a conversation with his older brother, who was trying to convince him to flee their home in London,
“It immediately followed in my thoughts, that if it really was from God, that I should stay, he was able effectually to preserve me in the midst of all the death and danger that would surround me; and that if I attempted to secure myself by fleeing from my habitation, and acted contrary to these intimations from which I believed to be divine, it was a kind of flying from God, and that he would cause his justice to overtake me when and where he thought fit.”
Defoe believed that he was a faithful and reverent servant of God, and he believed that God would protect him from the plague if he stayed in London and continued his faithfulness. Furthermore, Defoe argued that God would punish him with infection if he fled the city because he believed that fleeing trying to flee from the plague was equivalent to trying to flee from God. Unlike those who believed in a purely naturalistic cause by which only medicine and science could be successful in curing the disease, fleeing the city was not sufficient to stop the plague according to those who believed in a divine cause. By February 1666, the Great Plague had nearly run its course. The pestilence officially died out during London’s Great Fire, which occurred that same year. With our modern medical and scientific technology and modern understandings of the plague, it is evident that the occurrence of the Great Fire helped to kill off many of the black rats and fleas that carried the Bubonic Plague. After the fire, the plague never returned to haunt London’s inhabitants, but it left a lasting impact across England. Aside from the death that Londoners experience, many people’s lives and businesses suffered greatly as a result of the plague and the various Plague Orders that were implemented in an attempt to prevent further spreading. For example, one Plague Order prohibited trade during the plague year because of the crippling fear of contamination; many people, particularly merchants, lost their jobs during the outbreak, causing them to beg for or steal food and money. Moreover, this economic distress caused from the plague did not last long and once the plague was over, the population and economic prosperity of London recovered surprisingly quickly. New people immigrated to London to take over a multitude of jobs that were left available by those who had died. Furthermore, the tragic consequences of the Great Plague in 1665 resulted in the implementation of various precautionary measures aimed to protect London against a future outbreak. For example, central parts of London, which were the most compacted, were rebuilt with wider streets to reduce crowding, and better sewage systems were built to improve sanitation. The Great Plague of London in 1665 was a dramatic event in the history of England; there were countless debates among intellectuals and commoners regarding explanations and remedies of the pestilence. Although there were no successful remedies that came out of this outbreak, we can acknowledge that there was a substantial increase in plague knowledge that resulted from the different scientific, medical, and religious debates.

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