History of the Plague in England

§ 2

Daniel Defoe

I LIVED without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars, on the left hand, or north side, of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the city, our neighborhood continued very easy. But at the other end of the town their consternation was very great; and the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town, with their families and servants, in an unusual manner. And this was more particularly seen in Whitechapel; that is to say, the Broad Street where I lived. Indeed, nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, etc.; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away; then empty wagons and carts appeared, and spare horses with servants, who it was apparent were returning, or sent from the country to fetch more people; besides innumerable numbers of men on horseback, some alone, others with servants, and, generally speaking, all loaded with baggage, and fitted out for traveling, as any one might perceive by their appearance.

This was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and as it was a sight which I could not but look on from morning to night (for indeed there was nothing else of moment to be seen), it filled me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it.

This hurry of the people was such for some weeks, that there was no getting at the lord mayor’s door without exceeding difficulty; there was such pressing and crowding there to get passes and certificates of health for such as traveled abroad; for, without these, there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road, or to lodge in any inn. Now, as there had none died in the city for all this time, my lord mayor gave certificates of health without any difficulty to all those who lived in the ninety-seven parishes, and to those within the liberties too, for a while.

This hurry, I say, continued some weeks, that is to say, all the months of May and June; and the more because it was rumored that an order of the government was to be issued out, to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people’s traveling; and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass, for fear of bringing the infection along with them, though neither of these rumors had any foundation but in the imagination, especially at first.

I now began to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London, or shut up my house and flee, as many of my neighbors did. I have set this particular down so fully, because I know not but it may be of moment to those who come after me, if they come to be brought to the same distress and to the same manner of making their choice; and therefore I desire this account may pass with them rather for a direction to themselves to act by than a history of my actings, seeing it may not be of one farthing value to them to note what became of me.

I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop, which was considerable, and in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city, and which, however great it was, my fears perhaps, as well as other people’s, represented to be much greater than it could be.

The first consideration was of great moment to me. My trade was a saddler, and as my dealings were chiefly not by a shop or chance trade, but among the merchants trading to the English colonies in America, so my effects lay very much in the hands of such. I was a single man, it is true; but I had a family of servants, who I kept at my business; had a house, shop, and warehouses filled with goods; and in short to leave them all as things in such a case must be left, that is to say, without any overseer or person fit to be trusted with them, had been to hazard the loss, not only of my trade, but of my goods, and indeed of all I had in the world.

I had an elder brother at the same time in London, and not many years before come over from Portugal; and, advising with him, his answer was in the three words, the same that was given in another case quite different, viz., “Master, save thyself.” 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 the best preparation for the plague was to run away from it. As to my argument of losing my trade, my goods, or debts, he quite confuted me: he told me the same thing which I argued for my staying, viz., that I would trust God with my safety and health was the strongest repulse to my pretensions of losing my trade and my goods. “For,” says he, “is it not as reasonable that you should trust God with the chance or risk of losing your trade, as that you should stay in so eminent a point of danger, and trust him with your life?”

I could not argue that I was in any strait as to a place where to go, having several friends and relations in Northamptonshire, whence our family first came from; and particularly, I had an only sister in Lincolnshire, very willing to receive and entertain me.

My brother, who had already sent his wife and two children into Bedfordshire, and resolved to follow them, pressed my going very earnestly; and I had once resolved to comply with his desires, but at that time could get no horse: for though it is true all the people did not go out of the city of London, yet I may venture to say, that in a manner all the horses did; for there was hardly a horse to be bought or hired in the whole city for some weeks. Once I resolved to travel on foot with one servant, and, as many did, lie at no inn, but carry a soldier’s tent with us, and so lie in the fields, the weather being very warm, and no danger from taking cold. I say, as many did, because several did so at last, especially those who had been in the armies, in the war which had not been many years past: and I must needs say, that, speaking of second causes, had most of the people that traveled done so, the plague had not been carried into so many country towns and houses as it was, to the great damage, and indeed to the ruin, of abundance of people.

But then my servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceived me, and being frighted at the increase of the distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he took other measures, and left me: so I was put off for that time. And, one way or other, I always found that to appoint to go away was always crossed by some accident or other, so as to disappoint and put it off again. And this brings in a story which otherwise might be thought a needless digression, viz., about these disappointments being from Heaven.

It came very warmly into my mind one morning, as I was musing on this particular thing, that as nothing attended us without the direction or permission of Divine Power, so these disappointments must have something in them extraordinary, and I ought to consider whether it did not evidently point out, or intimate to me, that it was the will of Heaven I should not go. 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, which I believed to be divine, it was a kind of flying from God, and that he could cause his justice to overtake me when and where he thought fit.

These thoughts quite turned my resolutions again; and when I came to discourse with my brother again, I told him that I inclined to stay and take my lot in that station in which God had placed me; and that it seemed to be made more especially my duty, on the account of what I have said.

My brother, though a very religious man himself, laughed at all I had suggested about its being an intimation from Heaven, and told me several stories of such foolhardy people, as he called them, as I was; that I ought indeed to submit to it as a work of Heaven if I had been any way disabled by distempers or diseases, and that then, not being able to go, I ought to acquiesce in the direction of Him, who, having been my Maker, had an undisputed right of sovereignty in disposing of me; and that then there had been no difficulty to determine which was the call of his providence, and which was not; but that I should take it as an intimation from Heaven that I should not go out of town, only because I could not hire a horse to go, or my fellow was run away that was to attend me, was ridiculous, since at the same time I had my health and limbs, and other servants, and might with ease travel a day or two on foot, and, having a good certificate of being in perfect health, might either hire a horse, or take post on the road, as I thought fit.

Then he proceeded to tell me of the mischievous consequences which attend the presumption of the Turks and Mohammedans in Asia, and in other places where he had been (for my brother, being a merchant, was a few years before, as I have already observed, returned from abroad, coming last from Lisbon); and how, presuming upon their professed predestinating notions, and of every man’s end being predetermined, and unalterably beforehand decreed, they would go unconcerned into infected places, and converse with infected persons, by which means they died at the rate of ten or fifteen thousand a week, whereas the Europeans, or Christian merchants, who kept themselves retired and reserved, generally escaped the contagion.

Upon these arguments my brother changed my resolutions again, and I began to resolve to go, and accordingly made all things ready; for, in short, the infection increased round me, and the bills were risen to almost seven hundred a week, and my brother told me he would venture to stay no longer. I desired him to let me consider of it but till the next day, and I would resolve; and as I had already prepared everything as well as I could, as to my business and who to intrust my affairs with, I had little to do but to resolve.

I went home that evening greatly oppressed in my mind, irresolute, and not knowing what to do. I had set the evening wholly apart to consider seriously about it, and was all alone; for already people had, as it were by a general consent, taken up the custom of not going out of doors after sunset: the reasons I shall have occasion to say more of by and by.

In the retirement of this evening I endeavored to resolve first what was my duty to do, and I stated the arguments with which my brother had pressed me to go into the country, and I set against them the strong impressions which I had on my mind for staying,—the visible call I seemed to have from the particular circumstance of my calling, and the care due from me for the preservation of my effects, which were, as I might say, my estate; also the intimations which I thought I had from Heaven, that to me signified a kind of direction to venture; and it occurred to me, that, if I had what I call a direction to stay, I ought to suppose it contained a promise of being preserved, if I obeyed.

This lay close to me; and my mind seemed more and more encouraged to stay than ever, and supported with a secret satisfaction that I should be kept. Add to this, that turning over the Bible which lay before me, and while my thoughts were more than ordinary serious upon the question, I cried out, “Well, I know not what to do, Lord direct me!” and the like. And at that juncture I happened to stop turning over the book at the Ninety-first Psalm, and, casting my eye on the second verse, I read to the seventh verse exclusive, and after that included the tenth, as follows: “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling,” etc.

I scarce need tell the reader that from that moment I resolved that I would stay in the town, and, casting myself entirely upon the goodness and protection of the Almighty, would not seek any other shelter whatever; and that as my times were in his hands, he was as able to keep me in a time of the infection as in a time of health; and if he did not think fit to deliver me, still I was in his hands, and it was meet he should do with me as should seem good to him.

With this resolution I went to bed; and I was further confirmed in it the next day by the woman being taken ill with whom I had intended to intrust my house and all my affairs. But I had a further obligation laid on me on the same side: for the next day I found myself very much out of order also; so that, if I would have gone away, I could not. And I continued ill three or four days, and this entirely determined my stay: so I took my leave of my brother, who went away to Dorking in Surrey, and afterwards fetched around farther into Buckinghamshire or Bedfordshire, to a retreat he had found out there for his family.

It was a very ill time to be sick in; for if any one complained, it was immediately said he had the plague; and though I had, indeed, no symptoms of that distemper, yet, being very ill both in my head and in my stomach, I was not without apprehension that I really was infected. But in about three days I grew better. The third night I rested well, sweated a little, and was much refreshed. The apprehensions of its being the infection went also quite away with my illness, and I went about my business as usual.

These things, however, put off all my thoughts of going into the country; and my brother also being gone, I had no more debate either with him or with myself on that subject.

It was now mid-July; and the plague, which had chiefly raged at the other end of the town, and, as I said before, in the parishes of St. Giles’s, St. Andrew’s, Holborn, and towards Westminster, began now to come eastward, towards the part where I lived. It was to be observed, indeed, that it did not come straight on towards us; for the city, that is to say within the walls, was indifferent healthy still. Nor was it got then very much over the water into Southwark; for though there died that week twelve hundred and sixty-eight of all distempers, whereof it might be supposed above nine hundred died of the plague, yet there was but twenty-eight in the whole city, within the walls, and but nineteen in Southwark, Lambeth Parish included; whereas in the parishes of St. Giles and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields alone, there died four hundred and twenty-one.

But we perceived the infection kept chiefly in the outparishes, which being very populous and fuller also of poor, the distemper found more to prey upon than in the city, as I shall observe afterwards. We perceived, I say, the distemper to draw our way, viz., by the parishes of Clerkenwell, Cripplegate, Shoreditch, and Bishopsgate; which last two parishes joining to Aldgate, Whitechapel, and Stepney, the infection came at length to spread its utmost rage and violence in those parts, even when it abated at the western parishes where it began.

It was very strange to observe that in this particular week (from the 4th to the 11th of July), when, as I have observed, there died near four hundred of the plague in the two parishes of St. Martin’s and St. Giles-in-the-Fields only, there died in the parish of Aldgate but four, in the parish of Whitechapel three, in the parish of Stepney but one.

Likewise in the next week (from the 11th of July to the 18th), when the week’s bill was seventeen hundred and sixty-one, yet there died no more of the plague, on the whole Southwark side of the water, than sixteen.

But this face of things soon changed, and it began to thicken in Cripplegate Parish especially, and in Clerkenwell; so that by the second week in August, Cripplegate Parish alone buried eight hundred and eighty-six, and Clerkenwell one hundred and fifty-five. Of the first, eight hundred and fifty might well be reckoned to die of the plague; and of the last, the bill itself said one hundred and forty-five were of the plague.

During the month of July, and while, as I have observed, our part of the town seemed to be spared in comparison of the west part, I went ordinarily about the streets as my business required, and particularly went generally once in a day, or in two days, into the city, to my brother’s house, which he had given me charge of, and to see it was safe; and having the key in my pocket, I used to go into the house, and over most of the rooms, to see that all was well. For though it be something wonderful to tell that any should have hearts so hardened, in the midst of such a calamity, as to rob and steal, yet certain it is that all sorts of villainies, and even levities and debaucheries, were then practiced in the town as openly as ever: I will not say quite as frequently, because the number of people were many ways lessened.

But the city itself began now to be visited too, I mean within the walls. But the number of people there were indeed extremely lessened by so great a multitude having been gone into the country; and even all this month of July they continued to flee, though not in such multitudes as formerly. In August, indeed, they fled in such a manner, that I began to think there would be really none but magistrates and servants left in the city.

As they fled now out of the city, so I should observe that the court removed early, viz., in the month of June, and went to Oxford, where it pleased God to preserve them; and the distemper did not, as I heard of, so much as touch them; for which I cannot say that I ever saw they showed any great token of thankfulness, and hardly anything of reformation, though they did not want being told that their crying vices might, without breach of charity, be said to have gone far in bringing that terrible judgment upon the whole nation.

The face of London was now, indeed, strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected. But in the whole, the face of things, I say, was much altered. Sorrow and sadness sat upon every face, and though some part were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds, and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears. The mourners did not go about the streets, indeed; for nobody put on black, or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends: but the voice of mourning was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their nearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end, men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.

Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there. And as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets, which were usually so thronged, now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger, and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street, I mean of the by-streets, and see nobody to direct me, except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up; of which I shall speak presently.

One day, being at that part of the town on some special business, curiosity led me to observe things more than usually; and indeed I walked a great way where I had no business. I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people; but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scents from houses, that might be infected.

The inns of court were all shut up, nor were very many of the lawyers in the Temple, or Lincoln’s Inn, or Gray’s Inn, to be seen there. Everybody was at peace, there was no occasion for lawyers; besides, it being in the time of the vacation too, they were generally gone into the country. Whole rows of houses in some places were shut close up, the inhabitants all fled, and only a watchman or two left.

When I speak of rows of houses being shut up, I do not mean shut up by the magistrates, but that great numbers of persons followed the court, by the necessity of their employments, and other dependencies; and as others retired, really frighted with the distemper, it was a mere desolating of some of the streets. But the fright was not yet near so great in the city, abstractedly so called, and particularly because, though they were at first in a most inexpressible consternation, yet, as I have observed that the distemper intermitted often at first, so they were, as it were, alarmed and unalarmed again, and this several times, till it began to be familiar to them; and that even when it appeared violent, yet seeing it did not presently spread into the city, or the east or south parts, the people began to take courage, and to be, as I may say, a little hardened. It is true, a vast many people fled, as I have observed; yet they were chiefly from the west end of the town, and from that we call the heart of the city, that is to say, among the wealthiest of the people, and such persons as were unincumbered with trades and business. But of the rest, the generality staid, and seemed to abide the worst; so that in the place we call the liberties, and in the suburbs, in Southwark, and in the east part, such as Wapping, Ratcliff, Stepney, Rotherhithe, and the like, the people generally staid, except here and there a few wealthy families, who, as above, did not depend upon their business.

It must not be forgot here that the city and suburbs were prodigiously full of people at the time of this visitation, I mean at the time that it began. For though I have lived to see a further increase, and mighty throngs of people settling in London, more than ever; yet we had always a notion that numbers of people which—the wars being over, the armies disbanded, and the royal family and the monarchy being restored—had flocked to London to settle in business, or to depend upon and attend the court for rewards of services, preferments, and the like, was such that the town was computed to have in it above a hundred thousand people more than ever it held before. Nay, some took upon them to say it had twice as many, because all the ruined families of the royal party flocked hither, all the soldiers set up trades here, and abundance of families settled here. Again: the court brought with it a great flux of pride and new fashions; all people were gay and luxurious, and the joy of the restoration had brought a vast many families to London.

But I must go back again to the beginning of this surprising time. While the fears of the people were young, they were increased strangely by several odd accidents, which put altogether, it was really a wonder the whole body of the people did not rise as one man, and abandon their dwellings, leaving the place as a space of ground designed by Heaven for an Aceldama, doomed to be destroyed from the face of the earth, and that all that would be found in it would perish with it. I shall name but a few of these things; but sure they were so many, and so many wizards and cunning people propagating them, that I have often wondered there was any (women especially) left behind.

In the first place, a blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did, the year after, another a little before the fire. The old women, and the phlegmatic hypochondriac part of the other sex (whom I could almost call old women too), remarked, especially afterward, though not till both those judgments were over, that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid color, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow, but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or, as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgment, slow but severe, terrible, and frightful, as was the plague, but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery, as was the conflagration. Nay, so particular some people were, that, as they looked upon that comet preceding the fire, they fancied that they not only saw it pass swiftly and fiercely, and could perceive the motion with their eye, but even they heard it; that it made a rushing, mighty noise, fierce and terrible, though at a distance, and but just perceivable.

I saw both these stars, and, I must confess, had had so much of the common notion of such things in my head, that I was apt to look upon them as the forerunners and warnings of God’s judgments, and, especially when the plague had followed the first, I yet saw another of the like kind, I could not but say, God had not yet sufficiently scourged the city.

The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times, in which I think the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies, and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales, than ever they were before or since. Whether this unhappy temper was originally raised by the follies of some people who got money by it, that is to say, by printing predictions and prognostications, I know not. But certain it is, books frighted them terribly, such as “Lilly’s Almanack,” “Gadbury’s Astrological Predictions,” “Poor Robin’s Almanack,” and the like; also several pretended religious books,—one entitled “Come out of Her, my People, lest ye be Partaker of her Plagues;” another called “Fair Warning;” another, “Britain’s Remembrancer;” and many such,—all, or most part of which, foretold directly or covertly the ruin of the city. Nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who, like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, “Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed.” I will not be positive whether he said “yet forty days,” or “yet a few days.” Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night, like a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, “Woe to Jerusalem!” a little before the destruction of that city: so this poor naked creature cried, “Oh, the great and the dreadful God!” and said no more, but repeated those words continually, with a voice and countenance full of horror, a swift pace, and nobody could ever find him to stop, or rest, or take any sustenance, at least that ever I could hear of. I met this poor creature several times in the streets, and would have spoke to him, but he would not enter into speech with me, or any one else, but kept on his dismal cries continually.

These things terrified the people to the last degree, and especially when two or three times, as I have mentioned already, they found one or two in the bills dead of the plague at St. Giles’s.

Next to these public things were the dreams of old women; or, I should say, the interpretation of old women upon other people’s dreams; and these put abundance of people even out of their wits. Some heard voices warning them to be gone, for that there would be such a plague in London so that the living would not be able to bury the dead; others saw apparitions in the air: and I must be allowed to say of both, I hope without breach of charity, that they heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appeared. But the imagination of the people was really turned wayward and possessed; and no wonder if they who were poring continually at the clouds saw shapes and figures, representations and appearances, which had nothing in them but air and vapor. Here they told us they saw a flaming sword held in a hand, coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city. There they saw hearses and coffins in the air carrying to be buried. And there again, heaps of dead bodies lying unburied and the like, just as the imagination of the poor terrified people furnished them with matter to work upon.

So hypochondriac fancies represent
Ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
Till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
And all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.

I could fill this account with the strange relations such people give every day of what they have seen; and every one was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them, without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly on the one hand, and profane and impenetrable on the other. One time before the plague was begun, otherwise than as I have said in St. Giles’s (I think it was in March), seeing a crowd of people in the street, I joined with them to satisfy my curiosity, and found them all staring up into the air to see what a woman told them appeared plain to her, which was an angel clothed in white, with a fiery sword in his hand, waving it or brandishing it over his head. She described every part of the figure to the life, showed them the motion and the form, and the poor people came into it so eagerly and with so much readiness. “Yes, I see it all plainly,” says one: “there’s the sword as plain as can be.” Another saw the angel; one saw his very face, and cried out what a glorious creature he was. One saw one thing, and one another. I looked as earnestly as the rest, but perhaps not with so much willingness to be imposed upon; and I said, indeed, that I could see nothing but a white cloud, bright on one side, by the shining of the sun upon the other part. The woman endeavored to show it me, but could not make me confess that I saw it; which, indeed, if I had, I must have lied. But the woman, turning to me, looked me in the face, and fancied I laughed, in which her imagination deceived her too, for I really did not laugh, but was seriously reflecting how the poor people were terrified by the force of their own imagination. However, she turned to me, called me profane fellow and a scoffer, told me that it was a time of God’s anger, and dreadful judgments were approaching, and that despisers such as I should wander and perish.

The people about her seemed disgusted as well as she, and I found there was no persuading them that I did not laugh at them, and that I should be rather mobbed by them than be able to undeceive them. So I left them, and this appearance passed for as real as the blazing star itself.

Another encounter I had in the open day also; and this was in going through a narrow passage from Petty France into Bishopsgate churchyard, by a row of almshouses. There are two churchyards to Bishopsgate Church or Parish. One we go over to pass from the place called Petty France into Bishopsgate Street, coming out just by the church door; the other is on the side of the narrow passage where the almshouses are on the left, and a dwarf wall with a palisade on it on the right hand, and the city wall on the other side more to the right.

In this narrow passage stands a man looking through the palisades into the burying place, and as many people as the narrowness of the place would admit to stop without hindering the passage of others; and he was talking mighty eagerly to them, and pointing, now to one place, then to another, and affirming that he saw a ghost walking upon such a gravestone there. He described the shape, the posture, and the movement of it so exactly, that it was the greatest amazement to him in the world that everybody did not see it as well as he. On a sudden he would cry, “There it is! Now it comes this way!” then, “’Tis turned back!” till at length he persuaded the people into so firm a belief of it, that one fancied he saw it; and thus he came every day, making a strange hubbub, considering it was so narrow a passage, till Bishopsgate clock struck eleven; and then the ghost would seem to start, and, as if he were called away, disappeared on a sudden.

I looked earnestly every way, and at the very moment that this man directed, but could not see the least appearance of anything. But so positive was this poor man that he gave them vapors in abundance, and sent them away trembling and frightened, till at length few people that knew of it cared to go through that passage, and hardly anybody by night on any account whatever.

This ghost, as the poor man affirmed, made signs to the houses and to the ground and to the people, plainly intimating (or else they so understanding it) that abundance of people should come to be buried in that churchyard, as indeed happened. But then he saw such aspects I must acknowledge I never believed, nor could I see anything of it myself, though I looked most earnestly to see it if possible.

Some endeavors were used to suppress the printing of such books as terrified the people, and to frighten the dispersers of them, some of whom were taken up, but nothing done in it, as I am informed; the government being unwilling to exasperate the people, who were, as I may say, all out of their wits already.

Neither can I acquit those ministers that in their sermons rather sunk than lifted up the hearts of their hearers. Many of them, I doubt not, did it for the strengthening the resolution of the people, and especially for quickening them to repentance; but it certainly answered not their end, at least not in proportion to the injury it did another way.

One mischief always introduces another. These terrors and apprehensions of the people led them to a thousand weak, foolish, and wicked things, which they wanted not a sort of people really wicked to encourage them to; and this was running about to fortune tellers, cunning men, and astrologers, to know their fortunes, or, as it is vulgarly expressed, to have their fortunes told them, their nativities calculated, and the like. And this folly presently made the town swarm with a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the “black art,” as they called it, and I know not what, nay, to a thousand worse dealings with the devil than they were really guilty of. And this trade grew so open and so generally practiced, that it became common to have signs and inscriptions set up at doors, “Here lives a fortune teller,” “Here lives an astrologer,” “Here you may have your nativity calculated,” and the like; and Friar Bacon’s brazen head, which was the usual sign of these people’s dwellings, was to be seen almost in every street, or else the sign of Mother Shipton, or of Merlin’s head, and the like.

With what blind, absurd, and ridiculous stuff these oracles of the devil pleased and satisfied the people, I really know not; but certain it is, that innumerable attendants crowded about their doors every day: and if but a grave fellow in a velvet jacket, a band, and a black cloak, which was the habit those quack conjurers generally went in, was but seen in the streets, the people would follow them in crowds, and ask them questions as they went along.

The case of poor servants was very dismal, as I shall have occasion to mention again by and by; for it was apparent a prodigious number of them would be turned away. And it was so, and of them abundance perished, and particularly those whom these false prophets flattered with hopes that they should be kept in their services, and carried with their masters and mistresses into the country; and had not public charity provided for these poor creatures, whose number was exceeding great (and in all cases of this nature must be so), they would have been in the worst condition of any people in the city.

These things agitated the minds of the common people for many months while the first apprehensions were upon them, and while the plague was not, as I may say, yet broken out. But I must also not forget that the more serious part of the inhabitants behaved after another manner. The government encouraged their devotion, and appointed public prayers, and days of fasting and humiliation, to make public confession of sin, and implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgment which hangs over their heads; and it is not to be expressed with what alacrity the people of all persuasions embraced the occasion, how they flocked to the churches and meetings, and they were all so thronged that there was often no coming near, even to the very doors of the largest churches. Also there were daily prayers appointed morning and evening at several churches, and days of private praying at other places, at all which the people attended, I say, with an uncommon devotion. Several private families, also, as well of one opinion as another, kept family fasts, to which they admitted their near relations only; so that, in a word, those people who were really serious and religious applied themselves in a truly Christian manner to the proper work of repentance and humiliation, as a Christian people ought to do.

Again, the public showed that they would bear their share in these things. The very court, which was then gay and luxurious, put on a face of just concern for the public danger. All the plays and interludes which, after the manner of the French court, had been set up and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming tables, public dancing rooms, and music houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack puddings, merry-andrews, puppet shows, ropedancers, and such like doings, which had bewitched the common people, shut their shops, finding indeed no trade, for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people. Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.

But even these wholesome reflections, which, rightly managed, would have most happily led the people to fall upon their knees, make confession of their sins, and look up to their merciful Savior for pardon, imploring his compassion on them in such a time of their distress, by which we might have been as a second Nineveh, had a quite contrary extreme in the common people, who, ignorant and stupid in their reflections as they were brutishly wicked and thoughtless before, were now led by their fright to extremes of folly, and, as I said before, that they ran to conjurers and witches and all sorts of deceivers, to know what should become of them, who fed their fears and kept them always alarmed and awake, on purpose to delude them and pick their pockets: so they were as mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practicing old woman for medicines and remedies, storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money, but poisoned themselves beforehand, for fear of the poison of the infection, and prepared their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it. On the other hand, it was incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills, and papers of ignorant fellows quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these; viz., “INFALLIBLE preventitive pills against the plague;” “NEVER-FAILING preservatives against the infection;” “SOVEREIGN cordials against the corruption of air;” “EXACT regulations for the conduct of the body in case of infection;” “Antipestilential pills;” “INCOMPARABLE drink against the plague, never found out before;” “An UNIVERSAL remedy for the plague;” “The ONLY TRUE plague water;” “The ROYAL ANTIDOTE against all kinds of infection;” and such a number more that I cannot reckon up, and, if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

Others set up bills to summon people to their lodgings for direction and advice in the case of infection. These had specious titles also, such as these:—

An eminent High-Dutch physician, newly come over from Holland, where he resided during all the time of the great plague, last year, in Amsterdam, and cured multitudes of people that actually had the plague upon them.

An Italian gentlewoman just arrived from Naples, having a choice secret to prevent infection, which she found out by her great experience, and did wonderful cures with it in the late plague there, wherein there died 20,000 in one day.

An ancient gentlewoman having practiced with great success in the late plague in this city, anno 1636, gives her advice only to the female sex. To be spoken with, etc.

An experienced physician, who has long studied the doctrine of antidotes against all sorts of poison and infection, has, after forty years’ practice, arrived at such skill as may, with God’s blessing, direct persons how to prevent being touched by any contagious distemper whatsoever. He directs the poor gratis.

I take notice of these by way of specimen. I could give you two or three dozen of the like, and yet have abundance left behind. It is sufficient from these to apprise any one of the humor of those times, and how a set of thieves and pickpockets not only robbed and cheated the poor people of their money, but poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations; some with mercury, and some with other things as bad, perfectly remote from the thing pretended to, and rather hurtful than serviceable to the body in case an infection followed.

I cannot omit a subtlety of one of those quack operators with which he gulled the poor people to crowd about him, but did nothing for them without money. He had, it seems, added to his bills, which he gave out in the streets, this advertisement in capital letters; viz., “He gives advice to the poor for nothing.”

Abundance of people came to him accordingly, to whom he made a great many fine speeches, examined them of the state of their health and of the constitution of their bodies, and told them many good things to do, which were of no great moment. But the issue and conclusion of all was, that he had a preparation which, if they took such a quantity of every morning, he would pawn his life that they should never have the plague, no, though they lived in the house with people that were infected. This made the people all resolve to have it, but then the price of that was so much (I think it was half a crown). “But, sir,” says one poor woman, “I am a poor almswoman, and am kept by the parish; and your bills say you give the poor your help for nothing.”—“Ay, good woman,” says the doctor, “so I do, as I published there. I give my advice, but not my physic!”—“Alas, sir,” says she, “that is a snare laid for the poor then, for you give them your advice for nothing; that is to say, you advise them gratis to buy your physic for their money: so does every shopkeeper with his wares.” Here the woman began to give him ill words, and stood at his door all that day, telling her tale to all the people that came, till the doctor, finding she turned away his customers, was obliged to call her upstairs again and give her his box of physic for nothing, which perhaps, too, was good for nothing when she had it.

But to return to the people, whose confusions fitted them to be imposed upon by all sorts of pretenders and by every mountebank. There is no doubt but these quacking sort of fellows raised great gains out of the miserable people; for we daily found the crowds that ran after them were infinitely greater, and their doors were more thronged, than those of Dr. Brooks, Dr. Upton, Dr. Hodges, Dr. Berwick, or any, though the most famous men of the time; and I was told that some of them got five pounds a day by their physic.

But there was still another madness beyond all this, which may serve to give an idea of the distracted humor of the poor people at that time, and this was their following a worse sort of deceivers than any of these; for these petty thieves only deluded them to pick their pockets and get their money (in which their wickedness, whatever it was, lay chiefly on the side of the deceiver’s deceiving, not upon the deceived); but, in this part I am going to mention, it lay chiefly in the people deceived, or equally in both. And this was in wearing charms, philters, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations to fortify the body against the plague, as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of a possession of an evil spirit, and it was 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; thus,—

    A B R A C A D A B R A
     A B R A C A D A B R
      A B R A C A D A B
       A B R A C A D A
        A B R A C A D
         A B R A C A
          A B R A C
           A B R A
            A B R
             A B

Others had the Jesuits’ mark in a cross:—

    I H

Others had nothing but this mark; thus,—


I might spend a great deal of my time in exclamations against the follies, and indeed the wickednesses of those things, in a time of such danger, in a matter of such consequence as this of a national infection; but my memorandums of these things relate rather to take notice of the fact, and mention only that it was so. How the poor people found the insufficiency of those things, and how many of 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, remains to be spoken of as we go along.

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 3

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