Wrath of God or a Cosmic Fart? The Great Plague of 1665-1666

London in the year of the plague, 1665

The last epidemic of the bubonic plague hit London in 1665, killing at least 100,000 people, or a quarter of the city’s total population. 

Though it hasn’t really been seen since in Britain, the plague did not come out of nowhere. There had been four other outbreaks between 1560 and 1660, the most recent being in the 1620s. People read the weekly Bills of Mortality to count the deaths, the rich to decide whether it was wise to leave the city for the country to avoid it, and the tradesmen to see if they were likely to have any work. (1)

There were two types of plague, pneumonic and bubonic, and both came from the Yersenia pestis bacterium, which was carried by fleas. The pneumonic plague set in when the disease went straight to the lungs, and the afflicted would die within three days. With the bubonic plague, most common in 1665, it went to the lymph glands. After ten days of incubation, the lymph glands swelled into “buboes”, and usually killed the victim within five days, although there was about a thirty percent chance of survival. (1)

The Court left before they were in any real danger, withdrawing to the safety of Oxford, while the rest of London waited. 

“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 … sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts 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 mourners was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest 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.” (3)

The Bills of Mortality reported 68,596 deaths from the plague, but Pepys put the number closer to 100,000. A contemporary doctor thought the true number was closer to 200,000. (1)

A plague doctor. This one is Roman,
but the costume would have been
much the same. The “beaks” were filled
with fragrant herbs.


With the staggering number of deaths caused by the plague, human and animal (it was ordered that all cats and dogs in the city be put down), finding a place to bury the bodies became an issue. Most of the dead were still buried in churchyards, and the churchyards tried to accommodate them for as long as they could, stacking bodies on top of each other with or without coffins until every churchyard in London was filled with rotting, infected flesh. The smell must have been horrific. Soon the dead were put into enormous plague pits throughout the city. They’re still finding these today, so it’s impossible to say how many more remain below the city. 

Almanacs blamed the plague on “a cosmic fart”: “The pestilence generally derives its natural origin from a Crisis of the Earth whereby it purges itself by expiring those Arsenical Fumes that have been retained so long in her bowels.” (2)

Many people thought it was the wrath of God. Still others had claimed to see it coming in the bad omen of two comets that had appeared over the city in 1664:

“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 judgements 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 colour, 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 judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague; but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery as the conflagration.” (3)

The Great Fire of 1666 did much to eradicate the plague from the city. So much of London was incinerated, fleas included. Stone houses replaced the wooden ones, and rats had a much harder time trying to get into these. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1666 ordered widened streets and banned open sewers, wooden houses, and overhanging upper levels, aiding sanitation and making the city less vulnerable to the spread of fire and disease. The overflowing churchyards proved the necessity for larger cemeteries further from the bulk of the population, and led to the establishment of the first formal cemeteries on the outskirts of town. 

For some truly terrifying reading, check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You can read the whole thing here, courtesy of gutenberg.org. Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis is a wonderful history of death in London throughout the ages and the chapter on the plague might just give you nightmares (I would have used it here, but I loaned my copy to someone and they don’t want to give it back!). There’s also an interactive guide to London’s many plague pits on historic-uk.com here

Sources

1. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
2. R. Saunders. The English Apollo. London, 1666.
3. Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722. 

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