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Plague History

‘There have been in London, within this Age, four times of great Mortality, that is to say, the years 1592 and 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636.  
There died Anno 1592, from March to December, 25886
Whereof of the Plague 11503
Anno 1593, 17844
Whereof of the Plague 10662
Anno 1603, within the same space of time, were Buried 37294
Whereof of the Plague 30561
Anno 1625, within the same space 51758
Whereof of the Plague 35417
Anno 1636, from April to Decemb. 23359
Whereof of the Plague 10460

John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations mentioned in a
following Index, and made upon the Bills of Mortality
(London, 1676), p. 46.

The figures given by the first great English demographer, John Graunt, in Worth’s copy of his seminal work on bills of mortality, demonstrate that plague was endemic in England in the early modern period. It was, however, the Great Plague of 1665 which undoubtedly held contemporary attention for, as the following table makes clear, it was during that fateful year that plague ravaged London, killing no less than 68,596 people according to the following Bill of Mortality.

Table comparing 1665 plague deaths in London with others in earlier years.

As Greenberg (1997 and 2004) has demonstrated, such specific figures are available because of the government policy of public health awareness: by encouraging printers to publish these statistics showing the spread and virulence of the infection throughout London the government hoped to educate the public about the extent of the threat, while at the same time enabling trade to continue despite the plague.

The bills of mortality which Graunt studied and which were later collected by Worth come with at least one proviso, however. Such figures are the result of individual parish reporting of deaths which in turn was deputised to ‘searchers’, frequently old women and uneducated people who were likely to label any unusual death as ‘plague’, that great catchall disease. Yet if the searchers might unconsciously exaggerate the numbers of deaths from plague it is equally likely that individual families might try to hide plague deaths, aware that seventeenth-century English government policy advocated the shutting up of homes (with the household inside), once a plague death had been found. The numbers from the bills of mortality then should act as guidelines, not exact renditions of exactly how many people died from plague in London during this period. But if there are caveats concerning the numbers involved it is equally clear that the bills drawn up by Graunt and Sir William Petty provided vital information about the social implications of the disease.

As the work of Paul Slack (1990) has amply demonstrated, plague in London tended to start in the poorer parishes, where living conditions exacerbated the problem. While plague respected no man it is clear that the poor were always the worst affected in any epidemic, whether in England or the rest of Europe: unlike the rich, they couldn’t flee to the country and once infected had little resources with which to fight the disease. The bills not only highlight the social impact of plague in this way but also draw our attention to its seasonal impact: plague was always worse in the summer months. This is commented on in another work in Worth’s collection, John Pechey’s Collections of acute diseases, in five parts (London, 1691):

‘The foregoing Winter being extremely cold, and the Frost continuing without any Intermission till Spring, it thaw’d suddenly at the end of March in the year 1665, and Peripneumonia’s, Pleurises, Quinseys, and such like inflammatory Diseases, made great Slaughter of a sudden…. in the progress of the Year the Plague it self broke out, accompanied with a great Number of Pathognomonic Symptoms, as Carbuncles, Bubo’s, and the like. It increas’d daily more and more, and came to its heighth about the Autumnal Æquinox, at which time it destroy’d about 8000 in the space of a Week, notwithstanding that two Thirds, at least, of the Citizens betook themselves to the Country for fear of infection: Afterwards it began to decrease, and by reason of the cold of Winter almost ceas’d, only here and there one had it all the Winter, and towards the following Spring, at the approach of which it totally vanished…’

John Pechey’s Collections of acute diseases, in five parts (London, 1691), pt. 2, pp 1-2.

The reason for this was primarily because the heat of the summer enabled rat fleas to generate, while colder conditions were not conducive to them. This suggests, in turn, that the form of bubonic plague affecting England in the seventeenth century was, as Paul Slack has argued, bubonic plague. For more on the debate about the causes of early modern plagues, see the Causes webpage.

Plague in London: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Worth’s interest in the 1665 plague in London was fuelled by two factors: the 1720 Marseilles plague fuelled a plague scare in England and printers rushed to published not only works by contemporary early eighteenth-century physicians such as Richard Mead, but also released new editions of works on the last great English plague of 1665. By far the most important English writer on the 1665 plague was the physician Nathaniel Hodges (1629-1688), who had stayed in London during the plague and had later written up his enduring analysis of the course, symptoms and cure of that plague. Worth collected the first edition of Loimologia (London, 1672) but the work was considered of such vital importance that it was one of those texts reprinted in translation in 1720 in the wake of the threat from Marseilles. Its enduring popularity owed much not only to Hodges’ style but also to the empirical basis of his work: he was not afraid to discount Galen when his own experience taught him otherwise.

Selected Reading
Graunt, John (1676), Natural and Political Observations mentioned in a following Index, and made upon the Bills of Mortality (London).
Greenberg, Stephen (1997), ‘The “Dreadful Visitation”: Public health and public awareness in seventeenth-century London’, Bulletin of Medical Library Association 85 (4), pp 391-401.
Greenberg, Stephen (2004), ‘Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London’, Huntingdon Library Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2004), pp 508-527.
Hodges, Nathaniel (1672), Loimologia (London).
Mullett, C.F. (1936), ‘The English Plague Scare of 1720-23’, Osiris 2, pp 484-516.
Pechey, John (1691), Collections of acute diseases, in five parts (London).
Slack, Paul (1990), The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
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