Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book Review: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

On the eve of a threatened resurgence of the Black Death in 1721, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, about a saddlemaker who lived when the Black Death came in 1665. The account is fictional but based on resources Defoe had about the previous plague, i.e. several books and pamphlets of personal stories and statistics gathered during and after the plague. 

The plague in England started (supposedly) with a shipment from the continent that caused a death at the end of 1664. A few deaths here and there happened in the subsequent months. The breakout happened in the summer of 1665, with contagion sweeping through the city and eventually the rest of the country. The unnamed saddlemaker who narrates his experiences in the first person does not flee the city as a lot of people did. He wasn't rich enough to have a country house or desperate enough to try his chances wandering aimlessly. He can't overcome his curiosity during the quarantine and wanders the streets, providing first-person accounts of the horrors.

The situation was eerily similar to today's situation. A lot of people watched the statistics in the newspapers to judge how serious the situation was. People interpreted the information differently, occasionally resulting in conflicts. A lot of people started making predictions, even claiming personal insights come from God. The author (the saddlemaker does seem like a stand-in for Defoe) is quite skeptical about good and bad predictions, though people were adamant in their positions:
"I could fill this account with the strange relations such people gave every day of what they had 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." [pp. 30-31]
Perhaps no generation has a monopoly on pigheadedness. Quarantines were called for and those who managed to stock up on supplies before the call were in much better shape.

On the other hand, the situation was also very different. To alleviate the unemployment caused by the quarantine, the city government hired people to be watchmen. The watchmen made sure that houses that had plague remained shut, i.e. the people couldn't go out, even if only one person in the house had the plague. The enforcement was not so successful. Houses often had multiple exits that one man couldn't cover; some watchmen accepted bribes to look the other way. People snuck out to get food and medicine or to flee the city. The plague moved slowly, hitting the western part of the city hard, then subsiding as it became worse in the eastern part. The Black Death was a much more horrible disease than we are currently experiencing. People died in one or two days and in horrible agony, often at home or in the street. Each parish had someone in charge of bringing dead bodies to be buried. The death carts were soon overwhelmed, as were the graveyards. Giant pits were dug to cast the bodies in since there was no time for proper funerals. It was considered safer to dispose of the infected quickly.

This book reads like a proto-post-apocalyptic thriller. The account is more like journalism than a personal survival story. The author tells a lot of other people's stories and gives general descriptions of what people were doing. Even so, it makes for fascinating reading. 

Highly recommended for reading now--there's a bizarre comfort in realizing things have been worse before and we've come out of it okay. The plague subsided by the beginning of 1666, the year of the Great Fire in London

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