Opening Sentence:They were all there at the beginning.
Synopsis:In the winter of 1664-65, a bitter cold descended on London in the days before Christmas. Above the city, an unusually bright comet traced an arc in the sky, exciting much comment and portending “horrible windes and tempests”. And in the remote, squalid precinct of Saint-Giles-in-the-Fields outside the city wall, Goodwoman Phillips was pronounced dead of the plague. Her house was locked up and the phrase “Lord Have Mercy on Us” was painted on the door in red. By the following Christmas, the pathogen that had felled Goodwoman Phillips would kill nearly 100,000 people living in and around London – almost a third of those who did not flee. This plague had a devastating effect on the city’s economy and social fabric, as well as on hose who lived through it. Yet somehow the city and it’s residents continued to function and carry on the activities of daily life.
In The Great Plague, historian A. Lloyd Moote and microbiologist Dorothy C. Moote provide an engrossing and deeply informed account of this cataclysmic plague year. At once sweeping and intimate, their narrative takes readers from the palaces of the city’s wealthiest citizens to the slums that housed the vast majority of London’s inhabitants to the surrounding countryside with those who fled. The Mootes reveal that, even at the height of the plague, the city did not descend into chaos. Doctors, apothecaries, surgeons, and clergy remained in the city to care for the sick; parish and city officials confronted the crisis with all the legal tools at their disposal; and commerce continued even as businesses shut down.
To portray life and death in and around London, the authors focus on the experiences of nine individuals – among them an apothecary serving a poor suburb, the rector of the city’s wealthiest parish, a successful silk merchant who was also a city alderman, a country gentleman, and the famous diarist Samuel Pepys. With these people’s letters and diaries, the Mootes support fresh interpretations of key issues in the history of the Great Plague: how different communities understood and experienced the disease; the reactions of medical, religious and governmental bodies; how the social order held together; the economic and moral dilemmas people faced when debating whether to flee the city; and the nature of the material, social and spiritual resources sustaining those who remained.
Underscoring the human dimensions of the epidemic, Lloyd and Dorothy Moote dramatically recast the history of the Great Plague and offer a masterful portrait of a city and its inhabitants besieged by – and defiantly resisting – unimaginable horror.
Comments:Anyone who studies, or has an interest in, either history especially as regards to plagues, will find this book a valuable addition to their library. Drawing mainly on primary sources and contemporary accounts, the Mootes’s paint a picture of London as a very different place than the modern view allows. Contrary to the popular image of a plague-ridden London descending into chaos, with the social fabric crumpling and people starving to death in their homes, we are presented with a London bravely dealing with the tragedy they faced.
Plague-ridden London may have been, but commerce, order and compassion were not absent. While it is true that many of those who could afford to do so fled, many more remained. The poor were not abandoned to fend for themselves. Rather, they had doctor’s and apothecaries to treat them (though far too few) free of charge. Nurses and watchmen were paid for by the parish, as were food and coal to sustain them. The King may have taken his court and fled, but the Mayor and Alderman remained. Law and order was maintained and, somehow, goods still made their way into the city. For those with the know-how, there was still money to be made.
The Great Plague was interesting, informative and easy to read. It has a strong reliance on primary sources, and includes statistical charts and excerpts from contemporary ledgers, allowing the reader to analyse the data for themselves rather than relying solely on the authors’ statements. This is a book I am considering acquiring for my permanent collection.
- When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS by James Cross Giblin (raffertysrules.wordpress.com)
- Plague: A Story of Science, Rivalry, and the Scourge that Won’t go Away by Edward Marriott (raffertysrules.wordpress.com)
- My Story, The Great Plague, The Diary of Alice Paynton, London, 1665-1666 by Pamela Oldfield (raffertysrules.wordpress.com)
- The Black Death by Philip Ziegler (raffertysrules.wordpress.com)
- Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead (thechirurgeonsapprentice.com)