The Great Plague by Stephen Porter

The Great Plague that struck London and other English shires (including major towns and small villages) in the year 1665, causing unbelievable (to modern readers) death, despair, economic hardship and all kinds of social injustices (many of which were enshrined in policy) is explored in forensic and sometimes repetitive detail in Stephen Porter’s The Great Plague.

imgres-5Despite commencing with an anecdote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the friar, because of the laws regarding the quarantining of infected houses and their inhabitants during the plague (in England and abroad), is unable to deliver the message to Romeo that Juliet is not really dead (a failure of communication with tragic consequences), this is not really a poetic or, indeed, dramatic recounting of the plague, its origins and social and political impact. But it is a fascinating study into how various governments (from Turkey, France, The Netherlands and more), and especially the English one during the reign of Charles II, dealt with a growing catastrophe.

Whether it was through flight from an infected centre (an option really only available to the wealthy, and of which they availed themselves with relief and scant regard for those they left behind), incarceration in a “pest-house”, being locked up for forty days with other victims in a suspect house (whether you were infected or not), or taking advantage of human misery by exploiting and stealing, the book explores the various ways people endured (or didn’t). Among a range of topics, Porter discusses the Bills of Mortality, released weekly and which listed causes of death in each parish, examining the way in which the plague spread, ebbed and flowed, how various government and medical bodies dealt with the rising death count and how the thinning population and various laws around trade and public gatherings affected industry and mercantile matters as well.

Porter is at pains to show how the plague wasn’t just a social disaster, but an economic one as well that some centres recovered from quicker than others. He also reveals how the lack of preparation and medical knowledge likely aided the spread but also how, in the end, it affected its end.

The main focus is London, but Porter devotes an entire chapter to the English provinces and, in the latter part, ventures to the continent and beyond. Here the book does become repetitive and appears, especially towards the end, to lack heart. I know it’s strange and perhaps not even appropriate to discuss this in relation to a non-fiction book, but I have read others that at least show empathy towards the suffering and misery all this death caused. Porter avoids sentimentality or even sympathy, making this a cold read and placing the reader in a position, I guess, not unlike those in authority who had to suspend their emotions and make difficult calls (though were many who lamented the laws, protested on behalf of the poor and demanded human rights be addressed and suffering end). I am not persuaded this approach was entirely necessary. As an example, Porter argues that while the numbers of people lost were considerable (he coolly describes entire families being “wiped out” – using mainly eye-witness accounts – Samuel Pepys eg, or how one person from every household in a street is killed), the appellation “Great Plague” is likely a misnomer when one considers the actual body count, citing earlier and later plagues and per capita losses to support his claim. As an academic, I can appreciate this perspective, but am still to be persuaded it was entirely necessary. “Great” is also an adjective that does not have to be quantified through numbers. When you talk about death in such a way, reducing it to a statistic instead of inviting the reader to consider the humanity underpinning such extraordinary numbers, you basically miss the point. Porter also states, during the mid-1660s in London, not only was there plague and war with the Dutch to contend with, but also in 1666, the “Great Fire.” In context then, with so many catastrophic events the plague of 1665 (which in some centres started before this and continued well into 1666), and its impact on the human psyche was certainly “great”. Again, consideration of the economic hardship, let alone the losses and experiences at the individual and familial level – different across the class structures – is something that sits at the margins of the book when they could have also been at its heart.

Overall, this was an interesting and well-researched book that uses contemporary and modern sources to discuss the nature and impact of one of the most dreaded diseases of the past.

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