September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.
Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event. Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure. He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old. His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience. He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city. Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn. The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more. The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition.
In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected. Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy. Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.
Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis. In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill. Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:
“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).
So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village. A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday. On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents. Defoe’s principle still applies. ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens. Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford. In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it. As we must.