October 5. Whatever may be said against it, the worldwide web has kept me usefully occupied during the lockdown. In pursuit of my current research, I wish to read the rare text, A Collection of Very Valuable and Scarce Pieces Relating to the Last Plague in the Year 1665, published in 1721. Once this would have meant a trip to the British Library. Now, thanks to the Internet Archive and the recent extension of fibre broadband to my riverside village, I have it instantly on my desk.
The collection, which formed the basis of Defoe’s Journal the following year, outlined the approach taken to the epidemic. Prevailing medical opinion discounted the role of “insects” and instead explained that “the Pest’s Invasion … is unanimously agreed on to be by Contagion, viz,. When venenate [poisonous] Expirations are transmitted from infectious Bodies to others working a like Change and Alteration in them.” It was the wrong explanation, but rendered the event distinctly modern. Then as now the authorities concentrated on identifying the infected and keeping them apart from the healthy.
Those with symptoms were locked in their houses, together with the rest of their household. The dead were to be buried between sundown and sunrise, “and … no Neighbours nor Friends be suffered to accompany the Corpse to Church, or to enter the House visited, upon pain of having his House shut up, or be imprisoned and this is the quarantine.”
If “Hackney-Coachmen”, the Uber drivers of their day, had carried “infected Persons to the Pest-House, and other Places” they could not ply for passengers “till their Coaches be well aired, and have stood unemployed by the space of five or six Days after such Service.”
The entertainment industry was shut down: “all Plays, Bear-baiting, Games, singing of Ballads, Buckler-play, or such like Causes of Assemblies of People, be utterly prohibited, and the Parties offending, severely punished by every Alderman in his Ward.” As in recent weeks, early closing was imposed on drinking: “no Company or Person be suffered to remain or come into any Tavern, Ale-house, or Coffee-house to drink after nine of the Clock in the Evening.”
If the playbook for dealing with a pandemic was written three and a half centuries ago, how is it that we continue to lurch from crisis to crisis in responding to the coronavirus? Today the government is trying to explain how 15,000 infections were not recorded, causing a failure to track nearly 50,000 contacts.
Amongst the many answers, two may be mentioned.
In 1665 the implementation of a national framework of plague regulations was not the responsibility of the vestigial early modern state, nor, of course, private companies such as Deloitte (founded 1845) or Serco (1987). In the capital the quarantine orders were published and enforced by by the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen of London who knew the progress of the plague from parish to parish, knew their powers and were prepared to enforce them. Together with the structure of elected officials below them, they were in permanent session throughout the crisis:
“It is ordered and enjoined that the Aldermen, Deputies, and Common- Council-men shall meet together weekly, once, twice, thrice, or oftner, (as cause shall require) at some one general Place accustomed in their respective Wards (being clear from Infection of the Plague) to consult how the said Orders may be duly put in execution.”
And the Aldermen understood the communication technology of their time. The current crisis of mis-recording 16,000 test results appears to be the consequence of a failure to grasp the limitations of Excel spreadsheets. In 1665 they had a simpler but brutally effective device for identifying infected households:
“THAT every House visited, be marked with a red Cross of a Foot long, in the middle of the Door, evident to be seen; and with these usual printed Words, that is to say, Lord have Mercy upon us, to be set close over the same Cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same House.”