From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Red cross

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.”

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “very little Difference was to be seen.”


September 15.  Once the scale of the pandemic became clear, commentators of all perspectives began asking the question, how different would the post-coronavirus world look?  Would individuals, societies, governments, embrace radical change, or would we do all that we could to reinstate familiar routines and pleasures?

Looking back in 1772 to the 1665 plague, Daniel Defoe was pessimistic about the outcome.  “But except what of this was to be found in particular Families and Faces,” he wrote, “it must be acknowledg’d that the general Practice of the People was just as it was before, and very little Difference was to be seen.”*  At least part of the explanation for the transient effect was that the outbreak of bubonic plague was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, which reset the programme of improvement on every front.  We have already arranged for a cataclysm next year in the form of a no-deal Brexit, which in the UK at least may indeed wipe out all prospect of progressive change in the 2020s.

Nonetheless the question remains on the agenda, even if the point of conclusion is now receding into the distance.  The large-scale Nuffield / UCL Covid-19 survey which I have written about before, has just asked its panel of now over 70,000 respondents whether they expect to change the way they live their lives once the pandemic is over.**

The results are deeply underwhelming.  Whilst only ten per cent expect to return exactly to their previous life, a mere two per cent of the respondents assented to the proposition, “I will entirely change the way I lived compared before Covid-19”.  Over half the population thought that “they were more likely on balance to return to how things were before” with about a fifth expecting to change things and over a quarter in between no change and some change.

When the survey focussed on the specific actions of those who wanted a new life, the poverty of aspiration becomes still clearer.  Top of the list is an activity which perhaps has been created by the pandemic, giving more support to local businesses.  But as the fourth most desired change is more shopping online, it seems unlikely that there is going to be a wholesale shift to buying the necessities of life from the grocer around the corner.  Otherwise the head of the chart is filled with such mundane ambitions as saving more money, exercising more, eating healthier food.  About ten per cent report an intention to ‘seek a new romantic relationship’ but it is not clear whether this ambition has been communicated to an existing partner.

The problem with these sorts of enquiries is the absence of a pre-Covid baseline.  In a culture which foregrounds the freedom of individuals to set their own future, it might be supposed that a desire for some sort of change is near universal.  The content of the reported agenda looks a lot like the first week of any given New Year, when in the aftermath of over-consumption, resolutions are formed to live a more virtuous life.  These peter out as the days lengthen, leading to an outcome that looks very like Defoe’s verdict.

The conclusion has to be that alongside staying alive and getting a virus test, we need to devote serious time to conceiving a new future.  It will not occur by default, nor by responding to short-term inconveniences.  The slogan ‘Build Back Better’ is now widely used by agencies, pressure groups and politicians (even B. Johnson, God help us) reacting to the crisis.  On the survey evidence, what is better remains out of focus and beyond what at present we seem able to imagine. 

*Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; Penguin 2003), pp. 219-20.

**Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 19, 26th August 2020, pp. 44-50.

From David Vincent In Shrewsbury, UK: Smoking the Mail

Daniel Defoe

September 10.  Over the last six months, the main exposure of our home to the threatening outside world has been in the form not of visitors but deliveries of post, weekly groceries and the fruits of online shopping.   The postman and other van drivers keep their distance.  The problem is what to do with the letters and boxed items.  We know that the coronavirus can linger on hard surfaces for at least twenty-four hours.  This causes us to leave untouched boring items such as advertising circulars and bank statements. But we are less patient with anything that looks as if it will entertain us or improve our lives.

For guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in this regard, we can turn once more to Daniel Defoe.  Alongside his Journal of the Plague Year he also published the much less well-known Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Souls as Body.  Being some seasonable Thoughts upon the visible approach of the present dreadful Contagion in France; the properest measures to prevent it, and the great work of submitting to it (1722).  This was a more overtly didactic work than the Journal, although it deployed much of the same material. 

Among the topics he addressed was how to treat incoming mail.  James Daybell and other historians have demonstrated that there was a widely-used postal service operating across Britain by the mid-seventeenth-century.  It was deployed for business purposes, for connecting family members of the middling and upper classes, and for supporting an international network of scholars.  At the Restoration in 1660, Charles II established the General Letter Office, which was designed to create a state monopoly in the conveyance of letters.  Operating with a very broad understanding of infection, Defoe regarded the service as a serious threat to health. 

We now know that the bubonic plague was spread by fleas carried by black rats, and unlike fabrics sent about the country, the hard surface of paper was not likely to be a means of transmission.  But it is now, so we should take seriously the Due Preparations.   In the book Defoe cited the example (also referred to in the Journal) of a prosperous wholesale grocer in London, head of a household which comprised his wife, five children, two maid servants and an apprentice.  The grocer took the precaution of keeping his doors shut in order to avoid physical contact, hauling any necessary items to an upstairs window by means of a pulley:

“Hitherto he had corresponded with several of his acquaintances and customers in the country, and had received letters from them, and written letters to them constantly, but would not do any business, or send any goods to them upon any account, though very much pressed to it, because he resolved not to open his doors, whatever damages he suffered.

“His letters were brought by the postman, or letter- carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar ; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire ; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.” (New York, 1903 edn., p. 63)

I can only commend this practice to you.