Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘History of the Plague in London’
By Daniel Defoe (1661?–1731)
Superstitious Fears of the People

BUT I must go back again to the beginning of this surprising time; while the fears of the people were young, they were increased strangely by several odd incidents, which put altogether, it was really a wonder the whole body of the people did not rise as one man and abandon their dwellings, leaving the place as a space of ground designed by heaven for an Akeldama doomed to be destroyed from the face of the earth, and that all that would be found in it would perish with it. I shall name but a few of these things; but sure they were so many, and so many wizards and cunning people propagating them, that I have often wondered there was any (women especially) left behind.
  In the first place, a blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after, another, a little before the fire; the old women, and the phlegmatic hypochondriac part of the other sex, whom I could almost call the old women too, remarked, especially afterward, though not till both those judgments were over, that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone. That the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid color, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow; but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that accordingly one foretold a heavy judgment, slow but severe, terrible, and frightful, as was the plague. But the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery, as was the conflagration; nay, so particular some people were, that as they looked upon that comet preceding the fire they fancied that they not only saw it pass swiftly and fiercely, and could perceive the motion with their eye, but they even heard it,—that it made a rushing mighty noise, fierce and terrible, though at a distance and but just perceivable.  2
  I saw both these stars, and I must confess, had had so much of the common notion of such things in my head that I was apt to look upon them as the forerunners and warnings of God’s judgments; and especially when the plague had followed the first, I saw yet another of the like kind, I could not but say, God had not yet sufficiently scourged the city.  3
  The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times, in which I think the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales, than ever they were before or since: whether this unhappy temper was originally raised by the follies of some people who got money by it,—that is to say, by printing predictions and prognostications,—I know not; but certain it is, books frighted them terribly; such as ‘Lily’s Almanack,’ ‘Gadbury’s Astrological Predictions,’ ‘Poor Robin’s Almanack,’ and the like; also several pretended religious books, one entitled, ‘Come out of Her, my People, lest Ye be Partakers of her Plagues’; another called ‘Fair Warning’; another, ‘Britain’s Remembrancer’; and many such, all or most part of which foretold, directly or covertly, the ruin of the city; nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, “Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed.” I will not be positive whether he said forty days or yet a few days. Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night, like a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, “Woe to Jerusalem!” a little before the destruction of that city; so this poor naked creature cried, “Oh! the great and the dreadful God!” and said no more, but repeated those words continually, with a voice and countenance full of horror, a swift pace; and nobody could ever find him to stop, or rest, or take any sustenance, at least that ever I could hear of. I met this poor creature several times in the streets, and would have spoken to him, but he would not enter into speech with me or any one else, but kept on his dismal cries continually.  4
  These things terrified the people to the last degree; and especially when two or three times, as I have mentioned already, they found one or two in the hills, dead of the plague at St. Giles’s.  5
  Next to these public things were the dreams of old women; or I should say, the interpretation of old women upon other people’s dreams; and these put abundance of people even out of their wits. Some heard voices warning them to be gone, for that there would be such a plague in London, so that the living would not be able to bury the dead; others saw apparitions in the air; and I must be allowed to say of both, I hope without breach of charity, that they heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appeared; but the imagination of the people was really turned wayward and possessed; and no wonder if they who were poring continually at the clouds saw shapes and figures, representations and appearances, which had nothing in them but air and vapor. Here they told us they saw a flaming sword held in a hand, coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city. There they saw hearses and coffins in the air carrying to be buried. And there again, heaps of dead bodies lying unburied and the like; just as the imagination of the poor terrified people furnished them with matter to work upon.
  “So hypochondriac fancies represent
Ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
Till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
And all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.”
  I could fill this account with the strange relations such people give every day of what they have seen; and every one was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly on the one hand and profane and impenetrable on the other. One time before the plague was begun, otherwise than as I have said in St. Giles’s,—I think it was in March,—seeing a crowd of people in the street I joined with them to satisfy my curiosity, and found them all staring up into the air to see what a woman told them appeared plain to her, which was an angel clothed in white, with a fiery sword in his hand, waving it or brandishing it over his head. She described every part of the figure to the life, showed them the motion and the form, and the poor people came into it so eagerly and with so much readiness: “Yes! I see it all plainly,” says one, “there’s the sword as plain as can be;” another saw the angel; one saw his very face, and cried out what a glorious creature he was! One saw one thing, and one another. I looked as earnestly as the rest, but perhaps not with so much willingness to be imposed upon; and I said indeed that I could see nothing but a white cloud, bright on one side by the shining of the sun upon the other part. The woman endeavored to show it me, but could not make me confess that I saw it, which indeed if I had, I must have lied; but the woman turning to me looked me in the face and fancied I laughed, in which her imagination deceived her too, for I really did not laugh, but was seriously reflecting how the poor people were terrified by the force of their own imagination. However, she turned to me, called me a profane fellow and a scoffer, told me that it was a time of God’s anger, and dreadful judgments were approaching, and that despisers such as I should wander and perish.  7
  The people about her seemed disgusted as well as she, and I found there was no persuading them that I did not laugh at them, and that I should be rather mobbed by them than be able to undeceive them. So I left them, and this appearance passed for as real as the blazing star itself.  8
  Another encounter I had in the open day also; and this was in going through a narrow passage from Petty France into Bishopsgate Churchyard, by a row of almshouses. There are two churchyards to Bishopsgate Church or parish; one we go over to pass from the place called Petty France into Bishopsgate Street, coming out just by the church door; the other is on the side of the narrow passage where the almshouses are on the left, and a dwarf wall with a palisade on it on the right hand, and the city wall on the other side more to the right.  9
  In this narrow passage stands a man looking through the palisades into the burying-place, and as many people as the narrowness of the place would admit to stop without hindering the passage of others; and he was talking mighty eagerly to them, and pointing now to one place, then to another, and affirming that he saw a ghost walking upon such a gravestone there: he described the shape, the posture, and the movement of it so exactly, that it was the greatest amazement to him in the world that everybody did not see it as well as he. On a sudden he would cry, “There it is! Now it comes this way!” then, “’Tis turned back!” till at length he persuaded the people into so firm a belief of it, that one fancied he saw it; and thus he came every day making a strange hubbub, considering it was so narrow a passage, till Bishopsgate clock struck eleven, and then the ghost would seem to start, and as if he were called away, disappear on a sudden.  10
  I looked earnestly every way and at the very moment that this man directed, but could not see the least appearance of anything; but so positive was this poor man that he gave them vapors in abundance, and sent them away trembling and frightened, till at length few people that knew of it cared to go through that passage, and hardly anybody by night on any account whatever.  11
  This ghost, as the poor man affirmed, made signs to the houses, and to the ground, and to the people, plainly intimating, or else they so understanding it, that abundance of people should come to be buried in that churchyard, as indeed happened; but that he saw such aspects, I must acknowledge I never believed, nor could I see anything of it myself, though I looked most earnestly to see it if possible.  12
How Quacks and Impositors Preyed on the Fears of the People

  I cannot omit a subtlety of one of those quack operators, with which he gulled the poor people to crowd about him, but did nothing for them without money. He had, it seems, added to his bills which he gave out in the streets, this advertisement in capital letters; viz., “He gives advice to the poor for nothing.”
  Abundance of people came to him accordingly, to whom he made a great many fine speeches, examined them of the state of their health and of the constitution of their bodies, and told them many good things to do which were of no great moment; but the issue and conclusion of all was, that he had a preparation which, if they took such a quantity of every morning, he would pawn his life that they should never have the plague,—no, though they lived in the house with people that were infected. This made the people all resolve to have it; but then the price of that was so much,—I think it was half a crown. “But, sir,” says one poor woman, “I am a poor almswoman, and am kept by the parish, and your bills say you give the poor your help for nothing.” “Ay, good woman,” says the doctor, “so I do, as I published there; I give my advice, but not my physic!” “Alas, sir,” says she, “that is a snare laid for the poor then, for you give them your advice for nothing: that is to say, you advise them gratis, to buy your physic for their money; so does every shopkeeper with his wares.” Here the woman began to give him ill words, and stood at his door all that day, telling her tale to all the people that came, till the doctor, finding she turned away his customers, was obliged to call her up-stairs again and give her his box of physic for nothing, which perhaps too was good for nothing when she had it.  14
The People Are Quarantined in Their Houses

  This shutting up of houses was at first counted a very cruel and unchristian method, and the poor people so confined made bitter lamentations; complaints of the severity of it were also daily brought to my lord mayor, of houses causelessly and some maliciously shut up; I cannot say, but upon inquiry, many that complained so loudly were found in a condition to be continued; and others again, inspection being made upon the sick person and the sickness not appearing infectious, or if uncertain, yet on his being content to be carried to the pest-house, was released.
  As I went along Houndsditch one morning about eight o’clock there was a great noise; it is true indeed that there was not much crowd, because the people were not very free to gather together, or to stay together when they were there, nor did I stay long there; but the outcry was loud enough to prompt my curiosity, and I called to one who looked out of a window, and asked what was the matter.  16
  A watchman, it seems, had been employed to keep his post at the door of a house which was infected, or said to be infected, and was shut up; he had been there all night for two nights together, as he told his story, and the day watchman had been there one day, and was now come to relieve him; all this while no noise had been heard in the house, no light had been seen, they called for nothing, sent him on no errands, which used to be the chief business of the watchman, neither had they given him any disturbance, as he said, from Monday afternoon, when he heard a great crying and screaming in the house, which as he supposed was occasioned by some of the family dying just at that time. It seems the night before, the dead-cart, as it was called, had been stopt there, and a servant-maid had been brought down to the door dead, and the buriers or bearers, as they were called, put her into the cart, wrapped only in a green rug, and carried her away.  17
  The watchman had knocked at the door, it seems, when he heard that noise and crying as above, and nobody answered a great while; but at last one looked out and said with an angry quick tone, and yet a kind of crying voice, or a voice of one that was crying, “What d’ye want, that you make such a knocking?” He answered, “I am the watchman; how do you do? What is the matter?” The person answered, “What is that to you? Stop the dead-cart.” This, it seems, was about one o’clock; soon after, as the fellow said, he stopped the dead-cart, and then knocked again, but nobody answered; he continued knocking, and the bellman called out several times, “Bring out your dead;” but nobody answered, till the man that drove the cart, being called to other houses, would stay no longer, and drove away.  18
  The watchman knew not what to make of all this, so he let them alone till the morning man, or day watchman, as they called him, came to relieve him. Giving him an account of the particulars, they knocked at the door a great while, but nobody answered, and they observed that the window or casement at which the person looked out who had answered before, continued open, being up two pair of stairs.  19
  Upon this the two men, to satisfy their curiosity, got a long ladder, and one of them went up to the window and looked into the room, where he saw a woman lying dead upon the floor in a dismal manner, having no clothes on her but her shift; but though he called aloud, and putting in his long staff, knocked hard on the floor, yet nobody stirred or answered; neither could he hear any noise in the house.  20
  He came down upon this, and acquainted his fellow, who went up also, and finding it just so, they resolved to acquaint either the lord mayor or some other magistrate of it, but did not offer to go in at the window. The magistrate, it seems, upon the information of the two men ordered the house to be broken open, a constable and other persons being appointed to be present, that nothing might be plundered; and accordingly it was so done, when nobody was found in the house but that young woman, who having been infected and past recovery, the rest had left her to die by herself, and every one gone, having found some way to delude the watchman and to get open the door, or get out at some back door, or over the tops of the houses, so that he knew nothing of it; and as to those cries and shrieks which he heard, it was supposed they were the passionate cries of the family at this bitter parting, which to be sure it was to them all, this being the sister to the mistress of the family. The man of the house, his wife, several children and servants, being all gone and fled; whether sick or sound, that I could never learn, nor indeed did I make much inquiry after it.  21
Moral Effects of the Plague

  Here we may observe, and I hope it will not be amiss to take notice of it, that a near view of death would soon reconcile men of good principles one to another, and that it is chiefly owing to our easy situation in life, and our putting these things far from us, that our breaches are fomented, ill blood continued, prejudices, breach of charity and of Christian union so much kept and so far carried on among us as it is: another plague year would reconcile all these differences; a close conversing with death or with diseases that threaten death would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things before; as the people who had been used to join with the church were reconciled at this time with the admitting the Dissenters, who with an uncommon prejudice had broken off from the communion of the Church of England, were now content to come to their parish churches, and to conform to the worship which they did not approve of before; but as the terror of the infection abated, those things all returned again to their less desirable channel, and to the course they were in before.
  I mention this but historically. I have no mind to enter into arguments to move either or both sides to a more charitable compliance one with another; I do not see that it is probable such a discourse would be either suitable or successful; the breaches seem rather to widen, and tend to a widening farther than to closing; and who am I that I should think myself able to influence either one side or the other? But this I may repeat again, that it is evident death will reconcile us all—on the other side the grave we shall be all brethren again; in heaven, whither I hope we may come from all parties and persuasions, we shall find neither prejudice nor scruple; there we shall be of one principle and of one opinion. Why we cannot be content to go hand in hand to the place where we shall join heart and hand, without the least hesitation and with the most complete harmony and affection; I say, why we cannot do so here, I can say nothing to, neither shall I say anything more of it but that it remains to be lamented.  23
Terrible Scenes in the Streets

  This [38,195 deaths in about a month] was a prodigious number of itself; but if I should add the reasons which I have to believe that this account was deficient, and how deficient it was, you would with me make no scruple to believe that there died above 10,000 a week for all those weeks, and a proportion for several weeks both before and after. The confusion among the people, especially within the city, at that time was inexpressible; the terror was so great at last that the courage of the people appointed to carry away the dead began to fail them; nay, several of them died, although they had the distemper before, and were recovered; and some of them dropped down when they had been carrying the bodies even at the pitside, and just ready to throw them in; and this confusion was greater in the city, because they had flattered themselves with hopes of escaping, and thought the bitterness of death was past. One cart, they told us, going up to Shoreditch, was forsaken by the drivers, or being left to one man to drive, he died in the street; and the horses, going on, overthrew the cart and left the bodies, some thrown here, some there, in a dismal manner. Another cart was, it seems, found in the great pit in Finsbury Fields, the driver being dead, or having been gone and abandoned it; and the horses running too near it, the cart fell in and drew the horses in also. It was suggested that the driver was thrown in with it and that the cart fell upon him, by reason his whip was seen to be in the pit among the bodies; but that, I suppose, could not be certain.
  In our parish of Aldgate the dead-carts were several times, as I have heard, found standing at the churchyard gate, full of dead bodies; but neither bellman, nor driver, nor any one else with it. Neither in these nor in many other cases did they know what bodies they had in their cart, for sometimes they were let down with ropes out of balconies and out of windows; and sometimes the bearers brought them to the cart, sometimes other people; nor, as the men themselves said, did they trouble themselves to keep any account of the numbers.  25
The Plague Due to Natural Causes

  I would be far from lessening the awe of the judgments of God, and the reverence to his Providence, which ought always to be on our minds on such occasions as these; doubtless the visitation itself is a stroke from heaven upon a city, or country, or nation where it falls, a messenger of his vengeance, and a loud call to that nation, or country, or city, to humiliation and repentance, according to that of the prophet Jeremiah, xviii. 7, 8: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom to pluck up, and pull down, and destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.” Now to prompt due impressions of the awe of God on the minds of men on such occasions, and not to lessen them, it is that I have left those minutes upon record.
  I say, therefore, I reflect upon no man for putting the reason of those things upon the immediate hand of God, and the appointment and direction of his Providence; nay, on the contrary there were many wonderful deliverances of persons when infected, which intimate singular and remarkable Providence in the particular instances to which they refer; and I esteem my own deliverance to be one next to miraculous, and do record it with thankfulness.  27
  But when I am speaking of the plague as a distemper arising from natural causes, we must consider it as it was really propagated by natural means; nor is it at all the less a judgment for its being under the conduct of human causes and effects: for as the Divine power has formed the whole scheme of nature, and maintains nature in its course, so the same power thinks fit to let his own actings with men, whether of mercy or judgment, to go on in the ordinary course of natural causes, and he is pleased to act by those natural causes as the ordinary means; excepting and reserving to himself nevertheless a power to act in a supernatural way when he sees occasion. Now it is evident that in the case of an infection there is no apparent extraordinary occasion for supernatural operation, but the ordinary course of things appears sufficiently armed and made capable of all the effects that heaven usually directs by a contagion. Among these causes and effects, this of the secret conveyance of infection, imperceptible and unavoidable, is more than sufficient to execute the fierceness of Divine vengeance, without putting it upon supernaturals and miracles.  28
  This acute penetrating nature of the disease itself was such, and the infection was received so imperceptibly, that the most exact caution could not secure us while in the place; but I must be allowed to believe,—and I have so many examples fresh in my memory to convince me of it that I think none can resist their evidence,—I say, I must be allowed to believe that no one in this whole nation ever received the sickness or infection but who received it in the ordinary way of infection from somebody, or the clothes, or touch, or stench of somebody that was infected before.  29
Spread of the Plague through Necessities of the Poor

  Before people came to right notions of the infection, and of infecting one another, people were only shy of those that were really sick; a man with a cap upon his head, or with cloths round his neck, which was the case of those that had swellings there,—such was indeed frightful. But when we saw a gentleman dressed, with his band on, and his gloves in his hand, his hat upon his head, and his hair combed, of such we had not the least apprehensions, and people conversed a great while freely, especially with their neighbors and such as they knew. But when the physicians assured us that the danger was as well from the sound,—that is, the seemingly sound,—as the sick, and that those people that thought themselves entirely free were oftentimes the most fatal; and that it came to be generally understood that people were sensible of it, and of the reason of it; then, I say, they began to be jealous of everybody, and a vast number of people locked themselves up so as not to come abroad into any company at all, nor suffer any that had been abroad in promiscuous company to come into their houses or near them; at least not so near them as to be within the reach of their breath or of any smell from them; and when they were obliged to converse at a distance with strangers, they would always have preservatives in their mouths, and about their clothes, to repel and keep off the infection.
  It must be acknowledged that when people began to use these cautions, they were less exposed to danger, and the infection did not break into such houses so furiously as it did into others before; and thousands of families were preserved, speaking with due reserve to the direction of divine Providence, by that means.  31
  But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor; they went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment, they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and the most liable to infection; and if they were spoken to, their answer would be:—“I must trust in God for that; if I am taken, then I am provided for, and there is an end of me;” and the like. Or thus:—“Why, what must I do? I cannot starve; I had as good have the plague as perish for want; I have no work, what could I do? I must do this or beg.” Suppose it was burying the dead, or attending the sick, or watching infected houses, which were all terrible hazards; but their tale was generally the same. It is true, necessity was a justifiable, warrantable plea, and nothing could be better; but their way of talk was much the same where the necessities were not the same. This adventurous conduct of the poor was that which brought the plague among them in a most furious manner; and this, joined to the distress of their circumstances when taken, was the reason why they died so by heaps; for I cannot say I could observe one jot of better husbandry among them,—I mean the laboring poor,—while they were all well and getting money, than there was before, but as lavish, as extravagant, and as thoughtless for to-morrow as ever; so that when they came to be taken sick, they were immediately in the utmost distress, as well for want as for sickness, as well for lack of food as lack of health.  32

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.