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Book of the week: “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe”(Penguin classics2003)

Ring a ring of rosies

A pocket full of posies

A-tissue! A tishew!

We all fall down”

– nursery rhyme from the time of the Black Death

The spectre of plague has haunted civilization since its inception. The mass urban conglomeration of human animals has always provided a happy hunting ground for many a viral or bacterial strain. Even todays hygienically aware, medically advanced modern industrial societies are not immune to the scourge of Pestilence, the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Minor outbreaks of swine flue or Avian influenza sent the public panic meters into the red, while the slower, more insidious plagues like Aids & Hepatitis C seep slowly through the demographics, contributing to an underlying social unease. We know that one day there will again be a spectacularly sweeping plague of something or other spreading over the globe. Something on the scale of the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak.

Modern ultra efficient transport makes it inevitable. The viral vectors multiply. The scientific Cassandra’s wail forebodingly. Yes, a plague/epidemic is coming. What we don’t know is how society will handle it. Will the hospitals be able to cope? Will social order break down? Martial Law be declared? Corpse pits and mass burials in the first world?

Undoubtedly it is useful to look to the past to see how our ancestors coped, and to see what lessons may be learned.

 Here the author of Robinson Crusoe takes us on a tour of London during the Great Plague of 1665. Ah! The Black Death! There’s a disease for you! So named for the black buboes or swellings that appear in the armpits or groin, that eventually burst and suppurate, oozing stinking black and yellow pus, a purulent stringy discharge disgust you to see. Black Death is still around, lurking out there in the woods. Recollect someone bitten by a squirrel in California not so long ago died of the buboes.


Although Daniel Defoe lived through the Plague himself as a child, he wrote this book sixty years later and its doubtful if his personal recollections contribute much to its content. Instead he relied on researching available records and pamphlets of the time. Defoe leavened this bare collection of graphs & statistics with individual stories of human interest. Tales of cowardice and courage, superstition and faith, despair and hope flesh out the facts. Although written in the first person, in a sense this book is more journalism than journal.Some critics have called this the first modern novel, but I have my doubts. Whatever its status, its an interesting read.

 Society as a whole continued to function. Although many of the rich, who could afford to, fled to the countryside, most Londoners remained. For the poor, perhaps, there was little option, but many well off government functionaries stayed at their posts and continued to work, as did many doctors. The dead were collected and buried, the infected confined to their homes, law and order was maintained, looting was almost nonexistent. Eventually the numbers of those dying each day started to dwindle and the survivors came to the slow realization that thats exactly what they were; survivors who lived to tell the tale.

An illuminating read and invaluable guide for the next plague.


The Reverend Hellfire is a practising Performance Poet and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists.



~ by reverendhellfire on July 11, 2010.

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