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The first time I read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was in 2002, two years before the SARS outbreak. It was an eerily prescient bit of browsing — I don’t generally pick up 18th-century literature — and a strange glass through which to view the uncertainty of those days. Two weeks ago, I made the decision to have a quick re-read.
Defoe’s book, technically a historical novel but regarded by many as a work of non-fiction, was published in 1722, when the author was 62. Its full title tells you everything you need to know about it: “A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials, of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Publick as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665.” Defoe would have been just a toddler when the plague swept through his city, but he did copious research for his book, which includes tables of casualties and numerous anecdotes, though many of them are openly questioned by the author.
The plague was of course the bubonic plague or Black Death, which killed an estimated quarter of London’s population in just 18 months. It ravaged Europe through the 14th century, killing about a third of the population; the London outbreak was relatively local. This was the period that gave us the Italian phrase quaranta giorni — we now say “quarantine” — to describe the 40 days that ships were required to be isolated to avoid spreading disease from one port to another. Travel advisories are nothing new.
To be clear, we are nowhere near the kind of situation that gripped the Western world centuries ago, nor will we be. But it’s strange to hear echoes of that earlier crisis in today’s headlines.
Here’s Defoe quoting those who insisted on working through the outbreak: “What must I do? I can’t starve. I had as good have the plague as perish for want.” And this is Mario Monfreda, a restaurateur in Rome, on Italy’s lockdown last week: “This will reduce us to nothing … More people are going to die as a result of the economic crisis that this lockdown is going to cause than the virus itself.” Defoe’s scenes of people fleeing London also recall Italians hurrying to travel before the trains stopped running.
Or take Defoe’s description of sham cures: “Infallible preventive pills against the plague.” “Antipestilential pills.” “Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.” They fit right in alongside a recent sham/spam in my email inbox, from a “Dr. Tal Zaks, MD & PhD,” promising: “pure & confirmed coronavirus vaccine,” which apparently the government has not wanted to make public.
Not every comparison is so dire. If you’re a fan of the “Bring out your dead” sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you should know that an early version appears in Defoe’s book, almost three centuries earlier.
He tells the story of a piper who passed out drunk, was loaded into the dead-cart, and then woke up. He quotes one John Hayward: “Lord, bless us! There’s somebody in the cart not quite dead!” The unnamed piper asks: “I an’t dead though, am I?” Defoe says this “made them laugh a little, though, as John said, they were heartily frighted at first,” and concludes: “I am fully satisfied of the truth of (the tale).”
It can be heartbreaking at times to read Defoe’s words with modern eyes. In one passage he ridicules those who declared the plague to be a “stroke from Heaven,” yet in the same sentence he talks of the “manifest ignorance” of those “who talk of infection being carried on by the air only, by carrying with it vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures.” It’s close to the scientific truth, yet at the time it was just one fringe theory among others.
And therein lies the calming effect of this old story. Not to scoff at the late-medieval world, but it’s easy to see how much more prepared we are in the 21st-century for this new pandemic. And yet there is one more parallel: They survived their travails, and we shall endure ours. And when it’s all over, someone will write a smashing book about it.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020
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