Journal of the Plague Year

SUMMARY – The 10-second review

A Journal of the Plague Year | Daniel Defoe

I can think of no better way to end this pitiful, calamitous year than with a review of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. If nothing else, it reminds us that this, too, shall pass. And at least we haven’t had to paint a foot-long red cross on the doors of the homes of those infected with Covid-19.

We should consider ourselves lucky

A Journal of the Plague Year is a fictionalized account of the bubonic plague that ravaged London in 1665. The disease ripped through the city, wiping out not just entire families but entire neighborhoods. By the time it had come to an end, at least 100,000 people were dead, possibly twice that, out of a total population estimated at around just 350,000 before the plague. This was the last massive epidemic of the Black Death, which came from Central Asia and killed an estimated 25 million people in intermittent outbreaks across Europe between 1331 and 1750.

A fascinating docudrama

Don’t be put off by Defoe’s language and the age of this book. Once you get into the flow, it’s a very readable book that brings 17th century London vividly to life.

It’s fascinating to compare the experience of Londoners in 1665 to our own experience more than 350 years later. Defoe offers us an intimate, detailed account that highlights the suffering of ordinary people, and their terror in the face of a disease that was little understood, except for the knowledge that it was highly contagious.

Although written as a journal that purports to be a true record, in fact Defoe was only 5 years old at the time of the plague. He wrote A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722. Still, it’s factual enough to be classified as nonfiction, being based on his own memories, on testimony from family, friends and other survivors, and on written public records.

Plus ça change…

Measures taken to contain the disease were similar to 2020 measures, as indicated under the Public Orders listed below. People practiced social distancing. They had to notify authorities if someone was sick. They and their families were then quarantined for four weeks, their homes fumigated, their doors marked with a cross and their homes watched round the clock to ensure that the residents did not go out.

  • Notice to be given of the Sickness…
  • Sequestration of the Sick…
  • Airing the Stuff…
  • Shutting up of the House…
  • None to be removed out of infected Houses, but, &C…
  • Burial of the Dead…
  • No Person to be conveyed out of any infected House…
  • Every visited House to be marked. – ‘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.
  • Every visited House to be watched. – ‘That the constables see every house shut up, and to be attended with watchmen, which may keep them in, and minister necessaries unto them at their own charges, if they be able, or at the common charge, if they are unable; the shutting up to be for the space of four weeks after all be whole.
  • Inmates. – ‘That where several inmates are in one and the same house, and any person in that house happens to be infected, no other person or family of such house shall be suffered to remove him or themselves without a certificate from the examiners of health of that parish; or in default thereof, the house whither he or they so remove shall be shut up as in case of visitation.

All public assemblies were prohibited, on pain of fines and/or public whipping:

‘That all plays, bear-baitings, 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.

‘Public feasting’ was prohibited and the wealthy urged to offer financial help to the poor instead. The city ordered that “dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, be forborne till further order and allowance; and that the money thereby spared be preserved and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.”

‘Tippling’ (drinking) was limited, under the order that “disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that 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, according to the ancient law and custom of this city, upon the penalties ordained in that behalf.”

So, all in all, not much has changed. With restaurants and bars closed or under curfew, the sick confined and gatherings of people prohibited, authorities fought to contain the spread of illness. Where we have ecommerce, they had watchmen doing errands and delivering food to the sick.

People broke the rules

Just like today, not everyone respected the rules. To be fair, back then they were desperately trying escape the city where almost certain death awaited them, whereas today people are breaking confinement rules so that they can party or go shopping.

“Many such escapes were made out of infected houses, as particularly when the watchman was sent of some errand; for it was his business to go of any errand that the family sent him of; that is to say, for necessaries, such as food and physic; to fetch physicians, if they would come, or surgeons, or nurses, or to order the dead-cart, and the like; but with this condition, too, that when he went he was to lock up the outer door of the house and take the key away with him, To evade this, and cheat the watchmen, people got two or three keys made to their locks, or they found ways to unscrew the locks such as were screwed on, and so take off the lock, being in the inside of the house, and while they sent away the watchman to the market, to the bakehouse, or for one trifle or another, open the door and go out as often as they pleased. But this being found out, the officers afterwards had orders to padlock up the doors on the outside, and place bolts on them as they thought fit.”

We’re not yet out of our own plague and can only hope that the vaccination programs now starting will save us in 2021. Meanwhile, wear an effing mask and stop whining about ‘going out’, OK?

Find A Journal of the Plague Year on Amazon and at other bookstores. I recommend that you buy a hardcover or paperback. If you want to read it on Kindle, download it from, not the Kindle version on Amazon: many reviewers say the Amazon version has a lot of mistakes. The Gutenberg version doesn’t!

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