The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)
Part I. Chaos
Chapter 4. “When Spotted Death Ran Arm’d Through Every Street”
For a thousand years, whenever God lost patience with his creation, plague had swept across Europe. For a few hundred years, those waves of disease had taken on a fearsome rhythm, appearing and vanishing at intervals of roughly ten or twenty years. In the deadliest assault, from 1347 through 1350, plague killed twenty million people. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of all Europeans died in that three-year span.
England’s population crashed so far that it did not return to its pre-plague level for four centuries. In Florence the dead lay piled in pits “like cheese between layers of lasagna,” in the words of one repelled, stunned observer. The survivors could do little more than gape at the devastation. “Oh happy posterity,” wrote the Italian poet Petrarch, “who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.”
This was the bubonic plague, a disease spread to humans by fleas that had bitten infected rats, though no one would know that for centuries. Plague sputtered along between full-fledged outbursts, claiming a few lives almost every year but seldom flaring out of control. For decades in the mid-1600s England had been granted a respite. Plague had devastated one European city or another through those years, but since 1625 it had spared London.
No city lay beyond reach, though, for plague traveled with ships, armies, and merchants—with any travelers who unknowingly brought rats and fleas with them. England had begun to grow rich in the seventeenth century, and much of its wealth was based on trade. From all over the world, ships brought tea and coffee, silk and china, tobacco and sugar, to England’s teeming ports. Europe, in the meantime, had spent the 1650s and ’60s watching helplessly as plague moved across the continent. Italy and Spain had succumbed first, then Germany. In 1663 and 1664, plague devastated Holland.
In England, all was quiet—a single plague death in London at Christmas, 1664; another in February; two in April. On April 30, 1665, Samuel Pepys mentioned plague in his diary for the first time.5 Pepys was still young, just past thirty and newly embarked on a career as a Royal Navy bureaucrat. The diary that would one day become a world treasure was only a private diversion. Pepys’s first reference to plague was brief, an afterthought following a cheery description of dinner and the state of his finances. He had gone through his account books and found, “with great joy,” that he was richer than he had ever been in his life. Then a quick observation: “Great fears of the sicknesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”
It is hard to read that first, ominous passage without hearing a horror movie’s minor chords in the background. In the face of the calamity that lay ahead, Pepys’s mention of “two or three” tragedies would come to sound almost quaint.
Plague killed arbitrarily, agonizingly, and quickly. “A nimble executioner,” in the words of one frightened observer, it could kill a healthy man overnight. No one knew the cause; no one knew a cure. All that was known was that plague somehow jumped from person to person. The sick fell and died, and the not-yet-infected cowered and waited.
The first symptom could be as innocuous as a sneeze (the custom of saying “Bless you!” when someone sneezes dates from this era). Fever and vomiting followed close behind. Next came “the surest Signes,” in the words of one pamphlet from England’s epidemic of 1625, an onslaught of blisters on the skin and swellings beneath it. Blue or purplish spots about the size of a penny appeared first. Shortly after, angry red sores flared up, “as if one did burne a hole with a hot iron.” Then followed the dreaded black swellings that marked the end. They bulged out from the neck, armpits, or groin, sometimes “no bigger than a Nutmeg … but some as bigge as a Man’s fist.” Victims oozed blood from the tender lumps and moaned in pain.
Once plague had struck, doctors could provide no help beyond a soothing word. Authorities focused all their attention on safeguarding the healthy. Those who had fallen ill were forbidden to step out of their homes; hired guards stood watch to keep the prisoners from escaping. Food was supposedly left on the doorstep by “plague nurses,” but they were as likely to rob their dying charges as to help them.
Many houses where plague had struck were nailed shut, with those inside left to die or not as fate decreed. (Thus Pepys’s reference to “houses already shut up.”) Some slum tenements held half a dozen captive families. The houses of the condemned carried a large cross, marked on the door in red chalk, to warn others to keep away. Scrawled near the cross were the forlorn words, “Lord have mercy upon us.”
On June 7, 1665, Pepys first saw “two or three such houses” for himself. On June 10, he decided it was time to write his will. On June 15, he noted that “the town grows very sickly … there dying this last week of the plague 112, from 43 the week before.”
The numbers rose throughout the summer. Frightened Londoners discussed such patterns endlessly, as if they were trying to guess when a madman might strike next. On July 1 Pepys saw “seven or eight houses in Bazing-hall street shut up of the plague.” On July 13 he recorded “above 700 dead of the plague this week.”
The numbers were unreliable, for they were gathered by ignorant, despised old women called “searchers.” Their twofold task was to count the dead and to seek out signs of plague among the living, so that officials could know which families to quarantine inside their homes. No one volunteered for such work. The searchers were poor women, on the dole, forced to take on their task by parish officials’ threats to withhold their meager benefits. Shunned even in ordinary times, the searchers now bore the added stigma of carrying contagion with them. Passersby who saw the ragged women scurried to get away, and the law made sure that was easy. Searchers were required to carry a two-foot-long white wand as an emblem of office, and to walk close to the refuse channels in the street.
Shaky as the plague statistics were, the trend was unmistakable. Throughout the summer of 1665 the death toll rose from a few hundred a week in June to one thousand a week in July and then to six thousand a week by the end of August. London witnessed scenes that jarred even hardened witnesses. Children were more vulnerable than adults, but whole families fell ill in a matter of days. “Death was the sure midwife to all children, and infants passed immediately from the womb to the grave,” wrote Nathaniel Hodges, a doctor who performed heroic service all through the plague time. “Some of the infected ran into the streets; while others lie half-dead and comatose, but never to be waked but by the last trumpet; some lie vomiting as if they had drunk poison; and others fell dead in the market.”
At first, when the death rate was still low, Dr. Hodges had dared hope that the damage would stay in bounds. All such hopes were soon dashed. Plague was a “cruel enemy,” Hodges lamented, like an army that “at first only scattered about its arrows, but at last covered the whole city with dead.” Hodges told of priests in perfect health who went to comfort dying men and died alongside them. Doctors at the bedside keeled over next to their patients. Pepys heard about a now-commonplace disaster that had befallen an acquaintance. “Poor Will that used to sell us ale … , his wife and three children died, all, I think in a day.”