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Journal of the Plague-Year [audiobook]

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It's not really a plague until you see dead bodies in the streets.

To put the current mass psychosis and mania into perspective, here is Daniel Defoe's incredible book about the Black Death in London in 1665, the year before the Great Fire which laid waste to what remained after the plague.

This is an audiobook, and another audiobook was made by Librivox which is, presumably, freely available somewhere else. The narrator of my torrent is better than the other narrator. There are problems, though. First, Daniel Defoe--the author of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and others--writes in an almost-archaic English whose constructions sometimes aren't immediately grasped by today's native speakers of English. "Distraction" means something akin to deep mental illness and Defoe never likes to use "if" if he can use "had" instead. There is internal evidence in the text of Defoe moving from more archaic English to a more modern form, things such as his doublet "from whence" where "whence" would have sufficed just a few decades before. In other words, don't blame the narrator too much when he bungles the reading slightly. He really is better than the Librivox reader.

About the book itself, it's sort of the first documentary. Critics point out Defoe was only 5 when the plague made its last great "visitation" in London, and he wrote it later, of course, and probably used notes or a diary written by his uncle, who also stayed in London throughout the cataclysm. Even so, if you listen carefully, Defoe is doing reporting. He has obviously very carefully gathered together facts and oral histories to present a real picture of the outbreak. If you listen very, very carefully, you'll see he himself lets the reader and listener know how much veracity he attributes to different matters which took place or were said to have.

One of the stranger things is his omission of politics. He touches on the fact the monarchy had recently returned to London (after the Civil War and English Revolution and Cromwell and all that) and that this led to all sorts of people streaming into the city. He cites some outrageous number of people employed in making ribbons, for instance. In one place he praises the royal court for ordering doctors be made available to advise the peasantry and rabble on treatment. Still, an atmosphere of real anarchy pervades the entire book. It's as if there is no government, outside the guards placed outside houses and the buriers of the dead who make their rounds at night with horse-drawn cart, with their iconic plague masks. This aversion to the political side of things is mirrored in works on the political history of Great Britain which tend to gloss over the main event of 1665, the plague. In John Richard Green's A Short History of the English People, for example, about one half line of text is dedicated to the plague, followed by the note in passing of the Great Fire in 1666.

One of the amazing parts of the book, after you get past the statistics on illness and death in the first chapter, concerns premonitions of the coming mass death. One man sees a ghost daily who by means of sign language intimates a great many will die and be buried or piled in the cemetery where he appears. The man believes he sees the apparition so fervently he convinces people walking along the lane they see it, too. Defoe puts himself there in the first person and calls it pure fantasy, a mass hallucination, even though it turned out to be true. There are numerous other signs in the heavens and so forth, and of course 1667 was fairly close in time to Salem witchcraft in the Protestant English colonies in America. The Death imagery which flowed out of the last big outbreak of the Black Death in England informed the iconography of early colonial America as well. The idea of Death as the great equalizer is not new.

One of the more memorable scenes, and maybe the inspiration for Poe's short story King-Pest, is a nightly gathering of ruffians and drunkards, or simply party animals and insomniacs, who gather at a certain tavern and take nothing seriously, including the danger to themselves.

Another matter in the book which might be of interest to epidemiologists who do use it as a guide to the 1665 outbreak is Defoe's report it was spread between humans, i.e., without the aid of fleas on rodents. He says so outright. Other evidence in the book does point to a flea vector, though, including wandering cats and the law or rule or regulation about sweeping out houses daily and depositing the dust as far as possible from inhabited parts of the city. There is evidence both ways in Defoe's book, human-to-human and via fleas, but he says plainly there was some stage where it was transmitted human-to-human.

Early on we hear the plague originated among two or three French bakers who lived on Drury Lane. That means the children's song about the muffin man is likely related to the Great Death of 1665, just as Ring-around-the-Rosie is a song about some plague outbreak. Netflix directors take note.