Books and Code · A Miscellany

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (A Review)


A week or so ago I read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year which is based on his uncle’s journal of the Black Plague in London in 1665. Yes, this was morbid and Yes, comparing it with present circumstances too closely is obviously hyperbolic. Yet, here are some things I found relevant:

  • Leaders knew about the plague in Holland in late ‘64 but didn’t prepare.
  • London operated as normal for weeks while numbers affected were small and manageable.
  • Safest to leave affected areas early for the country if you could afford it.
  • Infected people without symptoms were the cause of the spread because they did not social distance, self-quarantine, wear masks, etc. (This was also true once the plague got bad and people became apathetic.)
  • Extreme forced quarantines were hard to enforce and probably encouraged people to flee and thereby spread it more, particularly the asymptomatic ones.
  • Lots of misinformation peddled by quacks and charlatans, but also by community leaders.
  • Provisions were attainable so stockpiling was not “necessary,” but required interacting with people which often caused infection so those who stockpiled were better off.
  • Absolute heroic acts of kindness by many nurses and clergy to care for the sick, many of whom died themselves. Clergy who fled ruined their reputations and were run out of town if they returned afterwards.
  • Lots of unemployment which was handled well by private and gov’t charity during the crisis but stopped quickly once the disease receded. This caused a lot of extreme poverty in the immediate economic aftermath.
  • The infected had a good chance of survival if they had a bed in a pest-house, but once those got overwhelmed the death toll ballooned.
  • Once it was clear the plague was on the decline, people stopped preventative measures too early and it flared up again, causing the crisis to last longer and killing people who had protected themselves for months.