Lessons to draw from Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’

The Triumph of Death by artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1562.

The Triumph of Death by artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1562.


Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year offers important lessons amid our COVID-19 pandemic. Here are nine lessons that we can pick.


A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!
H. F.


This is the second pandemic book that I have read. The first was Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. I shared with you the lessons we could learn from the book and the 1918 Spanish Influenza. I shared four lessons: one, are we prepared for the next epidemic? two, the Philadelphia’s painful lessons on disregard of medical advice; three, the failings of the US Press in not disclosing truthfully the Spanish flu pandemic in the US; and four, the need to foster dissemination of information between countries particularly on the outbreak of a pandemic. I ended my reflections on the book in the following words: “As the pandemic continues to affect the world, these lessons and others can help us in our conversation on this subject. Barry quotes Albert Camus and perhaps this is a good quote to inspire: “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

In my TBR list, Daniel Defoe’s A Plague of the Journal Year showed up. As you will gather, the Great Plague of London hit London in 1665 and 1666 and wiped 100,000 people. Daniel Defoe, who was five years old in 1665 when the bubonic plague struck, narrates to us through a narrator initialled as H.F, the experiences of that calamitous year. It has been written that the accounts are based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe who lived through the Plague. The book was first published in March 1722.

The book is a verisimilitude of the actual events that happened in 1665, told through a narrator who takes us through the streets of London as the plague visited people. This historical fiction has a lot of lessons we can learn from even as the coronavirus visits the world.

Lesson 1: The danger lay in people who appeared well

As the Great Plague raged in London in 1665, Defoe writes that it was easy to avoid the sick since they showed the signs. But those that appeared well were the most dangerous. A seemingly healthy person would mix with people yet infect many.

Lesson 2: Shutting up of houses

The Lord Mayor of London at that time, Borif De Pfeffel Jonffon, had ordered that if a family member fell sick, then you were to be shut up in your house as a family. Two watchmen guarded the door: one during the day and the other at night.

Defoe paints a grim picture of families that stayed with dead relatives in their houses. Defoe also tells us of crafty ones who sent the watchmen on errands (for that was allowed) and took the opportunity to flee. The idea was to contain the contagion. But many families perished since they ended up infecting each other with the Bubonic plague. Defoe paints a vivid picture of the perils of those times:

…for whoever considers all the particulars in such cases must acknowledge, and we cannot doubt but the severity of those confinements made many people desperate, and made them run out of their houses at all hazards, and with the plague visibly upon them, not knowing either whither to go or what to do, or, indeed, what they did; and many that did so were driven to dreadful exigencies and extremities, and perished in the streets or fields for mere want, or dropped down by the raging violence of the fever upon them. Others wandered into the country, and went forward any way, as their desperation guided them, not knowing whither they went or would go: till, faint and tired, and not getting any relief, the houses and villages on the road refusing to admit them to lodge whether infected or no, they have perished by the roadside or gotten into barns and died there, none daring to come to them or relieve them, though perhaps not infected, for nobody would believe them.

Lesson 3: The quacks reigned

The waganga were there too in Defoe’s London at that time. And they advertised their wares to the effect that they would treat the Bubonic plague or the “distemper” as Defoe keeps referring to it. Defoe writes:

On the other hand it is incredible and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An universal remedy for the plague.’ ‘The only true plague water.’ ‘The royal antidote against all kinds of infection’;–and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

Ironically, at the height of the distemper, these charlatans fled. The writer offers numerous examples of these kinds of adverts. Here’s another:

‘An experienced physician, who has long studied the doctrine of antidotes against all sorts of poison and infection, has, after forty years’ practice, arrived to such skill as may, with God’s blessing, direct persons how to prevent their being touched by any contagious distemper whatsoever. He directs the poor gratis.’

The poor died for relying on these to protect themselves. But we can only sympathise with their desperation. Defoe chillingly writes:

How the poor people found the insufficiency of those things, and how many of them were afterwards carried away in the dead-carts and thrown into the common graves of every parish with these hellish charms and trumpery hanging about their necks, remains to be spoken of as we go along.

Lesson 4: Be wary of calm waters, be very wary

There were periods when the plague killed many. The Bills of Mortality were high up there. Then there were times the deaths reduced, so much to the point that people got out of their houses and let their guard off. Many died. The lesson therefore it never to be deceived by the calmness of the sea.

Lesson 5: The dead carts

Despite the devastation, the dead were still buried in mass graves— at night. The dead carts would be pulled at night, collecting dead people from their houses. We can only empathize while reading the following lines:

This occasioned, that notwithstanding the infinite number of people which died and were sick, almost all together, yet they were always cleared away and carried off every night, so that it was never to be said of London that the living were not able to bury the dead.

Lesson 6: The Orders and what we can learn

Defoe shows us the Orders by the Lord Mayor titled Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London Concerning the Infection of the Plague, 1665. The Order provides for the appointment of examiners in every Parish, examiners, watchers, searchers, chirurgeons, nurse-keepers.

In the Orders, we encounter quarantine (and unrelated to this, we also had pest houses which could be the modern day quarantine facilities):

Sequestration of the Sick.

‘As soon as any man shall be found by this examiner, chirurgeon, or searcher to be sick of the plague, he shall the same night be sequestered in the same house; and in case he be so sequestered, then though he afterwards die not, the house wherein he sickened should be shut up for a month, after the use of the due preservatives taken by the rest.’

In the same Orders, we also encounter the shutting of houses command:

Shutting up of the House.

‘If any person shall have visited any man known to be infected of the plague, or entered willingly into any known infected house, being not allowed, the house wherein he inhabiteth shall be shut up for certain days by the examiner’s direction.’

Freedom of assembly is also curtailed. And the Orders are a tad harsh on beggars. Here’s how it is worded:


‘Forasmuch as nothing is more complained of than the multitude of rogues and wandering beggars that swarm in every place about the city, being a great cause of the spreading of the infection, and will not be avoided, notwithstanding any orders that have been given to the contrary: It is therefore now ordered, that such constables, and others whom this matter may any way concern, take special care that no wandering beggars be suffered in the streets of this city in any fashion or manner whatsoever, upon the penalty provided by the law, to be duly and severely executed upon them.’

Lesson 7: Charity to the Poor

It is heartwarming to read of the generosity of people towards the poor amid calamities. Perhaps we should take note of not ending the help so soon after a calamity.

Defoe captures it well in the following memorable words:

For it is to be observed, that though the occasions of relief and the objects of distress were very many more in the time of the violence of the plague than now after all was over, yet the distress of the poor was more now a great deal than it was then, because all the sluices of general charity were now shut. People supposed the main occasion to be over, and so stopped their hands; whereas particular objects were still very moving, and the distress of those that were poor was very great indeed.

Lesson 8: A toast to the health workers

Throughout history, doctors and nurses have always overcome great challenges to save a population on the precipice of decimation. And they have always paid the price with their lives.The clergy also deserve praise.

Defoe writes:

I only remember that there died sixteen clergymen, two aldermen, five physicians, thirteen surgeons, within the city and liberties before the beginning of September.

Lesson 9: A pandemic changes us for the better

A pandemic should change us for the better. It could be the simple things like a smile or handshake. A pandemic makes us human. How better can it get than this?

It is impossible to express the change that appeared in the very countenances of the people that Thursday morning when the weekly bill came out. It might have been perceived in their countenances that a secret surprise and smile of joy sat on everybody’s face. They shook one another by the hands in the streets, who would hardly go on the same side of the way with one another before. Where the streets were not too broad they would open their windows and call from one house to another, and ask how they did, and if they had heard the good news that the plague was abated. Some would return, when they said good news, and ask, ‘What good news?’ and when they answered that the plague was abated and the bills decreased almost two thousand, they would cry out, ‘God be praised I’ and would weep aloud for joy, telling them they had heard nothing of it; and such was the joy of the people that it was, as it were, life to them from the grave. I could almost set down as many extravagant things done in the excess of their joy as of their grief; but that would be to lessen the value of it.

You can read a free copy of the book on Project Gutenberg. You can also read a nice Guardian article on the book. And stay safe. We shall overcome.

Listen to the audio of this post here:

ayes & nays

Spread the love