We usually keep the frugal holiday gift giving approach of four gifts per person: something you need, something to read, something to eat and something you want.

For my “something to read” item I usually request some book to totally geek out on. One year, I requested, received and thoroughly enjoyed a book called Salt: A world history.

A Journal of the Plague Year

About three years ago I asked for and received a book by Daniel Defoe (better known for his book “Robin Crusoe”)  called “A Journal of the Plaque Year”.  Defoe was born in 1660 in England and his book is written in the dialect of that era.  Because of the old English writing style, it was a slow read and I just finished the small book this past fall. 

Defoe, a journalist, wrote this book in 1722 a full two hundred years before antibiotics were invented. He had access to the stories of those who experienced The Great Plaque of London[1] in 1665-1666, facts in figures in the public record and his own observations of the 1720-1721 Great Plague of Marseille[2]. He admittedly took creative liberties writing the book to write in the first person style that made him famous (and paid) during that time. 

And while I am not comparing Coronavirus to the horror of the middle age plagues where many people  “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.” there may be some broad generalizations that are similar in terms of behaviors. 

Five Take Aways

Specifically, five observations stood out from his telling. Hopefully none of them come to pass during our current novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Here is my list: 

  1. Londoners generally thought it was the bad air because summer was worse. 
  2. People generally ignored the threat when it was in another borough or even one street over. They only adjusted their behaviors when illness reached their street. 
  3. Constables would bar the ill from leaving their homes.
  4. When the illness rates dropped down, the population would return back to normal patterns or return to town, sparking second waves of transmission.
  5. Social norms and property rights became much more lax than before the plague. Example: “Minister did Visit the Sick at first and for a little while, but it was not to be done”[3]

I found these take aways helpful when I first heard the news of a possible pandemic and it caused us to stay home sooner than many to protect the more vulnerable members of our population.

Be well. 


[1] “Great Plague of London.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 16, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Plague_of_London.

[2] “Great Plague of Marseille.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 21, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Plague_of_Marseille.

[3] Defoe, Daniel, and David J. Johnson. A Journal of the Plague Year. London: Penguin Classics London: , 2003, (First published in 1722)

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