The full title of this book is The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. And boy, is that some truth in advertising. For those not aware, in 1665 — the year before central London burned down in the Great Fire — approximately one hundred thousand of the London metropolis’ five hundred thousand inhabitants died in a horrifying plague epidemic. At the height of the outbreak, the week of September 12th-19th, between one and two thousand people were dying every day.
Not cheerful stuff, but very, very interesting. And I can’t imagine a better pair of people to write about it than this husband-and-wife team. A. Lloyd Moote is a political historian with a seventeenth-century focus whose interests eventually broadened to include socio-cultural history; Dorothy C. Moote is a microbiologist with a special interest in disease epidemics. Is that perfect or what?
Even better is the approach they took. The epilogue describes the eventual disappearance of bubonic plague from Europe (but its persistence in Asia), through the early days of microbiology and the discovery of the Yersinia pestis that causes the plague, to modern scientific interpretation of just what was going on in the various plague pandemics broadly and the 1665 outbreak specifically. But that’s the epilogue: for the body of the book, while they apply historical methods to understanding the events of 1665, they restrict their medical discussion to the views and understandings of the period. Which is exactly what I need. I like knowing the modern explanation, but I’m glad I don’t have to strip it out to write from the contemporary perspective.
The book isn’t flawless. It somewhat awkwardly combines a chronological approach with a topic-centered one, dropping in discussions of the medical community’s response or the crash of London’s economy at the points in the plague’s progress that they seem most relevant. (The economy, for example, gets its moment in the spotlight around the description of October, when it hit its nadir.) Possibly as a consequence, it tends to repeat certain things in places, like telling me about how John Allin in St. Olave Southwark was a dissenting minister, or the Guildhall manipulated economic mechanisms to try and keep parish relief afloat, or Pepys was profiteering off his naval contracts in a kind of despicable way while a third of the population that didn’t or couldn’t flee the city dropped dead around him. (He started the year with £1300 in net worth, and ended with £4400, and very proud he was of it, too.) I also could have used more attempt to recreate the experience of living in London while everything fell apart, though I recognize that such descriptions weren’t really what the Mootes were aiming for. Defoe, I assume, will be the place to look for that. But overall, very good indeed.
Four more books arrived today. The research marathon has begun . . . .