6.5. The year 1666: the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London


It is strange that in the first part of the Middle Ages historical documents said nothing about apocalyptic manifestations related to the year 666, but there were fears related to 1666. The year 1666 is no more apocalyptic than the year 666, although it might be seen as the sum between the Millennium (1,000) and the number of the Beast (666). The similarity between the year 1666 and the number of the Antichrist was obvious, but it came in contradiction with the apostle’s words: “here is wisdom”; there was nothing wise in looking in the calendar and seeing that the year 1666 was approaching.753 And yet, as a strange coincidence, the year 1666 hosted three major apocalyptic manifestations, independent of each other: in Asia Minor, the Jew Sabbatai Zevi reached the apex of his messianic career;754 in Russia, the reform of the Orthodox Church broke the community of believers in two, leading to antichristical slanders and a long civil war;755 and in England the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London created a hellish atmosphere.

Same as in the 14th century, the havoc of the plague represented God’s tangible and immediate fury. The years 1665-1667 were years of horror for the Londoners. The writings of the time portray a terrifying picture of the society affected by this ruthless disease. Although it is considered to be a work of fiction, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year from 1722 is based on a solid documentation and describes in great detail the physical and mental effects the plague had had upon the citizens.

The plague struck London in the worst possible moment, when it was most crowded. After the restoration of the monarchy, the capital city was invaded by craftsmen and traders keen to make money; Defoe compared it with Jerusalem full of Jews before it was besieged by the Romans on Passover.756 The impact was swift: from tens of deceased per day, after the coming of the spring warmth the number increased to a couple of hundreds.757 Precautionary measures were taken, most of them completely useless: letters and coins were sprayed with vinegar, purifying fires were started at crossroads, the houses were “disinfected” with perfumes and brimstone, or some citizens walked on the street with a mask shaped as a bird beak, filled with spices and aromatic herbs to alleviate the stench. According to a medieval preconception, the plague was being spread by birds and insects. In reality, the narrow and insalubrious streets became deadly traps.758

The authorities instituted public days of prayer and fast in order to temper God’s wrath. Theaters were banned from June 1665 until December 1666. Games, feasts and other meetings were interrupted as well.759 Some measures, however, were totally wrong: cats and dogs began to be killed because they were thought responsible for spreading the plague or they were considered to be disguised witches. In this way the rats, which were carrying in their fur the fleas with plague, multiplied even more, which led to the intensification of the pestilence.760 The remedies prescribed were primitive and the patients were uselessly tortured. The doctors thought that they could overcome the disease if they managed to cauterize the purulent swellings (buboes) and the recalcitrant tumors. Some buboes were so hard that they were opened with an instrument, many patients dying raving mad because of the pain.761

The epidemic had a devastating psychological effect on the survivors. Everywhere reigned concern and the cries were heard continuously. Despair and fear altered human reason, bringing the population to a state of semi-savagery. The stench reminded those alive that death was one step away and everyone wondered when his turn would come. The citizens thronged to escape the unsanitary congested cities or crowded into churches. Approximately 200,000 people left London wandering in the surrounding forests, without shelter, food and water, only with their clothes on them. In the rural zones food and accommodation prices became exorbitant, raised by peasants eager to get wealthy. The royal family also fled seeking refuge in Oxfordshire.762 Generally, people thought that the best solution for the plague it was to run out of its way:763

nothing was to be seen but waggons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children … all loaded with baggage and fitted out for travelling, as any one might perceive by their appearance. This was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and as it was a sight which I could not look on from morning to night … it filled me with very serious thoughts of that misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it.764

Those who remained acted as if they were under siege: they barricaded themselves in houses, nailed the windows and the doors and tried to resist isolated from the rest of the world. If one of the family members got sick, he was quickly isolated; when he died, the body was extracted through the window with ropes, from where he was taken with some hangers, put into a cart and transported to mass graves. The number of deaths increased so much that funeral services were totally abandoned. The dead were simply collected from the streets like garbage and thrown into the grave without any other ceremony. Scenes of horrifying cruelty were happening, as if they were taken from another dimension:

the cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rugs, some little other than naked, or so loose, that what covering they had fell from them, in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to anyone else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together;765

People were desperately searching for explanations for what was happening to them, and in this way the plague filled the pockets of the mystics:

the fears of the people were young, they were increased strangely by several odd accidents, which put altogether, it was really a wonder the whole body of the people did not rise as one man and abandon their dwellings, leaving the place as a space of ground designed by heaven for an Akeldama766, doomed to be destroyed from the face of the earth, and that all that would be found in it would perish with it. I shall name but a few of these things; but sure they were so many, and so many wizards and cunning people propagating them, that I have often wondered there was any (women especially) left behind. In the first place, a blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did, the year after, another, … one foretold a heavy judgment, slow but severe, terrible, and frightful, as was the plague. But the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery, as was the conflagration … The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times, in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies, and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales, than ever they were before or since: whether this unhappy temper was originally raised by the follies of some people who got money by it, that is to say, by printing predictions and prognostications, I know not, but certain it is, books frighted them terribly; such as Lily’s “Almanack,”767 Gadbury’s “Astrological Predictions,” “Poor Robin’s Almanack,” and the like; also several pretended religious books, one entitled, “Come out of Her, my People, lest ye be Partaker of her Plagues;” another called, “Fair Warning;” another, “Britain’s Remembrancer,” and many such; all, or most part of which, foretold, directly or covertly, the ruin of the city;768 … To this, as I said before, the astrologers added stories of the conjunctions of planets in a malignant manner and with a mischievous influence, one of which conjunctions was to happen, and did happen, in October, and the other in November; and they filled the people’s heads with predictions on these signs of the heavens, intimating that those conjunctions foretold drought, famine, and pestilence.769

Defoe depicts the astrologers and the doctors (quacks) as thieves who were afraid of nothing to empty the pockets of the naive by promising false cures. Later, after the plague passed away, he noticed with satisfaction that all the fortune-tellers perished, interpreting this fact as the result of divine justice.770

The plague was an invisible enemy, completely misunderstood from a scientific point of view. In the works of that period the plague was transposed as a fire of arrows thrown by God upon the sinners, or as an angry angel on the clouds with a sword of fire, like the warrior angels of the Apocalypse. Another image depicted a baby clung on the frozen breast of his mother’s corpse, while Death was personified and portrayed as a skeleton that gallops over the corpses. Terrified, the people were seeing signs, visions and apparitions everywhere:

Next to these public things were the dreams of old women; or, I should say, the interpretation of old women upon other people’s dreams; and these put abundance of people even out of their wits. Some heard voices warning them to be gone, for that there would be such a plague in London so that the living would not be able to bury the dead; others saw apparitions in the air, and I must be allowed to say of both, I hope without breach of charity, that they heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appeared; but the imagination of the people was really turned wayward and possessed; and no wonder if they who were poring continually at the clouds, saw shapes and figures, representations and appearances, which had nothing in them but air and vapour. Here they told us they saw a flaming sword held in a hand, coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city. There they saw hearses and coffins in the air carrying to be buried. And there again, heaps of dead bodies lying unburied and the like; just as the imagination of the poor terrified people furnished them with matter to work upon. … “Yes! I see it all plainly,” says one; “there’s the sword as plain as can be;” another saw the angel; one saw his very face, and cried out,” What a glorious creature he was!” One saw one thing, and one another. I looked as earnestly as the rest, but … I said, indeed, that I could see nothing but a white cloud, bright on one side, by the shining of the sun upon the other part. … she turned to me, called me profane fellow, and a scoffer, told me that it was a time of God’s anger, and dreadful judgments were approaching, and that despisers, such as I, should wander and perish.771

There was also a desperate search for scapegoats; foreigners, travelers, lepers and especially the Jews were accused of spreading the plague. All over Europe pogroms and witch hunts erupted. In any situation of extreme crisis human authority loses its powers. For the religious dissidents this was a good opportunity for revenge; they pointed without fear toward the throne of Charles II and claimed that the plague was God’s punishment for the restoration of the monarchy. From the “people of God” during the Interregnum, the English people were now experiencing the Egyptian plagues.772 The Black Plague was believed to be only the beginning of the end, and the hard part was about to come. The calamity was attributed to the vicious character of the people, especially the debaucheries of the monarchy: “any should have hearts so hardened, in the midst of such calamity, as to rob and steal; yet certain it is that all sorts of villanies, and even levities and debaucheries, were then practiced in the town, as openly as ever.”773 By contrast, some people sought in vain God’s mercy openly confessing their crimes:

Many a robbery, many a murder, was then confessed aloud, and nobody surviving to record the accounts of it. People might be heard, even into the streets as we passed along, calling upon God for mercy, through Jesus Christ, and saying, “I have been a thief,” “I have been an adulterer,” “I have been a murderer,” and the like, and none durst stop to make the least inquiry into such things or to administer comfort to the poor creatures, that in the anguish both of soul and body thus cried out.774

Others lived liberating experiences; while he was …

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