The Great Plague

In 1665, another plague hit London. It was very serious and had a big impact on society and public health. This plague killed an estimated 1 in 5 people living in London, amounting to around 100,000 people. Many cures and preventative measures were tried, ranging from the quarantine of plague victims to using live animals to draw out the disease!

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Table of contents

    What were the causes and the symptoms of the plague and why was it considered great? Read on to find out!

    The Causes of the Great Plague

    The Great Plague was caused by the bacteria called yersinia pestis, which was carried by fleas. It spread very quickly in the unhygienic conditions of Early Modern London, where the streets were dirty, and people lived very close together.

    Fleas were very common and were abundant on household animals like cats and dogs. Rats, in particular, were carriers of the plague not just around cities but also travelled easily on ships.

    Early Modern Theories

    Unfortunately, the lack of medical advancement in this era meant that people still had no idea what really caused the plague.

    Most people believed that the plague was caused by miasma.

    Miasma Theory

    The notion is that decaying matter from animal or human remains releases poisonous gases into the air which would make the air bad, carry disease and make people ill. It is believed to have originated in ancient China and was advanced by the Greek physician Hippocrates.

    This theory was strengthened by the fact that the plague happened in summer - they believed miasma was made worse by warm weather. The belief influenced the cures and preventative measures taken to try and stop the plague.

    The Great Plague Flea StudySmarterFig. 1 - A flea such as this would have spread the plague around 17th-century London

    The Great Plague Symptoms

    The most common symptoms of the plague were:

    • Headache.
    • Fever.
    • Weakness.
    • Swollen lymph nodes, known as Buboes.
    • Coughing blood.
    • Vomiting.
    • Light intolerance.
    • Dizziness.

    Overall, it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience and often proved fatal!

    Cures and Preventative Measures

    Given the lack of a concrete germ theory during this period, there were various cures and preventative measures based mainly on the miasma concept.

    Cures

    Let's examine the cures first.

    Sweating Out

    One such cure was to 'sweat out' the disease. Essentially, the victims would be wrapped up in layers and layers of clothing or blankets so that they would sweat. It was thought that the disease-causing miasma would leave the body within the sweat and therefore cure the person.

    Plague Water

    Plague water was a mixture of wine and herbs that was thought to be able to cure the plague. It contained around 22 herbs, including sage, rue, and sorrel. The herbs were steeped in white wine and brandy, then the mixture was distilled and bottled.

    Antibacterial

    Able to halt the growth of bacteria.

    Whilst the alcohol in the mixture might have had some antibacterial effects, it is unlikely they had any real impact on the survival or recovery of a plague victim.

    Transference

    The theory of miasma meant that people thought that disease could enter through the skin as well as be breathed in. Therefore, it made sense to them that the disease could be removed through the skin. This led to a rather innovative new cure that involved strapping live animals, usually chickens, to the plague buboes in the hope that the disease would transfer to the different living creatures.

    Needless to say, this was not very effective!

    Prevention

    People realised that trying to cure the plague was generally quite hopeless. Therefore, they took measures to ensure they never caught it in the first place.

    The rich were able to leave the city and go to the countryside to escape the infection, but most people could not afford to do this.

    Did you know? King Charles II resided in Oxford during the Great Plague to avoid crowds and infection.

    People hung herbs around their homes to stop the miasma from entering and kept fires burning to try and clean the air.

    Doctors also recommended smoking as a way to prevent the plague as they thought the strong smell would 'scare away' the miasma.

    Interestingly, syphilis, a very common sexually transmitted infection, also caused buboes on the skin, so people thought the two were related. From this, they thought that catching syphilis would stop you from catching the plague!

    Eyam

    During the Great Plague, the community of the town of Eyam, in Derbyshire, made a huge sacrifice. When the plague entered their village, they chose to isolate themselves from the rest of the country - no one left the village. This was because they wanted to try and stop the spread of the plague.

    The Great Plague Plague grave StudySmarterFig. 2 - A plague grave in the village of Eyam, Derbyshire

    It was grim. Many families were wiped out, and others would leave only one member behind who was then forced to bury their loved ones. 260 villagers died - this was a huge amount for a village so small.

    However, to this day the sacrifice of the villagers of Eyam is remembered. There is a museum that tells the story and markers outside the houses to show where families lived and died.

    Government Intervention

    One aspect of this outbreak of the plague that makes it stand out was the fact that the government played a big role in trying to stop the spread of the plague. Previously, governments had barely intervened in matters of public health.

    Charles II' Instructions

    The king at the time of the plague was Charles II. He actually issued advice that people should follow to avoid the plague. This advice included:

    • The introduction of quarantine for infected people.
    • The banning of large gatherings of people (e.g. in theatres).
    • No rotting food was to be left on the streets.
    • The placing of fires in streets to clear miasma.
    • Poor relief for infected villages.
    • No stranger was allowed to enter a home without a certificate of health.
    • Only a minimal number of alehouses were allowed to remain open.

    If you think about it, this measure is similar to modern coronavirus advice.

    That the Laws against Inn-Mates be forthwith put in strict execution, and that no more Alehouses be Licensed then are absolutely necessary in each City or place, especially during the continuance of this present Contagion.1

    - An extract from Charles II's Rules and Orders for the prevention of the plague.

    Culling of Animals

    Another of the government's orders was that certain animals should be culled to try and stop the spread of the disease.

    Cull

    Selectively killing infected animals to avoid the spread of bacteria.

    Although they didn't understand the full truth of how the plague was caused and how it spread, they knew that animals were dirty and could carry miasma. A similar phenomenon has occurred in the modern day with mad cow disease and government-sanctioned culling campaigns.

    Cats and dogs were the focus of the cull. An estimated 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were culled to try and prevent the spread of the plague.

    The Impact of the Great Plague

    The Great Plague ended up taking the lives of 15-20% of London's population. There were around 69,000 recorded deaths although experts believe that this figure was actually closer to 100,000. It had been swift and deadly in its impact, only lasting around a year.

    Ending of the Great Plague

    The outbreak was brought under control by another devastating event in 1666 - the Great Fire of London.

    However, the rebuilding of London after the fire had an inadvertent effect on public health. Streets were made wider and houses were built further apart. Now, people were not living so close together, so the disease could not spread so quickly.

    Equally, houses started to be built out of bricks, rather than wood, which meant that they were better insulated (warmer) and so kept people healthier.

    The Great Plague Tankard depicting the Great Plague StudySmarterFig. 3 - Tankard depicting the Great Plague

    The Great Plague: Summary

    In many ways, the response to the Great Plague and other plagues of the seventeenth century heralded a modern governmental response. The situation was viewed as serious, even by the king who moved to Oxford, despite the lack of concrete medical knowledge. Measures including culling underline this notion. The diligence with which the authorities responded is certainly comparable to modern pandemics, even considering the more extreme method detailed below.

    There was hope for a cure of sorts, in the form of fumigation. It was a mix of vaccination and test and trace. A presumed ‘expert’ in fumigation, James Angier, was allowed by the Privy Council to experiment with setting fires in the streets, to burn out the pestilence.2

    - Justin Hardy, 'Lockdown Cultures', 2022

    There are also parallels to be drawn with how the elite behaved, given the fleeing from the city and the comparable breaking of rules by Boris Johnson's government. The financial element is also interesting, although quarantines were portrayed as life-saving, they resulted in the needy being unable to work. There was no furlough scheme and the most vulnerable had to rely on their parish for food and medicine.

    The Great Plague - Key takeaways

    • The Great Plague spread throughout London in 1665. It was caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis, and was spread by fleas on animals such as rats, cats, and dogs.
    • People tried many things to cure the plague - herbal remedies, sweating out, and transference were all popular.
    • People preferred to try and prevent the plague - fires burned in the streets, people hung herbs in their homes - if they could afford it, people left the city.
    • The level of government intervention was unprecedented - the King himself issued instructions to deal with the plague, and there was a government-mandated animal cull.
    • The outbreak was eventually stopped by the Great Fire of London in 1666. The rebuilding meant that the city became a healthier and more hygienic place to live.

    References

    1. Charles II quoted by Walter George Bell, The Great Plague in London in 1665 (1951), pp. 334.
    2. Justin Hardy, 'The Great Plague: London's Dreaded Visitation (1665)', Lockdown Cultures (2022), pp. 163-169.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Great Plague

    What was the Great Plague?

    The Great Plague was a large outbreak of plague in London in 1665 carried by fleas.

    When was the Great Plague?

    The Great Plague occurred from 1665-1666.

    What was the impact of the Great Plague?

    During the Great Plague between 15-20% of London's population lost their lives. 

    What was the cause of the Great Plague?

    The Great Plague was caused by animal carriers of fleas including cats, dogs and rats.

    How did the Great Plague end?

    The Great Plague ended due to the Great Fire of London in 1666. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was a possible benefit of plague water?

    People strapped live animals, including chickens, to buboes.

    The Great Fire was beneficial for the ending of the Great Plague.

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