A Tale of Two Plagues

A Tale of Two Plagues

Tips on self-isolation from Daniel Defoe and Giovanni Boccaccio


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.

Are you looking around for home entertainment now that you can’t go out? The other night, we watched Contagion, a really exciting (that is, stressful and upsetting) movie from way back in 2011 in which a pandemic kills millions of people but is ultimately defeated by a black guy, a Jewish guy, and the three most beautiful women in the world. Social distancing is mentioned as the best protection, by the way, so you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Mostly, though, I’ve been catching up on the classics. For example, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, an early example of the nonfiction novel, written in 1722 about London’s Great Plague of 1665. After a slow start—the novel begins with a lot of statistics to establish its factual reliability—it picks up, as Defoe’s narrator, H.F., a prosperous saddlemaker, misses his chances to leave London and finds himself trapped in town, where he alternates between prudent isolation indoors and restless wanderings through the streets.

Like so many of us, H.F. is a ditherer. Should he stay or should he go? Stock up or wait and see? By the time he decides to get in a good supply of provisions, the butchers are dead, and the country people who bring vegetables to market have withdrawn from the center of town. You might think you have it tough with the long lines at Trader Joe’s, but he and his household must manage on bread, butter, cheese, and home-brewed beer.

It’s pleasant, in these scary times, to be reminded that things could be worse. A lot worse. Instead of the coronavirus, which almost all sufferers survive, we could have the Black Death, which was far more fatal. In the 14th century, it killed roughly one-third of Europe’s population, and in 1665 about one in five Londoners succumbed. Forget about Purell or nitrile gloves or Clorox wipes or even enough hot water and soap to wash your hands a dozen times a day. The already vast numbers of poor people living in squalid housing or on the street were augmented by workers, especially servants, turned out of their jobs as the plague took hold. (Speaking of which, please remember to pay your household workers—cleaners, dog walkers, nannies, etc.—even if you aren’t using their services because you are home.)

In Defoe’s time, as in our own, the poor suffered most and charity could not keep up. Medical treatments were useless and often excruciating. Public health measures were simple and harsh. Besides attempting to exterminate mice and rats, London’s lord mayor ordered the killing of all dogs and cats. The pesthouses and the graveyards couldn’t keep up, either. In one particularly harrowing scene, H.F. ventures out to watch bodies being tumbled into an enormous, newly dug trench by night.

If one person in a household showed signs of the disease, all the people in it were quarantined for a month, possibly condemning them to death, with watchmen guarding the door 24 hours a day. But the quarantines weren’t very effective. Defoe argues they were even counterproductive. Watchmen could be tricked or bribed; between the death of someone in the house and the arrival of the authorities, people had time to run away and did, possibly spreading the disease.

Defoe’s novel shows how far we’ve come medically, scientifically, and technologically, as well as in terms of our collective ability to manage emergencies. But it also shows, if you needed more proof, that people haven’t changed. Quacks and miracle cures, which flourished during the plague, are still with us, despite our far higher levels of education and the existence of real medicine. (Crystals, anyone? Anti-vaxxers? Homeopathy?) In Contagion a blogger pretending to be a crusading journalist makes millions decrying the mainstream media and promoting a bogus cure. Today he’d have his own show on Fox News. At least Defoe’s Londoners could say they simply didn’t have the requisite knowledge or social capacity to combat the plague; given their limits, they did their best. But what’s Trump’s excuse for fumbling and denial in the critical early phase of Covid-19?

Defoe’s narrator was ahead of us in another crucial way: He resists the popular idea that the plague was God’s judgment on the unrighteous, noting that good and bad people were equally likely to be struck down. He was smarter than today’s fundamentalists who blame disasters on gays, feminists, and liberals—to say nothing of Trumpies who believe the coronavirus is a Democratic hoax or Rush Limbaugh, who told his millions of listeners that it’s called Covid-19 because it’s the 19th coronavirus, thus obviously something that happens all the time. (In fact, 19 stands for 2019, the year Covid-19 began.)

The fecklessness and selfishness of the rich is another human constant. Defoe mentions that the king and queen fled to Oxford, where the court continued its hedonistic and profligate ways. To be fair, the king reportedly donated £1,000 a week, which was real money back then, to relieve London’s sick and poor. Today’s aristocrats are just as egotistical but arguably less charitable: They’re flying on private jets to their homes in supposedly safer countries, hunkering down in military-style bunkers.

They’re definitely not having as much fun as the wealthy young people in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, who escaped the 1348 plague by holing up in the Florentine countryside, flirting and telling sexy stories. Even if you don’t possess a charming Italian villa and are stuck with your children in your too-small apartment, you can take a leaf from Boccaccio. You’ll get depressed if you let yourself go, so keep your standards up. Wear your pretty clothes. (I’ve got my purple Rothy’s flats on.) Drink and eat delicious things, go for walks, play music and games, keep up your friendships, real and virtual.

And wouldn’t it be great to come out of this time with something to show for it besides an encyclopedic knowledge of crap TV? Why not try to write or paint or draw something or read some challenging books?

The Decameron is over 800 pages long, so if you start now, you’ll have plenty of time to finish it before life goes back to normal. If it ever does.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy