— Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
We’re all in this together.
— frequent COVID-19 slogan
IN THE MIDST of the COVID-19 pandemic, in our search for information and solace, we have heard many discussions of the 1918 flu epidemic, the most consequential global pandemic of the 20th century. Certainly, that was a world before the internet and so many of our other ways of gathering both false and true matters of fact and feeling. But if that event seems long ago, how much in common do we have with an epidemic that occurred not only before the internet and social media, but also well before the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, film, and even in the childhood of the newspaper?
In 1720, the bubonic plague broke out in Marseille. It was, according to historians of disease, the last major outbreak in Europe. As a port city and a center of commerce, Marseille was particularly susceptible to infections from elsewhere and so already had in place procedures for health, including a quarantine system with three separate levels of scrutiny for incoming ships. Nevertheless, the plague claimed some 100,000 lives in the city and the surrounding area.
In 1722, with the news of the plague in Marseille still fresh, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year. But instead of dealing with the events in France, his “novel” focuses on the London outbreak of 1664–’65, in which the death toll has been variously estimated as between 70,000 and 200,000. I put “novel” in quotation marks because Plague Year, like Defoe’s other long prose works such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), presents itself as a first-person narrative written by an observer of and participant in the actual events recounted. The title page announces that the text was “[w]ritten by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London.” At the end of the book, the narrator signs himself “H. F.,” leading many later writers to conclude that this is meant to be an uncle of Defoe’s, Henry Foe, and that Plague Year may be based at least in part on his journal from the period (Defoe himself being five years old at the time).
Immersed as we are in a comparable situation, ransacking the historical and medical archives for ways to combat the virus and keep ourselves safe, what affinities might we have to H. F.’s journey through a far-off but sometimes very similar world?
H. F. writes at a time when newspapers themselves were an innovation, and, when they existed, tended to carry news of wars and politics rather than the cultural changes that signal the arrival of the plague. H. F. becomes aware that something potentially alarming is happening in London through two observations: the numerical rise in the weekly bills of mortality that record burials and the increasing crowds of people on the roads heading out of London.
Like a bystander in a Hitchcock film who is pulled into events by circumstances rather than by choice, H. F. at first is not particularly interested in being the chronicler of the plague. Instead, he feels torn between two warring impulses: to keep his saddle shop open and to survive (by leaving town). But, as the plague expands, “some accident or other” stands in his way every time he tries to leave. Finally, he gives in, believing at first that “Divine Power” wants him to stay (although his more religious brother laughs at him for thinking it is God’s will that he remain).
During his subsequent wanderings through plague-ridden London, H. F. accosts and interviews as many people as he can who have a theory of why the plague has come. Tremendous natural events, whether an epidemic of disease or an earthquake or a comet in the night sky, prompt a search for God’s meaning. And in a time of inhuman catastrophe, the God in question was most often not the New Testament God of mercy, but the Old Testament God of vengeance. Is God displeased with the immorality of Charles II’s court? Is He demanding the courtiers pray for forgiveness and mend their sinful ways? Unfortunately for that interpretation, the king and court, like so many other rich people, have left London and saved themselves, presumably learning no lasting lesson from their salvation. Have people died who scoffed at the idea that the plague is God’s punishment for a sinful society? Yes, but so have many believers.
Thus, H. F. backs into becoming the omnivorous recorder of the plague, scrutinizing the mortality tables, walking the empty streets, traveling to see the pits into which the dead are thrown, reprinting the orders of officials. Along the way, he also for a time becomes a reluctant city-sanctioned closer of infected houses — the more coercive 1665 equivalent of a “shelter in place” order. Generally, he tries to gather as much detail as he can, while keeping a measured and critical attitude toward the rumors and “true” stories he hears.
He particularly notices the overwhelming impact of the plague on the poor and working classes, and even enumerates which occupations are most impacted, from the artisans who can no longer maintain their shops to the midwives whose death toll may be the worst of all. With the absence of leadership at the highest levels of government, the response to the plague is taken over by town councilors, magistrates, and philanthropists.
As H. F. is caught personally between the desire to stay (and survive economically) and the urge to leave (and survive physically), he is also caught philosophically between his ambition to chronicle the plague as factually as possible and his belief that somehow the event is part of God’s plan. He considers the poor in particular to be foolishly fatalistic and denounces what he calls the “Turkish predestinarianism” of “Mahometans.” When a comet appears and is taken for a portent, he remarks that astronomers have shown the predictability of such events. Even so, he hankers at first for a global reason that, he believes, can only be expressed in religious terms. Like Houdini, who wanted to believe that the dead could be contacted through mediums but who often exposed frauds, H. F. applies whatever factual tests he can to the stories he hears. As the book continues, his urge to amass data becomes even stronger.
H. F.’s dilemma replicates a cultural change that was in progress in England in the same era: the growing distinction between religious accounts of experience and scientific explanations. Bringing together a previously informal group of scientists (then called natural philosophers), such as Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, Charles II chartered the Royal Society in 1660. In its Philosophical Transactions, which began to be issued in 1665, members in England and, increasingly, in other countries, wrote in to report on phenomena they had witnessed or investigated. To a modern eye, some of these accounts seem decidedly unscientific, like the report of strange human and animal births, while others, such as Robert Boyle’s gas laws and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s pioneering descriptions of microscopic creatures, herald a new age, when even supposed divine portents are subject to factual investigation.
H. F.’s careful accumulation of facts looks forward to modern epidemiology, but it would not be turned into a disciplined method until two centuries later, when the pioneering epidemiologist John Snow (not the one from Game of Thrones) traces a cholera outbreak in London to a well in Soho by plotting the incidence of death in the neighborhood.
Who knows what will be the lasting effect of our own experience with an invisible antagonist, whose devastation can hardly be called that of an enemy, no matter how many war metaphors the media and government throw at it? As William H. McNeill pointed out almost half a century ago in his groundbreaking study Plagues and Peoples (1976), truly successful diseases don’t kill their hosts; they become chronic. Unlike some human beings, viruses are great believers in evolution. The more deadly they are, the more they block their own ability to find another host to feed on.
What were the results of the bubonic plague outbreak of the mid-1660s? H. F., like the Royal Society, attempts to distinguish unique events (such as a divine omen) from events that are part of a pattern (like a natural law). Patterned events are subject to human investigation and, like Boyle’s gas laws, human formulation. So, which is the plague — God’s intervention into nature for mysterious reasons, or an aspect of nature not yet fully understood?
Just as abruptly as it began, the plague ends, and H. F. throws up his hands over the question of interpretation. Every effort to find God’s purpose in the plague is doomed to conclude in contradiction and confusion. Could it be that the social isolation of house-closing was a crucial factor in stopping the spread of the disease? Despite his own objections to quarantine, H. F. is unsure. Aside from noting that few seemed to have learned anything morally or religiously from the experience, the only message he can come up with is a “coarse but sincere stanza of my own”:
A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!
Personal survival may be the ultimate bottom line of H. F.’s experience of the plague. But it is intriguing to speculate how the cultural encounter with an invisible enemy, at a time of growing awareness of the patterns of nature, could have an impact on understanding the world in general. Of late, to encourage us not to waste our enforced time at home, it has occasionally been pointed out that Isaac Newton, then a Cambridge student in his 20s, spent the isolation of the plague first developing, among other researches, his thoughts about the nature of gravity. Were there invisible forces in the universe that, unlike divine interventions, could be observed by their effect, measured and theorized? The effort to interpret religiously the motivations of invisible forces is doomed to founder on the inability of man to know God. But if God is removed from the equation, patterns may emerge, whether in nature or society, that are therefore accessible to human understanding.
Defoe subtitled Journal of the Plague Year “Observations or memorials, of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London, during the last great visitation in 1665.” “As well public as private”: the pandemic of our own time has again brought to the fore the links between our individual lives, our government, and our environment. It is no coincidence that a leader like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is a COVID-19 denier as well as an active destroyer of the rainforests.
In the 17th century, the political ideology of the nation-state was just forming, with England in the lead. Defoe, like later 18th-century writers, believed that trade was a way out of incessant war. In our own time, the conflict politically and economically is often between a nostalgic and often virulent nationalism and the increasing bonds that tie our world together. The human race is the foundation of globalization. Will the virus bring in its wake an increased sense of how to enhance the virtues and lessen the problems of our interconnectedness? Only time will tell.
Leo Braudy is a professor of English and History at the University of Southern California.