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Revisiting the plague of 1665-1666 in Cambridge

I’ve just finished reading Evelyn Lord, The Great Plague: a people’s history, Yale UP, 2014, 173 pp. and much enjoyed it – though ‘enjoyed’ feels the wrong word to use as I had to tone down my empathetic imagination to avoid getting too caught up in the experiences of families wiped out or torn apart by disease. The focus is on the single town of Cambridge and how its people were affected by an outbreak of plague best known for its impact on London and the descriptions by Pepys and Defoe.

I must admit I was sold on the book after reading the preface in which the author recounts approvingly how one of her students burst into tears after completing her dissertation “and on being asked what was the matter, she replied ‘They are all dead now,’ ‘they’ being her dissertation families. When her husband pointed out that they had been dead for hundreds of years, she replied ‘But they were alive to me.’”

Now that’s an approach to history I can identify with. I have that sort of relationship with any number of people from the fifteenth century!

Evelyn Lord brings us closer to the people of Cambridge by telling ‘the story through the sources, but invents “situations and dialogue and employs techniques reminiscent of docudrama.’” In practice such scenes are short and have a light touch and there’s a full supporting apparatus of footnotes so the result is far more ‘history’ than fiction.

For anyone who teaches ‘Medicine’ much of the general material will be familiar – ideas about the causes of plague, how the local authorities dealt with the sick and the dead – so it was the broader context of the plague outbreak I found most interesting. These included the impact of plague on employment, trade and local industry, the silence in the streets, the terrible sense of foreboding that must have arisen when plague returned in March 1666 when it appeared to have died out in December 65.

One of the successes of the book was to make me realise that I have no concept of what it must be like to live in a society grinding to a near halt because of the outbreak of disease, social life dislocated, food supplies dwindling, communications kept to a minimum. The only echoes I have are from a distant childhood memory of the polio outbreaks of the 1950s and the fear of being consigned to an ‘iron lung’. That fear is the nearest I can get to that 17th century experience of being boarded up in your home after the sickening members of your family had been taken off to the pest house.

No wonder people were generous when appealed to for help. In 1630-31 a letter was read out in churches all over England seeking collections for the poor of Cambridge who were suffering a severe outbreak of plague. £20 was collected in Leicester £57 St. Neots and £100 in Essex – £2739 overall, perhaps over £200,000 today. Maybe that generosity is a point of contact between generations nearly 400 years apart though it has to be set against the eternal tendency to blame foreigners and the poor for problems such as the spread of plague. In the 1660s The Newes wrote ‘the plague is in the sluttish parts of the parish where the poor are crowded together, and the multitude infect one another’. The author’s evidence shows that the families of tradesmen and craftsmen also died in large numbers but when did evidence ever stop newspapers following their prejudices?

So if you teach GCSE ‘Medicine’ this book provides a compelling case-study and exemplars but it’s also a straightforwardly good and interesting history book – worth reading whatever you teach.

See the book on Amazon The Great Plague: A People’s History

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