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The Great Plague:

A People's History

Evelyn Lord

(London Times)

The plague first came to Cambridge like an ogre from a fairy tale, snatching the children off the streets. First, five-year-old John Morley developed black spots on his chest, and died. Then his little brother sickened, and died too. A teenaged shoe-maker's apprentice scratched at a red patch on his arm: two days later he was dead. Then the adults began to succumb. In the two years from July 1665, Cambridge lost 12 per cent of its population. People were afraid to go to the market, to draw water, to let their children outside to play. For most of two academic years the colleges were closed, their high walls enclosing silent buildings, cold hearths and shuttered halls.

Evelyn Lord gives a microcosmic, local account of the country-wide calamity, basing it on the most laconic of witnesses. She has drawn on parish registers bearing notice after notice of burials by which the registrar had inked a black cross, denoting a plague victim. She studies 17th-century maps. The records of the hearth tax allow her to estimate the size of houses. She draws on bills of mortality and on the archives of the Overseers of the Poor. She quotes from wills and probate inventories that list the possessions, in most cases pitifully scant, of those who hastily set their worldly affairs in order while awaiting their imminent deaths. These are unemotive, factual sources: using them, Lord gives us an account not of how it felt to live (or fail to live) through this collective ordeal, but simply of what happened, when, where and to whom.

She begins with a minutely detailed account of the physical realities of 17th-century life. The smells of unwashed people. The food (meat, cheese and bread for the rich; pottage - a kind of barley porridge - for the poor; no vegetables to speak of). The trades, the making of leather leggings or felt hats. The common ailments and their remedies: chilblains, which were slashed with holly to make them bleed; mothers sewing their babies into winter vests coated with fat, to protect them from the bitter cold.

Then came the plague. It was very hot. There were flies and ants everywhere, and dead rats on the river banks. People began to die. In the absence of any cure, the College of Physicians suggested preventive measures, "prayer and repentance" being - in their undoubtedly correct opinion - at least as efficacious as the infusions and scented pomanders that were the only other precautions they could recommend.

Once the 'searchers' had diagnosed a case of plague, the afflicted person's house was boarded up, its walls were daubed with the red cross, and a watchman was posted to ensure none of its inhabitants could escape. Doors were unbarred so that corpses could be passed out to the dead-cart, and then nailed up again until five weeks had passed since the last death. Even at the time there was doubt about these measures. The apothecary William Boghurst judged that the shutting up of the healthy with the sick amounted to murder.

All of this is familiar from other histories of the plague, but Lord's account gives us an unusually precise vision. She can make us feel the extra horror of being immured in a crowded one-room hovel. People went mad, banging around in their tiny prisons. A glazier and his wife had to watch four of their children die. Another couple died first, leaving their small children shut up in the infected house. Neighbours saw the little ones staring out of the window, until they too died.

The wills and inventories listed by Lord are quietly evocative. We cannot enter these people's minds but we know what their eyes rested on - the wooden platters, the feather-stuffed mattresses laid on rope-bound bedsteads, the pewter jugs. These inanimate things help to conjure the human reality behind the dry language of official records. 'Despite his protests, Nathaniel was taken to the pest-house, where he died.' This sentence is the more terrible for Lord's precise description of the 'pest-house', a compound of wattle-and-daub sheds on Jesus Green, surrounded by a stout fence, closed by a heavy locked door. A contemporary called it a 'Slaughter house for Mankind'.

Henry More, a tutor at Christ's College, wrote in January 1663 that the primroses and violets were blooming unseasonably early, and that the sky was full of fiery meteors: 'I wish these be not the forerunners of some greater Mortality'. Lord quotes him, but her own approach is neither flowery nor starry. In the midst of horror she keeps her hold on the practical. Her attention shifts to a weaver's family. She treats us to a brief description of the production of 'say' cloth (a wool-silk mix) before going on to recount how the weaver's wife and youngest daughter complained of being bitten by fleas from the wool they were combing, and how soon thereafter they died.

This is a book of lists. Lists of things, lists of houses, lists of stricken human beings. It is likely to be more appreciated by Lord's fellow historians than by general readers. It is a salutary reminder, though, that history is made up of small things, and of how much such things matter. In desperate times a dish of milk passed through a window by a charitable neighbour feels as momentous as divine mercy.

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