On a cold, smoky night in London in December 1664, a comet streaked across the sky, leaving many nervous witnesses. It was not the only comet to flash by in a short period of time. In 1665 another comet would dazzle the London sky (1). The superstitious and devoutly Protestant society of the time took this to mean that misfortune was imminent. Early English historical events seem to have a tradition of being announced by the presence of comets and other astrological phenomena, such as the 1066 Battle of Hastings supposedly having been forewarned by Halley’s comet (2). Now in 1665, the astronomer John Gadbury, wrote a pamphlet “De Cometis”. In this, he interpreted the appearance of the comet by linking it to the zodiacal constellation as a warning of scandal and persecution (3). What seemed to have escaped his reading of the astrological event was that a plague was on the horizon for Londoners. Whilst the astrological events at great distances from planet Earth may well have been a coincidence, the fact remains that the society of the time felt this was a direct warning from God. The Great Plague of London was the last outbreak of the Bubonic Plague pandemic, and it saw nearly a quarter of the city’s population perish (4).
Cause of the Great Plague
On September 8, 2016, the Yersinia Pestis bacterium was identified to be the cause of the Great Plague of London. Tests on DNA from the teeth of skeletons found at a building site proved that this bacterium caused the centuries-long Bubonic Plague (5). Carried to London via rat fleas aboard trading ships, the disease quickly festered in the London slums where hygiene was scarce and overcrowding the norm. Given the ideal habitat for the survival of vermin and therefore their fleas, 17th century London stood no chance against the spread of the disease. Furthermore, due to the spread of the disease being through flea bites, the disease was able to penetrate the skin, which would otherwise act as a vital barrier between the body and the disease. Yersinia Pestis is also a particularly swift and assured killer due to the fact that it can suppress and evade normal immune responses, including antibody production (6). It is for this reason that so few infected people survived the disease, and why the disease could take life within a number of days. However, this was unknown to 17th century London. Instead, ‘Miasma theory’ was the dominant belief: ‘bad air’ was the cause of the plague, and the disease was carried in this air, which was identifiable by its foul smell. It dominated the medical and religious discourses of the time and shaped much of the response. To combat the power of this miasma, bonfires were lit in streets to burn the disease from the air, but as Paul Slack notes, the spread of the disease was also considered a result of moral failings. Ill-health was considered a result of neglecting to care for the balance of the four humours which governed the human body, and therefore, the imbalance made man susceptible to disease. Now, not only were the vices of gluttony or drinking too much morally harmful but also physically so (7).
Government and City Response
Just as today with the Coronavirus pandemic, when all are fixated on how the governments of the world will lead us through this pandemic, so were the people of 17th century London equally concerned. Plague and pestilence are no new area of policy for governments. Upon realising the plague was a matter worthy of state response, a Privy Council was formed (advice committee for the Monarch) who would issue government guidelines, similar to the task forces set up today. Although King Charles II fled the city to his Salisbury home and when the plague reached Salisbury, he moved onto his Oxford residence, the Lord Mayor remained behind to lead the city. Inhabitants of London, under the governance of the Lord Mayor, were instructed to clean the street area right outside their houses, it was made clear that this was a personal responsibility and not a state one. This was rigorously enforced as government officials had powers to punish those who failed in their duty to comply (8). Like the King, many other Londoners fled the city, including, rather ironically, the physicians. It was easier for the rich to do so, retreating to their country residences, but the poor also endeavoured to flee. However, Londoners were required to obtain a certificate of good health, which had to be shown to officials before they were allowed to exit the city walls. Over time, this became increasingly difficult, and often the Londoners were turned back even after having left the city walls due to townspeople not allowing refugees to arrive for fear of spreading the plague (9). In the end, these were individual circumstances, and the majority of the poor were left in London, where it was not the government officials who were the ones to organise relief, but the parishes.
Plague and the Church
Robert Bucholz and Joseph Ward write in their book, London a Social and Cultural History: 1550–1750, “the real war against the plague was fought in the parishes.” (10).
The role of places of worship cannot be underestimated, especially in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The town or village parish and priest was not only a symbol of Jesus (as) and God on Earth but was also an essential instrument in the running of the city. Before the advent of national newspapers and direct communication with state authorities, citizens would look to the parishes for guidance and information. Bucholz and Ward note that each parish was responsible for nominating “two discreet matrons” who would investigate who was ill through the village. If they found a household with infected members, they would order for the household to be shut up, marked with a red cross, and to be quarantined for forty days. Also, recording the plague was the parish’s responsibility. The parishes would be the ones to report the death toll. Of course, this is precisely why we must take the death toll figure as only an approximate as they were not recording the deaths of dissenters such as Quakers, or indeed other religious groups such as the Jews of London. In fact, it was due to parishes noting down figures of the dead in their community that news of the plague dawned upon London society. In a short amount of time, the number of deaths reported was increasing abnormally and could only be attributed to the outbreak of pestilence (11).
The parish’s role, whilst vital, is also noted to have been controversial, for it contradicted the very teachings the parish espoused. Teachings such as Christian charity, neighbourliness, duty to care for the sick, were all abandoned, and even those who were not infected were ordered to be quarantined with their ill members, thus sentencing them to an almost assured death. The Bible teaches that to ignore the ailing is indeed a punishable offence; therefore, for the parishes to be the ones to order for the sick to be locked away and neglected was not only baffling but also very worrisome for those who worried for their souls (12). However, this is not to say that there was no care available for the sick. The role of ‘plague nurses’, also known as ‘parish nurses’, is noted to have been a success across the city. Though often vilified by their contemporaries for their association with the disease and their working environments, not to mention the fear of women becoming economically independent amidst an epidemic, the nurses were able to provide personal and intimate care for those on their deathbeds. As it was primarily the lower classes who suffered from the plague, for they were the ones living in the most unhygienic conditions with rats crawling about, for a nurse of a similar socio-economic background to be the one taking care of the ailing was considered a great comfort and contributed to the perceived success of the system of parish nurses (13).
Plague as Punishment?
An event as abnormal as an epidemic need to be rationalised. The Protestant society of the time believed the plague to be a punishment from God, though for what reason exactly remains a mystery. Paul Slack writes that for the Christian society, “plague was a divine scourge, a retribution for the sins of humankind: sometimes for sins in general, more often for the specific misdeeds of the time or place of an epidemic. It was God’s punishment for new-fangled women’s fashions, for swearing and drunkenness, for heresy or atheism, for Protestantism or Catholicism, depending on which side you were on. Repentance and prayer were therefore universally recognised as the proper and first recourse against an epidemic of plague.”
This of course was exacerbated by the passing of the comets in 1664 and 1665. The heavens, as they believed, had foretold a grave societal occasion, and now man must answer for his sins. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, it was not simply a matter of punishment for societal failings, but also a medical belief about the four humours sustaining human health that justified ideas of personal moral failings leading to ill health.
Whether this plague was truly a matter of punishment is only for God to know and reveal. However, Biblical teachings certainly do warn of plague lest the people should fall into vice, such as in the book of Deuteronomy (14). Indeed, it is not only Biblical beliefs.
Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah and Mahdi (as), also revealed that the plague that struck British India in 1896 was a ‘Divine directive.’ (15) Times of plague and epidemics surely do re-awaken our faith in God, and evidence suggests that this is no new phenomena. It happened during the Great Plague of London. The Promised Messiah (as) instructed a revival of belief in his message about the true Islam, and even today, evidence suggests that many people are turning towards faith in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, with a surge of Google searches regarding religion (16). Whilst the passing of the comet may well have been a coincidence, what it symbolised to the people of 17th century London, that there is indeed a living God with a hand in all that happens in this world, still proves to stand strong.
This article appears in our Fall 2020 print issue.
1. Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. by Robert Latham, Penguin Classics, (May 2003), p454.
2. https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-halleys-comet-sightings [Accessed 14/05/20]
3. “The astronomy in Pepys’ Diary” David Wright Astronomy & Geophysics, Volume 41, Issue 4, August 2000, Page 4.26
4. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/09/bubonic-plague-dna-found-london-black-death/ [Accessed 14/05/20]
5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37287715 [Accessed 14/05/20]
6. “A Plasminogen-Activating Protease Speci cally Controls the Development of Primary Pneumonic Plague”, Wyndham W. Lathem1, Paul A. Price1, Virginia L. Miller1,2, William E. Goldman1,* Science January 26 2007: Vol. 315, Issue 5811, pp. 509-513 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1137195.]
7. Paul Slack, “Responses to Plague in Early Modern Europe: The Implications of Public Health”, Social Research, Vol. 55, No. 3, (Autumn 1988), pp. 437-438.
8. Robert Bucholz and Joseph Ward, London a Social and Cultural History: 1550-1750, Cambridge University Press, (New York 2012), p.315.
9. Ibid, p310.
10. King James Bible Edition, Matthew 25:44
11. ‘At the mercy of a strange woman’ Plague Nurses, Marginality, and Fear during the Great Plague of 1665 by Lara Thorpe Women on the Edge in Early Modern Europe Ed. by Lisa Hopkins, Aidan Norrie, p.40
12. Disease and the City, Lecture by Dr Stephen Porter, transcript: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lecture/transcript/print/17th-century-plague/ [Accessed 15/05/20]
14. King James Bible Edition, Deuteronomy 28:59
15. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), Noah’s Ark: An Invitation to Faith, pp. 3 (Edition 2016), UK.
16. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2020/04/how-coronavirus-leading-religious-revival [Accessed 15/05/20]
Last modified: January 2022