Deborah Swift explores how the plague was understood and treated in 17th century London.
Today, people have widely variable responses to disease and its cure. I don’t think I’m alone in having friends who show hypochondriac tendencies, who use ‘alternative’ or even quack medicines, or who are convinced that a random event, real or supernatural, has caused their disease. Placebo theory is still in its infancy, and some aspects of medicine are still a mystery. My friends’ attitudes to their ailments provided rich pickings when it came to writing my novel, A Plague on Mr Pepys.
When plague broke out in 17th Century London the first response was denial. According to the Bills of Mortality, rather more had died of ‘fever’ in the weeks preceding the plague than was usual. When the increase in the figures became too obvious to be hidden, and fear overtook wishful thinking, then the search for who, or what, to blame began.
God’s Destroying Angel
In the 17th century the widespread belief was that plague or ‘pestilence’ was brought forth by God as revenge on a sinning people. Less than twenty years after the English Civil War, this must have seemed frighteningly plausible, as almost everyone had witnessed the atrocities of war. The knowledge that the King (who was God’s representative on Earth) had been decapitated by his own people made many certain that vengeful retribution would follow.
Plague as biblical vengeance is well documented in The King James Bible (published in 1611) which is full of plagues; for example when Pharaoh refused to set the Israelites free, God punished him by sending ten plagues to Egypt, and in Revelation there is a prophecy that the Seven Angels will bring Seven Plagues. In the novel I was writing, I felt it was important to have at least one person who believed that his own sins or the sins of the nation had brought him the affliction. So for my character Will Bagwell, the first cure would be prayer, and all other remedies secondary.
Therapeutic astrology was commonplace in Restoration England.
“I always found the disease vary according to the various motion of the Stars,” Nicholas Culpeper asserted, “and this is enough one would think to teach a man by the effect where the cause lay.’”
John Gadbury, like other medical astrologers, whose advice was sought for most common ailments, claimed that astrology was ‘the only science that can give the cause and effect of plagues.’ The study of the qualities of the stars concorded well with Galen’s theory of the four humours. In the early 17th century it was popular for the well-to-do to have a personal astrologer in much the same way as it is popular to have a personal trainer today.
In this context, the comet witnessed by Pepys in 1665 was such an unusual event, that it had to mean something. Pamphlets predicted doom and destruction – as always guaranteed to sell more copies than good news. And I discovered, I had just the character in my novel, who was determined to wallow gleefully in the pessimistic predictions of this omen.
Amongst the scientific community, the most popular theory was that God was the first cause, and He provided a secondary cause by which His work should be done. Thus you could ascribe everything to God, yet still explore a scientific explanation for the disease. John Allin, the astrologer, whilst hedging his bets as a firm believer in God as the first cause, and urging repentance, also had his own theory;
“the infection may be taken by the scent of smelling, and … grosse savour of a foggy infected aire, or the corruption of an infected person or place.’’
Physician Gideon Harvey in his Discourse of the Plague (1665) wrote that the disease was ‘exhaled’ from rotting material in the earth into the air as ‘flaming Arsenical corpuscles’. These could then gather together in ‘Pestilential Seminaries’ or seedbeds. That the infection was caused by miasmas – or bad smells that you inhaled, was widely believed.
A Dr Hodges called these ‘pestilential steams’ and proposed that these had been carried on bales of cloth via Holland. Holland was of course England’s enemy at the time. In my book, Bess Bagwell carries a pomander to ward off bad smells, but not simply because it gives a pleasant perfume, rather because in her view, it counters disease.
The miasma theory was often added to the ‘sinner’ theory, because those most susceptible to the miasmas were supposedly those who (surprise, surprise) were engaged in disorderly living, drunkenness, overeating and too much sexual activity. There was still the widespread idea that ‘sin’ was responsible for plague, if not wholly, then in part.
The characters in my novel would not have thought of rat fleas as carriers, though there was a civic cull of dogs and cats. I was still tempted to add a reference to rats, mostly because I suspect that rats and plague have been tied together in the modern psyche by our literature including such things as The Pied Piper of Hamelin and various ‘B’ movies.
Forensic scientists investigating the Black Death have examined skeletons unearthed in the Clerkenwell area of London, and believe that for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have been a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. We will never know if this is equally true for the 1665 plague, but it is possible that infection was spread by coughs and sneezes, rather than by rat fleas as was recently believed.
Minerals, Metals and the Letting of Blood
By 1665 the traditional understanding favoured by the College of Physicians – that of the four humours, was losing favour to the newer Paracelsian view. Previously, physicians saw disease as a matter of internal balance, so that purging and bloodletting played an important role in treatment. Now, the new ‘Chemical’ practitioners treated patients with minerals and metals, including mercury and gold. My richer characters could afford the new treatment, though with the benefit of modern hindsight, perhaps such interventions did more harm than good. However, a friend I know with arthritis is still treated with ‘gold injections.’
Another physician, George Thomson, had a theory that the plague attacked the vital spirit or ‘Archeus’, which should therefore be strengthened bodily and spiritually against such an assault. He recommended using ‘Scorbutical Remedies mixt with anti-pestilential and Alexipharmacal’ medicines. Like many pamphleteers he was keen to promote his own product, his patent powder ‘Pulvis Pestifugus.’
London also had a large number of alchemists, wise women, herbalists, and apothecaries.
‘If people want to burn fat, detoxify livers, shrink prostates, avoid colds, stimulate brains, boost energy, reduce stress, enhance immunity, prevent cancer, extend lives, enliven sex or eliminate pain, all they have to do is walk in to a vitamin store and look around,’ said Paul Offit this year in the Washington Post.
The 17th Century apothecary’s shop was no different from the modern health store. When writing A Plague on Mr Pepys it was apparent that just like today there were as many different attitudes to maintaining health in the 17th Century as there were people. Having such a variety of conflicting views to choose between enabled me to personalise each characters attitude to their own health, something which I found surprisingly fundamental to their world view, and which really helped give me a deep insight into their characters.
A Plague on Mr Pepys, the second of the novels based on the women in Pepys’ Diary, and telling the story of Bess Bagwell, is published by Accent Press on 5 July 2018. For more about Deborah and her work visit www.deborahswift.com.
- 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire – Rebecca Rideal
- Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health and Healing 1540-1740 – Jennifer Evans and Sara Read
- The World of Samuel Pepys – Ed. Robert and Linnet Latham
- The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the Fight for Medical Freedom – Benjamin Woolley
- Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor & Stuart England – David Cressy
- The Great Plague – A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote
- Gresham Lectures
- 1665 woodcut
- Frontispiece and titlepage: ‘The Christians Refuge’ Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
- Bill of Mortality via Guildhall library.
- A cure for the Plague, 1665 © British Library
Read Deborah’s witty article about Pepys’s (mis)adventures on Valentine’s Day.