Imagine if you will: you're a citizen of London in the year 1665, living towards at the poorer end of the social spectrum. Fear grips the city as the bubonic plague rips through the populace. It seems that there isn't a household unaffected. In your case, your parents have recently died, your older brother and his wife passed away a few days earlier, and now your younger sister's arms are showing red circular blotches. Your first thought is a prayer that she will die before the buboes (pus-filled sacks) appear and her suffering intensifies. Such was the experience for a great many real people who found themselves caught up in this momentous event.
Reasons for the Great Plague of London
Charles II has been back on the throne for five years. He has not prosecuted Catholics, his wife has not provided the kingdom with an heir, and Charles himself is surrounded by mistresses. For some, this disease was a statement from God about the evil forces afoot in London.
On a more earthly plain, another view is that cats and dogs carry the Black Death. Some Londoners are making a good income destroying these animals. For others, the disease is thought to be caused by a colourless, odourless gas. In the belief that smelling flowers will keep a person healthy, blossoms vendors are doing a good business.
In the hopes that the gas will be disbursed, great bonfires are set in various parts of the city. Strong incense was also burned, such as frankincense and pepper. On a more personal level, along with the flowers city dwellers are urged to smoke tobacco.
Completely unknown at this time was the concept of cleanliness. Sanitation was not thought to be important, so the poor lived cheek-by-jowl with waste, both household and human, flowing through the streets. In a sense, cats and dogs did carry the great plague, but only courtesy of the fleas which they also carried. Rats, however, who lived with their fleas amongst the waste were the main carriers.
Life in London as a Great Plague Victim
Unlike the wealthy, including Charles II and his court (who fled to Oxford), you did not have the means to escape this plague. Having found that your parents are dead, the authorities have locked you and the other members of your family inside your home.
Until the last person dies, and forty days passes, you haven't been allowed outside. For brief moments you have responded to the cry "Bring out your dead.", but found yourself quickly locked in once again.
Medical care can be provided by 'plague nurses'. If the victim's household could afford to pay, these nurses would keep a watch on the inhabitants, and provide food. 'Plague doctors' were plentiful, albeit not truly trained. Their word was law, however. If they said the Black Death was in your home a person was effectively doomed if they didn't have the money to pay for assistance.
The Plague in London Eases
With the driest summer anyone can remember now ending, the plague is now easing its grip. The cold weather is effectively killing the rats, although too late for a fifth of London's population. By February of 1666, the city is felt to be safe for Charles II and his court to return.
Resuming your imaginary Londoner persona once more, the life you once knew is over. Your family is dead, including your sister. Opening your front door for the first time as a free person, London is discovered to be almost derelict. Merchants are only slowing reopening their businesses. A few homes are still locked, with front doors painted with a huge red cross as a warning of the great plague.
Life is returning to normal, although brief outbursts of illness still occur. The great plague of London won't be totally irradiacted for a few months, however. It will take a great fire to finally destroy the rats, and to give the city a good cleaning.
Article by 'Tudor Rose'
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