Saturday 25 April 2020

Coronavirus watch: Lockdown - 1665-style

During the Great Plague of 1665, which killed perhaps one person in five in London, lockdowns were a bit more brutal. People found to be infected were locked up in their houses with their families.

In its early stages, the government also closed ale houses and brought in some restrictions on street-vendors. But the death toll grew alarmingly, even though there were suspicions that many plague deaths were being attributed to other causes.

The more prosperous folk were relieved that the disease seemed to be hitting only the poorest districts, and in May, London theatres were still packed. But as more and more people died, in June, warders were put around the worst-hit area to try to stop the inhabitants getting out. Still the disease spread, and the King and court upped sticks.

By the end of June, the theatres were closed, and the streets were jammed with coaches as most of the aristocracy fled, though the Lord Mayor stayed, conducting business from inside a glass case.

In July, the disease really took hold, with more than 5,500 deaths, and the diarist Samuel Pepys (pictured) set his affairs in order, mindful that ‘a man cannot depend on living two days’. August and September were the worst months. London was a ghost town, with only ‘poor wretches’ on the street, and Pepys noting that he could walk the length of usually-bustling Lombard Street, and see only 20 people.

By September, most of the doctors had gone, the Royal College of Physicians was deserted, and there was not a lot of sympathy when it had its valuable treasures stolen. The authorities were supposed to provide food for those shut up in their houses, but by now the money had run out, victims were beginning to resist, and the practice had to be abandoned.

The usual sounds of one of the world’s great cities had been replaced by the endless tolling of bells and the rumbling of the carts collecting corpses to the cry of ‘bring out your dead!’ Grass grew in the streets, and Pepys lamented ‘how empty and melancholy’ they were, while a puritan preacher said that every day he heard of the death of at least one person he knew.

For more, see London’s Disasters (The History Press).

Friday 24 April 2020

Brexitwatch: Boris Johnson - intimations of mortality

‘When a man is about to be hanged,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Assuming that, during his time in the intensive care ward, Boris Johnson felt acutely reminded of his own mortality, what effect might that have?

Because you can’t believe a word he says, anything you write about Johnson is highly speculative, but I spoke to someone who claimed to know him, who told me something I found reassuring. He said the prime minister cares a lot about what the history books will say about him.

If he had died during his brush with coronavirus, they wouldn’t have made great reading: ‘He knew leaving the EU would be highly damaging for the UK, but he pressed on with it because he thought it would advance his own career. He undermined prime minister Theresa May on the pretext that her Withdrawal Agreement was not good enough, then once he had replaced her, negotiated one that was worse. He won an election under a slogan he knew was mendacious, and then when he was confronted with the worst crisis the UK had faced in decades, he proved completely unequal to the task.' Though the charge sheet would obviously be longer than this.

If Johnson is serious about being treated more kindly by history, he must realise there are a number of policies he is going to have to reverse. Most obviously, limiting the damage from Brexit by agreeing a close relationship with the EU to secure the frictionless trade on which the UK’s future depends.

So far the signs aren’t good. He has bizarrely ruled out any extension of the transition period which ends on December 31 at which point, the UK is in danger of crashing out of Europe with a huge hit to jobs, public services, businesses etc.

But the lesson for Boris Johnson of his intimation of mortality is surely this. If there is something you need to do, do it today. There may be no tomorrow.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Coronavirus: renewed interest in the historical perspective

Is it the coronavirus epidemic that has stirred up renewed interest in my book A Disastrous History of the World (Little, Brown), which appeared in the US as Disaster! (Skyhorse)?

A Mexican blog has been drawing on the sections on the early plagues of Athens, Rome and Byzantium, quoting the Spanish language edition – Historia mundial de los desastres (Turner).

This Romanian blogger concentrates on the chapters on plagues and diseases – discussing, among others, smallpox, cholera, typhus, malaria, sleeping sickness and flu.

While this Romanian article covers what I wrote about the great European famine that occurred during the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the early 14th century, and killed, according to some, up to a quarter of the population.

 The Romanian language edition of the book is Cele mai mari dezastre din istoria omenirii (Polirom).

Wednesday 8 April 2020

A prayer for Boris Johnson

I wish Boris Johnson a speedy recovery.

I also wish him wisdom. The wisdom to see that the future of the United Kingdom and its people are more important than his career.

And I wish him the courage to act on that wisdom.

Friday 3 April 2020

The plagues of Britain: the Black Death

The Black Death has the dubious distinction of being in all likelihood the worst disaster in British history. Probably a lethal cocktail of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague (though not all historians agree), it carried off perhaps a third of the population after coming to England from the East in 1348.

Spread by fleas carried on the black rat, and perhaps originating in Central Asia, it was first noticed in the West Country, and may have arrived at Melcombe Regis, now effectively part of Weymouth. Across the country, so many priests died that there were not enough to hear people’s final confessions, so the church said people about to die could unburden themselves to a lay person, and in extremis, ‘even to a woman’.

One of the consequences of the appalling mortality was a dramatic decline in respect for authority – particularly that of the church. The clergy often banged on about how the plague was God’s punishment for people’s bad behaviour, but the line did not go down very well, and at Yeovil, for example, the local bishop found himself besieged in his church by an angry crowd armed with bows and arrows.

London was by far the biggest city in the country, and there, as in other places, the numbers of dead overwhelmed the authorities, and many bodies were just shovelled into mass graves. Food supplies started to dry up as carters refused to come to the city, and Londoners had to go out into the countryside to search for supplies. This lack of social distancing helped spread the pestilence.

For more, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).