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The Great Plague

The Great Plague: A People's History

Evelyn Lord
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Great Plague
    Book Description:

    In this intimate history of the extraordinary Black Plague pandemic that swept through the British Isles in 1665, Evelyn Lord focuses on the plague's effects on smaller towns, where every death was a singular blow affecting the entire community. Lord's fascinating reconstruction of life during plague times presents the personal experiences of a wide range of individuals, from historical notables Samuel Pepys and Isaac Newton to common folk who tilled the land and ran the shops. She brings this dark era to vivid life through stories of loss and survival from those who grieved, those who fled, and those who hid to await their fate.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20620-3
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Map of Distribution of Plague Victims, 1665–6
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  6. CHAPTER 1 The Black Horse of the Apocalypse and its Pale Rider
    (pp. 1-9)

    On 25 July 1665 five-year-old John Morley of Holy Trinity parish in Cambridge died. On his chest were found black spots, tokens of the plague. His little brother, who had sat on a stool round-eyed and fearful watching him, also had spots on his face: he was swept from his mother’s arms by men dressed in white robes and taken away. He died in the pest house on 5 August 1665, and the distraught parents were shut up in their house with a red cross painted on the door and the words ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us’ written below it....

  7. CHAPTER 2 Fine Buildings and Bad Smells
    (pp. 10-27)

    In September 1654 the diarist and gardener John Evelyn rode into Cambridge from Huntingdon. He came along the old Roman road, through Fenstanton, across the Fens with the church towers of Lolworth and Fen Drayton in the distance, through the fields of Girton and across the West Fields of Cambridge with their stubble after the harvest and before the winter ploughing. He rode past the Civil War bastions defending Cambridge Castle, and passed the castle mound. Here an unpleasant smell assailed him from one of the common dunghills situated in a valley behind the castle.¹ On his left was the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Town and Gown
    (pp. 28-44)

    The society of seventeenth-century Cambridge was pyramid shaped with a small number of wealthy gentlemen at the top, and a broad base of poor and the labourers existing on subsistence wages at the bottom. The Hearth Tax and the corporation and college lease books show about forty-five individuals at the top of the pyramid, who described themselves as gentlemen in the Hearth Tax, and are described as such in the leases, but the title had no legal force. It could signify those who could live on their means without working, but at least ten of those described as gentlemen in...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Impending Disaster
    (pp. 45-54)

    The year 1665 started with a great frost. Samuel Pepys noted that on 5 January there was cold, great snow and frost, and that 6 February was one of the coldest days he had ever known.¹ In Essex Ralph Josselin wrote that there was frost from 21 December 1664 until 9 February 1665.² In Cambridge, streets and outside stairs became dangerous and slippery. Mr Greswell, a fellow of Trinity College, slipped on icy stairs next to the college chapel and was found dead, cold and still by bed-makers the next morning. It transpired that he had been drinking and was...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Infected Summer
    (pp. 55-66)

    In that summer of 1665 the riverside parish of St Clement had a smell all of its own: rotting vegetation on the riverbank and from the ooze of black mud where the river had dried up, mingled with the sweet malt smell from Thompson’s Brewery. The King’s Ditch re-entered the river here, and passers-by noticed and shuddered at the great number of dead rats lying around the ditch. The houses in St Clement’s were crowded together in courts, alleys and yards, and Bridge Street was one of the busiest streets in Cambridge. Shops, inns and the parish church fronted it,...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Falling Leaves and Sable Skies
    (pp. 67-81)

    Autumn in Cambridge was usually an exciting and busy time. The town had cleaned up after Stourbridge Fair; the timber booths were taken down and stored, and the rubbish – tons of it – had been carted away. Shopkeepers, grocers, vintners, butchers and bakers counted their takings and replenished their stock for the coming season. Innkeepers brewed their autumn ale and freshened up their guest rooms: sheets were laundered, bolsters renewed, and furniture polished.

    Queues of women waited at the porters’ lodges of colleges to see if they would be taken on as bed-makers or laundresses. Domestic bursars allocated rooms to scholars...

  12. CHAPTER 7 A Rash of Red Crosses
    (pp. 82-96)

    For many people in Cambridge, Christmas was a religious day. In normal times Samuel Newton took communion in his own church, St Edward’s, in the morning, and joined a scarlet clad procession of aldermen to hear a sermon at Great St Mary’s in the afternoon.¹ Isaac Archer a clergyman from Trinity College, Cambridge usually spent the day examining his conscience, while Samuel Pepys went to church to hear a sermon and then either went home or to an alehouse for cakes and ale. In the evening a wassail woman came to his house with a bowl of wassail ale, and...

  13. CHAPTER 8 A Harvest of Death
    (pp. 97-114)

    The weather in East Anglia at the beginning of July 1666 was wet, and hailstones threatened the crops ripening in the fields.¹ At least the rain sluiced the streets of Cambridge and kept people indoors, so, they hoped, it would stop the spread of the infection. The weather then turned hot and humid; people complained of headaches and difficulty in breathing. Towering thunderheads massed over the town, and on 7 July there was a gigantic thunderstorm. Lightning, great rolls of thunder, hail and a strong wind swept the town as the clouds released their massive energy.² Children screamed at the...

  14. CHAPTER 9 The Beginning of the End of the Pestilence
    (pp. 115-127)

    Sunday 2 September was warm and dry, pleasant weather which encouraged Cambridge people to venture out of doors and stroll by the river or on Midsummer Common. In the churches prayers were offered for those stricken with the plague, and for peace with the Dutch who were rumoured to be off the East Anglian coast, and there were signs in London and Colchester that the pestilence might be abating. That evening there were other more pressing concerns in London. A fire started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, spread and burned brightly for days, destroying some 13,000 houses and...

  15. CHAPTER 10 The Final Toll
    (pp. 128-136)

    The final toll of plague deaths given in the Cambridge Bills of Mortality was 920 burials in churchyards and pest house plague pits. This number included Barnwell, for which there is no other information.¹ It amounts to 12 per cent of the population of the town. Although nowhere near the 100,000 deaths in London or 2,000 in Colchester, because Cambridge was much smaller it nevertheless meant that almost everyone knew someone who had died of plague, or of an infected family in a closed house. Unusually, the Cambridge final Bill of Mortality gives the number of people who were suspected...

  16. Appendix
    (pp. 137-141)
  17. Abbreviations
    (pp. 142-142)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 143-156)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 157-163)
  20. Illustration Acknowledgements
    (pp. 164-164)
  21. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 165-166)
  22. Index
    (pp. 167-174)