The Great Plague.

 The weather has dominated my thinking this week, yesterday, for instance, was frozen lug weather and I was pleased to have my woolly hat firmly stretched down over them. This morning it looks like the wind has blown itself out but overcast, but that’s fine. I can not do much about the weather except accept, the good news is, it makes spring all the more pleasant when it arrives at the end of a hard winter.

It always amazes me how things we learned in school, grown up with and accepted as, well carved in stone, suddenly are no longer true. Scientists, historians, and archaeologists are for ever-changing our understanding of the world in which we live. Up until yesterday I was convinced that the plague in the 17th century was spread by rats, or at least the flees carried by rats. Everyone and my dog knew that. Over the past two evenings, I watched ‘The Great Plague’ on Channel 5 and was told that the plague was in fact spread by humans, or at least by body lice, that lived on human bodies. It was a fascinating insight into that terrible time, although the second part was more or less a recap of what had been said earlier.

The orders put in place to try to contain the disease were not unlike those we use today to combat coronavirus.


However, people were not simply told to go home and self isolate. No, if any household had a victim of the plague the house was locked up with all the members of the family inside, no matter if they were free of the plague or not, and a guard placed on their door.

Social distancing,

People were quick to distance themselves from others, even to walking down the middle of the road so as not to be near the houses. And when people went to buy their food they served themselves and put the coins for the food in a bowl of vinegar, known to have antiseptic qualities.


They were aware that the disease was carried on clothing so the second-hand cloth sellers went out of business. But still, they had not made the connection between, the cloths and body lice.

The wearing of protective clothing and masks

Doctors wore protective clothing in the form of a hooded cloak that went all the way down to the ground, and a beaked mask. So they must have associated the disease with breathing in contaminated air. Also, the cape that they wore were made of waxed cotton, so by accident rather than design, the cloak would act as a barrier stopping the body lice from jumping from the patient to the doctor.

How scary would a visit from the doctor be?

The rich would have changed their shirts every day so we’re less likely to have body lice. The poor on the other hand would not and not only have worn the same shirt for several days, possibly weeks, but they would also have slept in their shirt, a perfect incubator for body lice, and flees.

So what we do today is as important now as it would have been in the mid sixteen hundreds to stop the spread of the disease, wash “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” as your gran would have told you. Social distance, and wear a mask.    

The problem then as it is today was ‘compliance’ most anyone who could (if you had the money) left London for the country, only helping to spread the disease. And unless the people of these islands don’t stay put, coronavirus will spread across our lands, much as it did in the sixteen hundred.

I love social history, as a lad I love stories told by returning soldiers, sailors and airmen from the war. Or how a fisherman told of how he had played a 14 Lbs fish for hours, finally landing it on a 3 Lbs breaking strain line. As you grow older you do tend to sift the grain from the chaff but normally there is a grain of truth in all of these stories.

My sojourning has taken me across these lands and I have seen many old building from before the plague and repairs to these ancient monuments in time following after that time. It is then you come to understand the devastation that the Plague reaped on the craftsmen of the time. They were the poor, the ones that had to stay put and work to keep a roof over their heads and food in their children’s bellies, they were the victims of the plague. Take a look at old churches from the late 17th century, look closely for repairs, these repairs will stick out like a sore thumb. A stonemason’s apprenticeship was a long one, followed by years of learning to become a master stonemason, once these skills were lost it would take decades to retrain new craftsmen.

After Thatcher took a wrecking ball to the heavy industry in Scotland many men that had served in those industries, man and boy, were now middle-aged men and on the scrap heap, our world moves at an even faster pace these days, coronavirus like the plague before it will leave scars. All industries are shedding staff at an alarming rate, how many I wonder will be on the scrap heap after this pandemic?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: