A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of "Here the Watch plac'd upon Bow Bridge would have question'd them..." to "I give this Story thus at large..."


The narrator continues his story of the three men, explaining that as they traveled, they met numerous constables who refused to let travelers take up residence in the towns. There was a rumor at the time that the poor people of London were so desperate that they were going to take up arms and raid all of the nearby towns to plunder for bread. This was not true, however, and "they rather went to the Grave by Thousands than into the Fields in Mobs by Thousands..." They died in great numbers, and the narrator believed the bills of mortality always underestimated the amount of dead

Returning to the travelers, H.F. charts their course through several towns. They stopped near the town of Hackney and set up their tent outside of a large barn. During the night they heard a group of people nearing them, and the soldier called out and asked who was there. A parley (conference) was established between the travelers and the group, and they agreed to stay together. Neither side had the plague; they were all poor people seeking shelter and safety.

The group of travelers was not so poor as to lack provisions; they had furnished themselves with enough goods for traveling. John, Thomas and Richard lamented the fact that their horse made it necessary for them to travel by road, not through the forests and paths like the group. The next day the group and the three travelers arrived at the ferry and crossed the river, arriving at Walthamstow. The people there refused to admit them, which was sadly a common occurrence in those days.

Richard the joiner told the townspeople that they should go inside their houses and let the group pass through the town. They planned to go right down the middle of the street and not disrupt anyone. The constables and the attendants still refused. John devised the idea to take poles cut from wood and fashion them to look like muskets. Their tent was set up right in the view of the townspeople, and a fire was lit to show flames and smoke. The country people thus began to fear that they were dealing with a small army with horses and arms.

The constable and John spoke again, and John told him that is was unfair that they stopped the company when they told the townspeople they were free of plague. The constable replied that it was their prerogative to do so, but John disagreed and informed the man that the town should furnish the company with victuals (provisions) since it seemed intent on forcing them to starve by making them remain outside the gates. The constable was shocked and refused, but backed down once John threatened to march upon the town. He asked what he could do, and John replied that his companions were only fleeing from the dreadful plague, and should not only be able to pass through the town but be given provisions as well. He asked for bread for twenty men and seven or eight women, and directions to the field. The constable made good on this agreement and provided the food. The group was allowed to pass. Thankfully the townspeople were too afraid to look out their windows, or they would have seen how small the company was.

Word got out about this company and John decided it would be wise for them to divide themselves. He was made the leader, as his advice to that point had been sound. He told the group to be frugal and not to infect the country they were now in.

A camp was pitched at Epping. For a few days they escaped notice, but soon the townspeople began to grow afraid at their presence. A few parish officers came and parleyed with them at a distance, asking who they were and why they were in the field. John answered honestly and explained that they were fleeing the plague. The townspeople were still hesitant, but after listening to the rationality and wisdom of John, they relented and allowed them to remain in the field. John assured the people that they were not the rabble that rumors had told of.

As the days passed, "These Things and a quiet inoffensive Behaviour, began to get the good Opinion of the Country, and People began to pay them and speak very well of them..." One gentleman sent them straw to use for a roof, and another sent them wheat and peas. They lived comfortably for a while, but the plague began to spread into the area where they resided.

Many market people at this time suffered for not being able to sell their goods. Poor people began flocking to the forest like the travelers did, hoping to escape the plague. However, the plague still spread because many of them were infected by the time they decided to quit London.

The group of travelers led by John the soldier noticed that the plague was coming near, and they resolved to leave. They were loath to do so, and asked the kind gentleman who had given them provisions what he thought they should do. The gentleman advised them to move on, and gave them Certificates of Health. Many of the new places that they desired to live were also afflicted, and they were afraid of the poor people leaving London who had violent, avaricious tendencies. They finally came back to their old quarters and found an abandoned old house nearby and fixed it up comfortably. As the weather grew colder and the plague seemed to subside, they realized that they had successfully avoided the distemper.


H.F. continues his story of the three travelers, who in this section stumble upon another group of fleeing Londoners. They decide to travel together after they discern that the others are free from plague. A major challenge is presented in the town that refuses to let them pass through, but the ingenuity and duplicity of John the soldier allows them to bamboozle the townspeople into thinking they are a larger, aggressive band of travelers. As seen previously, the centrality of rumor and orality lends itself to the humorous results of the widespread news of a marauding and violent band of itinerants which was in truth only a few dozen poor men and women with one gun. Defoe's sense of humor shines through in this particular anecdote.

The inclusion of this long story of the three men is not merely for humorous affect; it is also thematically relevant because it reinforces the fact that H.F. made the wrong decision in staying in London and should have actually departed at the outset of the distemper. When H.F. introduces the story, he remarks that he hopes the story will be useful to readers. Biblical parallels with the Israelites leaving Egypt are discernible; these parallels include the departure from London, the nomadic existence, and even the outright comparison to the Israelites in terms of the difficulty of procuring food.

H.F. wrestles with his decision to leave many times before dabbling in bibliomancy convinces him that he needs to remain in the city. As a spiritual man, he struggles with his feelings of repentance that he stayed, and, according to scholar Everett Zimmerman, "he frequently comments on his not entirely successful attempts to comprehend the nature of mortality in a time of plague." After he decided to stay, he realized that he was probably incorrect in doing so, and wrote of his tearful confessions of sin, fasting, and humiliation.

Near the end of the work he flatly states that the "best Physick against the Plague is to run away from it" (190), which he clearly did not do even though he had no family keeping him in London and had a ready place to flee to. Zimmerman writes, "the Journal makes clear that H.F.'s decision to remain was wrong. The advice he finally gives is not to imitate his choice but to recognize his folly." Of course, as a fictional character, H.F. had to stay in London in order to produce the Journal; the narrative depends on its protagonist's mistake.

H.F. endeavors to try and understand the "complexities of divine justice," wondering what God's purpose was in allowing the plague to take hold. He becomes aware of the limits of his understanding, and while he "seeks calm...he cannot confidently distinguish that state from hardening. He continuously alternates between trust and fear, seeking to escape his terrors but also believing them to be evidence of his responsiveness to God." Zimmerman believes that this inner turmoil within the narrator makes the work more fiction that nonfiction; H.F.'s emotional difficulties are powerfully conveyed to the reader and make the work, for all of its statistics and data, extremely human and moving.