A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of "This leads me again to mention the Time..." to "It is true, that the next Year made them full amends by another terrible Calamity upon the City..."


The narrator thinks back to the time when the plague began and remembers how many packed up and left immediately. The city seemed like it would soon be completely empty due to the speed in which people fled. He then turns his attention to the city officials and again writes of their exemplary conduct. They declared that they would not quit the city themselves, and they displayed gentleness and clemency. The people felt better due to the magistrates' calming presence, in part because the magistrates performed their parts as they said they would.

One interesting and beneficial thing about the plague was that when it raged on one side of town, it was abated on the other. The narrator includes bills of mortality to prove this point.

The narrator firmly believed that "it was not the sick People only, from whom the Plague was immediately receiv'd by others that were sound, but THE WELL", for those who were known to be sick were at home in their beds, but those that thought they were well moved freely about the city, not knowing that they were actually spreading the distemper. They "breathed Death in every Place." These were the people to be afraid of, not those that lie sick in their houses. This is precisely the reason why "it is impossible in a Visitation to prevent the spreading of the Plague by the utmost human Vigilance...that it is impossible to know the infected People from the sound; or that the infected People should perfectly know themselves..."

Many people believed that the plague was from the hand of God and grew careless with their behavior, believing that there was no way to prevent becoming ill. The narrator believed that God did indeed miraculously deliver some people from the plague, including himself, but he cautioned against thinking that the plague was completely free of "humane Causes and Effects." Men still spread the distemper, and God's supernatural powers were often manifest in human events like these. It was important to note that "no one in this whole Nation ever receiv'd the Sickness or Infection but from some Body, or the Cloaths, or touch, or stench of some Body that was infected before."

Many people simply did not know they were infected. They only noticed when they found swellings and hard knobs on their body, but their breath and clothes would have the disease on them much earlier. The narrator counseled people not to be too confident that they were healthy. The physicians did not know exactly how long a sick person might appear healthy, which added to the danger.

The narrator concludes that the "best Physick against the Plague is to run away from it." He asserts that in the future the people should be separated into different areas and in an effort to contain the plague rather than having one million people cooped up together - as they were in the 1665. H.F. proposes many schemes to address the next visitation. One suggested method is for the magistrates to allow the wealthy people to leave the city, then find a way for the poor to leave, and then allow the rest of the people to remain. Since the city would be much emptier they would be healthier.

The infection acted differently upon different constitutions. Some people vomited or had fevers or went raving mad, while others suffered silently or did not even know they were infected until they dropped dead. Although not a doctor, the narrator saw that those whose swellings broke often recovered, while those whose swellings remained or had little sign of the diseases rarely recovered.

Fathers and mother sadly went about without knowing they were infected; it caused the greatest grief and consternation when it was discovered that they had infected their family. Another sad aspect of the plague was found in those who only felt mildly ill, but when they sent for the doctor they were told they had the plague and would most certainly die.

In many cases, doctors could not distinguish the sick from the healthy, adding to the evilness of the distemper. Bogus speculations of how to tell if one was ill ran rampant: some recommended smelling a person's breath, looking for evil creatures in breath blown onto a glass, seeing if their breath would turn an egg rotten, and so on. The narrator supposed that "the Nature of this Contagion is such, that it was impossible to discover it at all, or to prevent its spreading from one to another by any human Skill."

He notes that the first person to died of the plague, in 1664, lived in Long-Acre. The infection was said to come from a parcel of silks from Holland. Then, however, the infection lie dormant for many weeks. The narrator wondered how this could be so. He supposes the cold weather delayed the spread of infection. He also considers the fact that there were cases of the plague during this time but that no one wanted to speak up. The bills of mortality had many dying of other diseases, which were either quite similar to the plague and really were the plague and either the deceased did not know, or people lied about their loved ones' deaths.

As the plague spread in the earliest days, confusion spread as well. People were shy and suspicious of everyone who came near them; many whispered rumors to their neighbors. Anyone who attended a church at this time would have been beset with a mixture of smells as they entered; these were tokens used to try and ward off the plague. Despite the fears, however, the churches were never empty, abandoned or shut up.

People tended to be wary and afraid of their peers that were obviously sick, but they needed to be more wary of those who looked healthy. As realization came to the people of London that anyone might be ill, they began shunning one another. The poor did less of this shunning, however; H.F. describes them as impetuous and as "madly careless of themselves, Fool-hardy and obstinate, [than] while they were well..."

The misery of the poor was mitigated a great deal by the kindness of their fellow Londoners. Charity was ubiquitous, with many people donating food, medicine, and other help. The poor were visited in their homes by the wealthy. Some of these good Samaritans fell ill themselves. It was thanks to the good citizens of London that many of the lives and health of the poor were preserved.

The narrator turns his attention to the state of foreign and domestic trade. In regards to the former, it was clear that other nations were mistrustful of goods coming from London, and that nearly all foreign commerce ceased. Foreigners feared the goods of London as much as they feared its people. Word of the distemper had spread throughout the world. Spain and Italy were particularly strict. Any goods that got through were burnt and their conveyors punished.

Unfortunately, the rumors that spread about London did an exceeding amount of damage. Rumors were told of heaps of bodies lying in the street, 20,000 people dying in one day, and that the city was almost completely abandoned. These rumors made starting trade up again after the plague more difficult than it should have been.

The narrator pays some heed to the two trades carried on by water carriage while the infection raged on - coal and corn. The burning of coal in fires was popular at the time, for people believed that the flames were hot and clean, and the substance found in coal would purge the air and make it healthy to breathe. the narrator believed this, and had many fires in his own home. There were also public fires that cost the city a good deal of money to maintain.

Turning to domestic trade, the narrator explains that the purchasing of provisions was reduced by a good amount, and certain items faced shortages. There was also a general stop to manufacturing because foreign trade was interrupted. Manufacturers, tradesmen, and laborers suffered. Many families could only get by living off of charity. People all over England suffered from the plague that ravaged London.


In this lengthy section H.F. details many of the problems with the plague; in particular, he discusses how easily it spread and tries to correct many of the rumors about Londoners' immorality and deleterious behavior. As in many other sections of the work, he debunks the rumor that people unknowingly infected others on purpose. This may have been true in a few circumstances, but it was by no means ubiquitous. He lamented the fact that many did not know they were sick. There were different variations of the disease, so some went about perfectly healthy until they dropped dead. Often, doctors could not tell if a patient was afflicted until it was too late. The common markers of the disease - the "tokens" - sometimes did not present until just before death.

Defoe also makes it clear that Londoners were extremely charitable during the plague, and that many poor people would not have survived without the aid from their fellow citizens. He wrote of how foreigners were afraid of London – "they were as much afraid of our Goods as they were of our People" (205) – and how trade had ceased almost entirely. Those who snuck into foreign ports were heavily punished if they were discovered. H.F. was dismayed by the rumors that proliferated throughout the world. These rumors said, "that in London there died twenty thousand in a week; that the dead Bodies lay unburied by Heaps; that the living were not sufficient to bury the dead, infected likewise, so that it was a universal malady" (207). H.F. saw these rumors as quite injurious to the economy because the suspicion and apprehension to trade with London lingered on for some time after the plague had subsided.

As a response to these rumors, H.F. endeavors once again to praise the city officials. Multiple times he explains that there were never any dead bodies lying unburied in the street. He admired how the Lord Mayor and magistrates boldly went about the city and "heard with patience all their Grievances and Complaints" and all the other appointed officials – sheriffs, aldermen, and examiners – performed their parts as well. As previously noted, there was never a shortage of bread and provisions were always available in the markets. H.F. writes, "the Streets were kept constantly clear, and free from all manner of frightful Objects, dead Bodies, or any such things as were indecent or unpleasant, unless where any Body fell down suddenly and died in the Streets..." (179).

H.F. also ponders the ways in which people became infected, especially since infection was not always obvious. Dr. Heath speculated that smelling the breath would designate whether a person was infected or not, but since this was never done for fear of infecting oneself, other strategies were suggested. H.F. writes that he heard some people swearing they saw, in the infected breath breathed onto a piece of glass, "strange monstrous and frightful Shapes, such as Dragons, Snakes, Serpents, and Devils, horrible to behold" (195); he did not believe this, however. In fact, he concluded that "the Nature of this Contagion was such, that it was impossible to discover it at all, or to prevent its spreading from one to another by any human Skill" (195).

In Appendix I to the Penguin edition of the Journal, editor Cynthia Wall gives a bit of background on the plague, explaining that the plague bacillus was not found until the Hong Kong epidemic of 1894. It is carried about by the fleas that live on black rats and could survive for almost a year on textiles or faeces in damp, warm places. There were three types of plague – bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic. The bubonic plague, named 'The Black Death' during a 14th century epidemic, is the subject of the Journal. Between three and ten days after the flea bite, a person would see a black pustule appear, which was followed by enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, groin, or underarm area. This primary swelling – the bubo – was accompanied by fever, chills, delirium, restlessness, vomiting, and sharp pains. Sixty to eighty percent of those infected died quickly. Unless people had a strain of pneumonic plague, they could not transmit it to one another. However, the ubiquity of fleas and rats made this fact almost irrelevant, and the plague was rampant.