A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of "But I must go back again to the Beginning of this Surprizing Time..." to "These Orders of my Lord Mayor's were publish'd..."


The narrator goes back to the beginning of the tale and recounts several odd incidents that occurred in London. Several months before the plague, a blazing star or comet was observed in the sky and, preceding the great fire of 1666, another one appeared. Old women believed that, since they were so close to the city, the comets portended something ominous. The first comet was slow and dull and the second was bright and swift like a conflagration. People believed they heard and saw it in the sky. The narrator confessed that he fell prey to suspicion that they were indeed omens and warnings from God. However, he did not take his fears to the same level as others at the time did; he knew too much about the natural causes of things. The people, however, feared calamity and judgment.

The people were also addicted to prophesies, astrological conjurations, and interpretations of dreams. The narrator recalled one man who ran about the street naked, prophesying doom and refusing to speak with anyone. The dreams of old women garnered a lot of interest. Others saw apparitions, such as an angel with a flaming sword in his hand. These strange relations could fill volumes.

In one instance the narrator joined a crowd of people listening to an old woman who was pointing to the sky and crying out that she saw an angel with a sword in his hand. Others agreed that they saw it too, but when the narrator announced he did not, he was almost attacked by the crowd. Another time he encountered a man who insisted he saw a ghost, but the narrator did not see it no matter how hard he tried.

The narrator concluded that "these things serve to shew, how far the People were really overcome with delusions; and as they had a Notion of the Approach of a Visitation, all their Predictions run upon a most dreadful Plague..."

Astrologers also added their stories of how the planets were aligned in a "malignant Manner". Some ministers, rather than trying to uplift the hearts of listeners, focused only on doom and gloom. The people who listened to their sermons were filled with horror and terror and went away from church with tears on their faces. However, the breaches in religion that had existed prior to the plague were ignored; many who were absent from church before the plague now attended regularly.

Some people in the city were pretenders to magic. They proliferated to the point where there was nearly a fortuneteller, astrologer, or magician on every street corner. These astrologers would promote their professions in a certain fashion: when the people would ask if there was a plague coming, the astrologers would say yes because it kept up their trade; if they had said no then these quacks would have simply died away. The ministers excoriates these practitioners of falsehood, but the poor people continued to believe in them and embrace their ideas. The narrator sympathizes with them, particularly the poor servants.

The government tried to assist the populace by encouraging devotion, appointing public prayers and days of fasting, and asking for confessions of sin and imploring the mercy of God. Some gambling houses and dancing rooms closed down, which was beneficial.

The poor people were "now led by their Fright to extremes of Folly." They ran after the quacks, mountebanks (charlatans) and old women and took pills, potions, and remedies to ward off the plague. Some doctors preyed on the ignorance of the poor, luring them to their house with claims of cures for the plague and advice to prevent infection. The narrator was angry at this "Set of Thieves and Pickpockets, not only robb'd and cheated the poor People of their Money, but poisoned their Bodies with odious and fatal preparations..."

The people also began wearing charms, amulets, and philters (magic charms) to fortify themselves against the plague, as if the plague were an evil spirit. None of these things worked and the poor people still went to their graves - many still wearing their amulets. They began to see the folly in trusting in the quacks and prevaricators. The plague also brought out sincere confessions, the awakening of consciences, and the melting of hard hearts.

The Magistrates began to take into account the condition of the people, appointing surgeons and physicians to succor the poor, and ordering the College of Physicians to publish directions for cheap remedies. The narrator deems this "charitable and judicious".

The violence of the plague was like the violence of the fire that came the following year, consuming everything the plague did not lay waste to. The plague "defied all Medicines; the very Physicians were seized with it, with their Preservatives in their Mouths..." Some physicians helped people and made an impact, but not those for whom it was too late.

The narrator recounted that the shutting up of houses - forbidding sick people from leaving their homes - was the most melancholy part of the story of the plague. Houses were shut up in the parishes of St. Giles, St. Martin's, St. Clement Danes, and more. The shutting up of houses had occurred in the plague of 1603 as well.


In this section H.F. laments the proliferation of quacks and charlatans who took advantage of the poor people's ignorance and fears by selling them useless remedies and regaling them with fortunes and prophecies. There was scarcely a street in London that did not feature one of these dangerous men and women. The comets noted in the text were real phenomena, sighted in the sky in December 1664 and April 1665.

The astrological almanacs H.F. derides included William Lilly's publication (Lilly fled the plague in 1665) and most likely William Winstanley's publication. As Cynthia Wall notes in her annotations to the Penguin edition of the Journal, the "almanacs were satirized at the time," and "the 'pretended religious books' of these particular titles are less accurately traced, many pamphlets and books having similar titles."

Several biblical references are used here. The phrase "wonder and perish" refers to Acts 13:41. The use of Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh comes from the Old Testament book of Jonah. The ministers spoke of terror and destruction, but H.F. believed they should have concentrated on the aspects of Scripture that demonstrative of God's grace, mercy, and succor; the biblical verse used is "ye will not come unto me, that ye may have Life," (26) which is John 5:40. Indeed, H.F. calls attention to the religious practices of the people at this time. There were several breaches in religion at the time (such as the Anglican Church making it difficult, or flat-out criminal, to worship outside of it), but during the plague the people did not care what church they went to or which minister they listened to. This was a happy development, but H.F. lamented the fact that "after the Sickness was over, that Spirit of Charity abated, and every Church being again suppl'd with their own Ministers, or others presented, where the Minister was dead, Things return'd to their old Channel again" (27).

H.F. was not simply critical of the silliness of Londoners; he also praised the sincere outpouring of contrition and confession that resulted from the plague. People confessed robberies or murders, had their consciences awakened and hard hearts melted, called upon God for mercy, and administered charity and assistance to their afflicted fellow citizens. The Journal is full of stories of how Londoners during the plague were not actually guilty of the base, uncharitable, and cruel behavior that people supposed of them. They did not erupt into mobs or rebellions, overwhelmingly afflict others with the plague on purpose, lose all religious sentiment, or, in regards to the politicians, abandon the city or allow it to disintegrate into chaos or a charnel house. H.F. takes pains to defend and praise Londoners during this trying time.

The city government did indeed receive a great deal of praise. In this section and others, H.F. expresses his approval of how officials conducted themselves and how they tried to help the populace. Here he writes, "The Lord Mayor, a very sober and religious Gentleman appointed Physicians and Surgeons for the Relief of the poor; I mean, the diseased poor; and in particular, order'd the College of Physicians to publish Directions for cheap Remedies, for the Poor, in all the Circumstances of the Distemper. This indeed was one of the most charitable and judicious Things that could be done at that Time..." (35). The Lord Mayor was Sir John Lawrence, and the College of Physicians was granted its charter in 1518 by Henry VIII in response to plague; it controlled the education and licensing of physicians.