A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Summary and Analysis of Summary and Analysis for "These Orders of my Lord Mayor's were publish'd..." to "In other Cases, some had Gardens, and Walls..."


The narrator lists the Orders conceived and published by the Lord Mayor and Alderman of the City of London during the 1665 visitation of the plague. The introduction to these orders explains that the act dictated the charitable relief of persons infected and protocol to help stem the plague.

First, Examiners were to be appointed to serve at least one month in every parish. The Examiner's job was to learn which houses and persons were sick and who had died and to shut up the person's house if necessary. Watchmen were appointed to make sure no one went in or out of the infected houses. Watchmen were instructed to hold the keys to deter escape. Women-searchers were appointed to search the bodies of those who died from infection or other diseases; they must be women of good reputation and not hold any other posts at the time. Chiurgeons (surgeons) were appointed to better assist the searchers, and to make accurate report of the disease. Nurse-keepers were appointed to work in the sick houses, but they had to be shut up for twenty-eight days if they worked with infected persons.

Secondly, rules were established. The master of a house where sickness existed must report it within two hours of discovering the disease. Anyone found to be sick must be sequestered and his house shut up for a month. The bedding, apparel, and hangings of chambers of the sick person must be well-aired with fire. Any person who visited a man infected with plague must be shut up in their own house for a certain amount of days. No one could be removed from infected houses or move back and forth between two houses.

The burial of the dead must be done before the sun rises or after it sets; "no Neighbours nor Friends be suffered to accompany the Corpse to Church, or to enter the House visited, upon pain of having his House shut up, or be imprisoned." The corpses could not remain in churches and children could not attend burials. Graves had to be at least six feet deep.

No clothing or bedding could leave the houses of those infected, and they especially could not be sold or purchased. No person could be conveyed out of an infected house, and if one did escape, they would be returned at night and punished. Each house visited by the plague would be marked by a large red cross in the middle of the door with the words "Lord have mercy upon us" written over the cross.

Constables were to make sure houses were locked up and watchmen were to watch them. Searchers, Chiurgeons, Keepers, and Buriers were to carry a red rod or wand three feet of length in their hands while they performed their jobs. Family members of the infected could not leave the house without a Certificate of Health. Hackney-coachmen could not continue with their job if they had conveyed a sick person; they had to air their coach and wait five or six days.

Thirdly, the orders called for regular cleansing and sweeping of the streets. Houses were to be swept clean as well. No stinking fish, unwholesome meat, or corrupt fruits were allowed in the city. Casks must be looked into. No hogs, dog, cats, pigeons, or conies (rabbits) were allowed to be kept in the city. No beggars were allowed to wander the streets. "Plays, Bear-Baitings, Games, singing of Ballads, Buckler-plays, or such Causes of Assemblies of People" were not allowed either. Public feasting was also prohibited. People could not drink in taverns after nine in the evening.

The Aldermen, Deputies, and Common-Council men were to meet weekly to discuss their findings and execute any other orders if necessary.

The narrator turns his attention back to the shutting of houses, remarking that it "was at first counted a very cruel and Unchristian Method, and the poor People so confin'd made bitter Lamentations..." It was seen as hard and mean, and many died in these miserable confinements. Often violence was doled out to the watchmen appointed to observe infected houses, usually as a diversionary tactic providing escape for those shut in. However, H.F. says of the practice: "it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief..."

The people devised myriad ways to get out of their houses by deceptive and cunning means. The narrator recounts the story of a watchman who was guarding a house that was silent for several days. He knocked and knocked but no one answered. Finally he looked into a window and saw a young woman lying dead on the floor, her clothes missing. The family had fled after finding ways to delude the watchman.

Many people escaped when the watchman was sent to run errands, for their job also entailed doing the family's bidding when necessary, such as going to a physician or fetching the dead-cart. The narrator relates a story of a family who escaped when the watchman was sent to get a nurse for a maid infected with the distemper. There were hundreds of these types of stories. It was difficult for the watchmen to guard all passages in and out of the many houses. Some people threatened the guards with a sword or pistol before running away. Even when a watchman was violently attacked, it was hard to bring those who committed the crime to justice.


Defoe prints the Orders at length here, revealing the ways in which the city administration attempted to track and control the plague. In these Orders he mentions "women-searchers" whose job it was to go into the houses and procure the information necessary on the relative health or sickness of their inhabitants. Paula McDowell's influential 2006 article on the centrality of orality and its tensions with printed media in the work pays heed to the fact that the women-searchers were mentioned once and then completely elided from the rest of the Journal.

First, before one looks at the problem of the women-searchers, McDowell lays out her thesis that Defoe was calling attention to the shift in modes of communication that were occurring in the years between the plague (1665-66) and the book's publication (1722). When the Journal begins, the plague is only a rumor; there were no newspapers to spread word of it. The physicians who reported on the status of the first dead from the plague still could not have the legitimacy accorded to their pronouncements as the later bills of mortality would. Indeed, only once the bills were published did people believe the plague was truly upon them. H.F. is aware that these written modes of communication – the bills – were problematic; McDowell writes, "H.F. repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of interpreting signs of the plague with certainty, and he excoriates the unreliability of the bills of mortality."

Print is no more reliable than talk, for "no form of communication, whether print, manuscript, or oral, is exempt from the 'Invention of Man' – undermining any clear distinction or hierarchy among them..." One of the key structuring binaries of the text is that of the opposition of the "backwardness" of oral communication and the modernity associated with data, records, and statistics. Defoe was a champion of print, especially in his own life, and understood that the period between the plague and the publication of the Journal had undergone a revolution in modes of communication. However, he was aware of the limitations of the modern method of conveying information in print; H.F. points out the inaccuracies and dangers of adhering to the information in the bills of mortality at least thirteen times.

Returning to the subject of the women-searchers, McDowell concludes that Defoe's "erasure of the female, oral origins of the bills is part of a larger agenda in his writings to model print as separate from certain kinds of orality – especially the type of orality that he associated with superstitious old women." The women-searchers are quietly erased, and history is rewritten in "the new, idealized image of a civic order based on the gathering and dissemination of printed news." For Defoe, these women were problematic for several reasons: they were typically poor and illiterate, and were usually parish pensioners. Only women could search men's sick bodies, not the reverse.

These women were essentially in charge of quarantine, for they could have a house shut up on the basis of their report. They also gave the bills of mortality their statistics on the amount dead. In the Journal Defoe blurs the terminology of those entering the houses and procuring information, and enhances the number and roles of the male examiners. He was uncomfortable with society's reliance upon oral communication and "worked to dissociate his culture from what he viewed as a destabilizing and backward reliance on orality." Of course, as mentioned with the bills of mortality, "suspect orality seeps out everywhere in A Journal." In times of crisis in particular, orality could not be ignored; information about the plague were relayed to the public and to vested authorities by family members, parishioners, and other appointed laypeople. Furthermore, H.F.'s anecdotes and ruminations are much more evocative and reliable than the bills and collected data.