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Very Dry Account of the London Plague of 1665
on April 16, 2013
I must admit to a morbid fascination with accounts of natural disasters, harrowing exploration tales and historical plagues. This ostensibly first-hand account of the 1665 visitation of the Black Death upon London, written by Daniel DeFoe, certainly fits nicely into that genre. I say "ostensibly", because while Defoe was alive at the time of the event, he was a very young child and wrote this work in 1722. Therefore, while we can be assured that many of the accounts therein are largely accurate, it would be stretch to label it as strictly non-fiction.
This is not a spellbinding or even captivating read. It is full of statistics and seemingly never ending references to specific neighborhoods and precincts as existed in London at the time. Much of the book is taken up with body counts and comparisons of mortality from time to time in the different areas of London and its environs. As most people have no geographic knowledge of the area, this is largely wasted, except to realize that, "Gee, a lot of people died in Whiteside, but not so many in Wapping."
Sprinkled throughout this relatively short work (under 200 dense pages), are interesting anecdotes, and this is the beauty of the book; the actions and reactions of everyday people to the scourge within their midst. How did the authorities address the problem? What was the medical knowledge and prevailing treatments as existed at the time? What did people in London do when commerce and society effectively broke down? What did they do to acquire food? How were the bodies disposed of? All intriguing and practical questions that are asked and answered herein.
Given the factual and dry nature of most of the prose, coupled with the early 18th century writing style, I cannot recommend this work to the casual reader or one looking strictly for entertainment or to pass the time. Even an aficionado of the genre will likely be hard pressed to profess an unreserved endorsement of the book as anything other than what it is; a dry, at times enlightening, account of the Black Death's impact on the city and citizens of London, written in close proximity to the event itself.