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The Great Plague Hardcover – January, 2000

3.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The author of a history of the Great Fire of London here offers a scholarly, meticulous yet accessible analysis of the last epidemic of bubonic plague to afflict England. The scourge of 1665 killed more than 70,000 in London alone. So horrific were the symptoms, which included psychological and neurological meltdown as well as the telltale glandular swellings and dark skin blotches, that, as Porter relates, it was considered fortunate to die of another disease. Some deliberately contracted syphilis in the hope that it would confer immunity against the plague, and many more misplaced their faith in the new wonder-drug, tobacco. Porter surveys the emerging national policies designed to curb the disease, but isolating the sick, quarantining shipping and prohibiting fairs proved tragically inadequate. The epidemic left the nation exhausted and demoralized, unable to tackle the Dutch ships that strutted around the mouth of the River Thames and strangled the capital of supplies. Using the abundant statistical data provided by parish registers, as well as the sexier narratives of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys and their ilk, the author demonstrates the frightening unpredictability of the plague and the cruel inequality of its impact on rich and poor. His numerical analyses may prove excessive for some lay readers, and the book tends to presuppose a familiarity with English place names (a map or two would have helped), but the 60 black-and-white illustrations, from the mass graves of the Plague Year to the later festivities on the frozen Thames, should help attract a broad readership. History Book Club selection. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

A well-documented and well-illustrated account of the bubonic-plague epidemic that struck England in 166566, killing some 20 percent of Londons inhabitants. Before examining the Great Plague, disaster specialist Porter (The Great Fire of London, not reviewed, etc.) describes the impact of earlier epidemics that had repeatedly swept across Europe in the previous three centuries, affecting not just social and economic life but beliefs, literature, and art. In London, weekly Bills of Mortality reporting the number and cause of deaths had been issued since the early 1600s to provide warning of an impending outbreak and encourage measures to check its progress: quarantining incoming ships, isolating the sick, lighting fires in the streets, fumigating houses, and killing stray cats and dogs. Many of those with the means to do so fled to the countryside; the poor, however, stayed in the city, and it was they who suffered the most. Porter shows how individuals and families endured illness, enforced isolation, and loss of employment; how London and some provincial towns suffered a ruinous loss of trade; and how the government was severely hampered in its war efforts against the Dutch by the ensuing economic recession and reduced revenues. He also depicts how rapidly London recovered, with the population returning to its former size within two years after the epidemic. While Porter's text does not emphasize individual human-interest stories, some of the 70 illustrations he has includedgrim pest-houses where the sick were confined, and dead bodies lying on the street, being loaded onto a cart, or dumped into a mass gravegive a vivid sense of the personal tragedy and horror of the Great Plague. Porter's close, clear look at one epidemic's impact on its culture will be of obvious interest to a world still threatened by the capability of biological weapons to spread smallpox or anthrax to millions. (History Book Club selection) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Sutton Pub Ltd; First edition. edition (January 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 075091615X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0750916158
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 7.8 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,308,306 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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I first became aware of this book through the bibliography section of Norman Cantor's In the Wake of the Plague. He noted that the book was valuable mainly for its illustrations. After reading The Great Plague, I am inclined to agree. The subject of the book is the plague that infected London and the surrounding provinces from 1665-67. There are many illustrations throughout the book, some more or less related to the topic, but all interesting and most I have not seen before. Many are examples of contemporary art showing the different provinces or scenes of the epidemic itself. The book is well written for dry facts and numbers, but is not engaging as is, for example, the old Philip Ziegler book on the Black Death. The text is full of statistics, especially in its chapters on London and the Provinces. One, of course, cannot write about the epidemics without statistics on deaths, etc., but too much reliance on listing them for every province can be very tedious for the reader (a chart certainly would suffice and make it easier for the reader to compare affected areas).
In the chapter on the provinces, each province is covered separately which also makes it arduous. I kept losing track of what was where and, with the lack of a map in this book, had problems visualizing where each area was as I have no knowledge of English geography. After chapters of the percentage of deaths, quarantining policies, etc., the final chapter The Plague in Perspective included some issues that I believe might have been covered more; the London fire of 1666 and its alleged role in ending the plague, the effect of the brown rat replacing the black rat, and the distinction of the rat flea and the human flea, to name a few.
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Format: Kindle Edition
While I most certainly could not be classified as a `plague groupie,' I never the less must admit to having an extremely morbid curiosity about it; a curiosity that has spanned several decades. I suppose it is such a horrendously grotesque subject that it niggles at that dark side we all have hidden in our minds; some having more than others I suppose.

Now this is not a bad book about the last great plague which made is infamous appearance in and around London from 1665 to 1667. It is filled with a mind bending array of statistics - and then more statistics. This is good to a certain point but it does take away from the overall humanistic considerations of which I feel were more important than a mere body count. Now that being said, I fully understand that this medical occurrence cannot be fully understood without these endless numbers and they most certainly occupy a place of importance in the study of this historical event...I'm just saying.......

This massive amount of statistical data coupled with paragraphs which were page length in many cases, made the book a bit of a slog and a reader must read it with a certain amount of determination.

Like other reviewers here I was more than impressed with the plentiful high quality illustrations provided by the author; approximately 70 of them to be exact. A person could spend hours just in the study of these photographs and reproductions. I do feel that this is the strongest aspect of this work. Now that is not to say that the text was not well written and informative, no, no, no! Quite the opposite really. It is just the fact that the information, or the way the information is presented is as dry as the creek behind my house during the month of August, and that is pretty dry.
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Format: Paperback
I have always found the London plague of 1665 to be especially interesting. This is partly because it was England's last outbreak and one of the last in Western Europe. A scourge that had terrified Europe for over three hundred years, about as long as from 1665 to the present, dissapeared suddenly from the British Isles, never to be seen again to this day. Why? What could have stopped the killer microbe from returning? The truth is we really don't know, and it is possible the plague could return at some point in the future.

I largely agree with the last reviewer about this work. The illustrations are good and a lot of material is covered, but the work is not, as he said, the definitive one on the subject. I would say that Bell's book on the same matter is much better. Porter spends too much time here reporting on matters from place to place, and loses focus in the process. When he departs from this, and tells individual stories, the book is quite interesting, but the departures are rare indeed. Still, those with particular interest in this topic won't regret the purchase of a copy.
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