The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

As a rule, I do not feature books on this blog unless I enthusiastically recommend them. I have read (in their entirety) all the books I feature on this blog, but the opposite is not true; I do not feature on this blog all the books I finish reading.

(To learn which books I completed but didn’t feature, and why not, become a patron at any level!)

I am now going to commence featuring a book that I do enthusiastically recommend. . . . But I can only enthusiastically recommend it as an important classic and historical document. Furthermore, I cannot, in good conscience, enthusiastically recommend that you read it in 2020, as I did. 2021 doesn’t look too promising for my double thumbs up, either.

It’s slightly depressing, see.

But, no worries: I read this book so you don’t have to!

A Big Bad Disease

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame), is a narrative covering the years 1664-1665 in London. These two years were a time of mass death due to a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague. This event is known as the Great Plague of London. (Incidentally, the city’s bad luck continued into the following year, 1666, when the Great Fire of London occurred.)

The bubonic plague was also responsible for many other outbreaks around the world. The worst of these is known as the Black Death, which occurred in 1347-1351 in Eurasia and North Africa. This affliction may have killed as much as one-half, or possibly more, of the European population during those four years.

What’s the deal with the bubonic plague? wondered I. And I did a little research. Apparently, it’s caused by bacteria that move between rats and fleas (and sometimes other animals) and can pass into humans. Symptoms include fever, aching, vomiting, and the appearance of buboes (hence the term “bubonic”), which are pus-filled inflammatory lumps in the armpits or groin. It’s highly contagious and lethal.

Why don’t people get the bubonic plague nowadays? wondered I. Well, the answer is that people do get the bubonic plague nowadays. But nowadays, there’s a cure for bacterial infections: antibiotics. So the bubonic plague doesn’t have the opportunity to run rampant in today’s populations. However, antibiotic resistance has been an issue in some instances. So, contrary to popular belief, the game isn’t up when it comes to the bubonic plague.

Another Big Bad Disease

I decided to read this horrific (and, by modern standards, horrifically boring) book because I had written about it in an article for the Silent Book Club blog called Epidemics, Plagues, and Isolation. I thought it might be interesting, and perhaps perversely comforting, to compare the Great Plague of London to our COVID-19 pandemic.

It was, indeed, a fascinating comparison. As for being comforting . . . not so much. But I suffered through. For the sake of knowledge. And here’s what I found out. The struggles Londoners faced in 1664-1665 were the same ones we face today! Here’s a list of the major problems discussed in A Journal of the Plague Year:

  • It’s dangerous to be an essential worker like a physician, nurse, church leader, body collector, grave digger, law enforcer, butcher, servant, or anyone who works in the marketplace, restaurants, or shops.
  • The rich are able to vacate the city and save themselves, while the poor remain in the city and take dangerous jobs; many more poor than rich people suffer and die.
  • There’s a deeply debated question about whether it’s better to take preventative action or simply trust in God to save you.
  • There’s a deeply debated question about how, and how long, to quarantine people.
  • After weeks or months of quarantine or removal from the city, people get restless and flock back to the city and their usual lives, causing a resurgence of suffering and death.
  • People who don’t know they are sick accidentally pass the sickness on to others.
  • Family members often voluntarily separate from each other, even husbands from wives, in attempts to quarantine; the sick often die alone, or with the company of only a nurse.

Any of this sound familiar?

A Warning Call

Daniel Defoe wrote this book more than 50 years after the events in question. The book pretends to be a memoir: a nonfictional account of true events that happened when the author was in his 20s (or so). However, the events of 1664-1665 actually happened when Defoe was only 5 years old.

The masquerading of fiction as nonfiction is considered highly unethical today. In Defoe’s time, the ethics of this were not questioned. And Defoe’s work is considered one of the most accurate accounts of the Great Plague of London available: he did his research. Furthermore, he writes for a good cause. He wants to give the public an accurate picture of the past, so they can be more careful in the future.

In Defoe’s opinion, the risk of another plague was not over. He hoped that people would learn from the past, so as to move into the future more wisely. Now, what goal is more praiseworthy than that?

The edition I read has a wonderful (in the most horrific sense of the term) painting on its cover. It’s a detail of the painting at the opening of this blog post. This painting is called “The Triumph of Death” and it is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, of the Netherlands, c. 1562. I have to think that the motivation behind painting such a gruesome scene was similar to Defoe’s in writing A Journal of the Plague Year. Namely, they both likely wanted to reveal, in all its horror, what can happen when disease runs rampant through a population. These artworks—like so many artworks—are warning calls, urging us to prepare for the worst, so perhaps the worst won’t happen.

They are also reminders of our own mortality, so perhaps we will not take our precious lives for granted.

(I would like to note here that, if you happen to read this edition, there is a mistake in the introductory note. The sentence in the second-to-last paragraph that begins “By the time the disease had run its course, in late 1695, . . .” should say “1665.” I mention this here to hopefully save future readers from the deep confusion I felt upon coming to this sentence.)

Bring Out Your Dead

“But nothing answered; the infection raged, and the people were now frighted and terrified to the last degree: so that, as I may say, they gave themselves up, and, as I mentioned above, abandoned themselves to their despair.”

What are you grateful for today?

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