Friday, August 14, 2009

Plague Years

The Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, occurred between about 1348 and 1351.

In the centuries following the Black Death there were several further devastating outbreaks of hemorrhagic plague, particularly in European Cities. I briefly mentioned one of these, the Great Plague of London, that occurred between 1665 and 1666, and killed an estimated 100,000 people - about 20% of London's population at the time. This was the last widespread outbreak in England.

Between the 1350's and the 1660's something had happened that greatly changed our ability to understand and interpret the past - the invention of the printing press in the 1400's and the appearance and spread of books.

So our record of the Great Plague of London is much better. Perhaps the most widely known book from the period is Daniel Defoe's 'A Journal of the plague year'. However this was probably written just prior to publication in 1722 and Defoe was only 5 years old in 1665. Other books were however written at the time, such as Loimologia, or, an historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665, With precautionary Directions against the like Contagion by Dr. Nathaniel Hodges (1629–1688).

Hodges investigated several possible cures for the plague and does not seem impressed by any, not even unicorn horn:

'The powder also of a Unicorn's horn, so much cried up for an antidote, never answered any good expectation, although I have several doses of it given me by a merchant, on purpose to try its virtues: but that which would cure pidgeons, fowls, cats and dogs, as the worthy Gentleman assured me that did, had yet no efficacy against the pestilential virulence.'

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