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Defoe and the Plague in London 1664-1665

Defoe and the Plague in London 1664-1665

Daniel Defoe in Brief. His Writings. And Plague

Daniel Defoe
U K National Portrait Gallery Defoe image: Vandergucht, Michael, after Jeremiah Taverner. “Daniel Defoe.” Line engraving, 1706.
Accessed July 28, 2020,

Daniel Defoe, 1660?–1731 was a London area based businessman, journalist, political pamphleteer, spy, and one of the early proponents of the novel as a genre of literature. Students still read his novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. His Review was one of the earliest periodicals. He was the youngest of three children of James and Alice Foe. His father was a prosperous London tallow chandler, a maker of candles from animal fat, used for home lighting. With his devoted wife, Mary Tuffley, he had six daughters and two sons, all but two of whom lived into adulthood. The family were Dissenters, Nonconformists, Protestants not affiliated with the State Church, the Church of England. Initially engaged in the wholesale hosiery business, he invested unwisely in various business ventures, went bankrupt, and went to debtors’ prison. He also went to prison for some of his religious writings and for libel.

He was Whiggish politically, but like many in his era Defoe did not want to be identified with any one political party and wrote in support of more than one side on many issues. He supported freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Fewer than one quarter of his works, conservatively estimated at 518 titles, are in print today. In the EEBO and ECCO databases of full texts of early English books to 1800 there are 1144 entries for him as an author!

From the early 1700s, Defoe turned to writing to make a living. He authored nonfiction books, pamphlets, and journals on politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology, and the supernatural; he went on to pen novels. He was a pioneer of business and economic journalism, fields he grew and shaped to provide opinion on topics, as well as information. He served as an unofficial intelligence gatherer and “spy” for Robert Harley, Queen Anne’s Lord High Treasurer, who was her chief advisor. While Defoe was not an official civil servant, Harley paid him to travel around England and Scotland seeking out information. He listened to people conversing in private and public places, tried to influence their thinking, and conveyed their opinions and thoughts to government personnel. He published many pamphlets and periodical articles addressing what concerned people, informing and shaping public opinion.

He had a great interest in the both the practical and spiritual experiences of Londoners during the plague of 1664–1665. The approach of plague in his own time, the early 1720s, also motivated him to write about it. The 1664–65 plague happened when he was about six years old and his own family fled London to live more safely. His books Journal of the Plague Year and Due Preparations for the Plague, on display here, came out nearly simultaneously, but he meant them for different audiences.

Books in the Exhibit

Journal of the Plague Year Title Page

Defoe, Daniel. Journal of the Plague Year, Being Observations or Memorials, of the Most Remarkable occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665, Written by a Citizen who Continued All the While in London. Never Made Public Before. London, Printed for E. Nutt, J. Roberts, A. Dodd, and J. Graves, 1722.
SPC Rare xx PR 3404 .J4 1722

Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, we regard today as a historical novel about the plague in London that occurred in 1664–1665, when Defoe himself was about six years old. The story of this plague interested Defoe all his life.

Where did the historical material contained in the novel come from? Paula Backscheider, author of the entry on Defoe in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, says Journal… may be his most under-appreciated novel. She writes, “H.F., the protagonist, lives in London throughout the plague, and he is torn between fleeing and staying, between pragmatic, even crass economic motives, and spiritual impulses, and, even more importantly, is obsessed with determining the reasons individuals get the plague.” Defoe had an uncle Henry Foe. Maybe H.F. was his uncle who shared his experiences during the plague with his nephew.

Information from Samuel Pepy’s Diary, written between 1660 and 1669 might have been another source. Paul Lorrain, Ordinary of Newgate Prison, the chaplain for the prisoners from 1698-1719, was Pepys’ secretary from 1678–1703. While Pepys wrote his Diary in a personal shorthand system he invented, Lorrain had deciphered it. Defoe was in Newgate Prison during the time of Lorrain’s chaplainship. Some scholars think Lorrain shared content about the 1664–1665 plague in London from Pepys’ Diary with Defoe.

Journal of the Plague Year has more details than Pepys’ account. Defoe may have spoken with other people about their plague experiences too.

Due Preparations for the Plague as Well for Soul as for Body Title Page

Defoe, Daniel. Due Preparations for the Plague as Well for Soul as for Body…. London, E. Matthews, 1722.
SPC Rare xx PR 3404 .D9 1722

Events often shaped Defoe’s writings. He penned Due Preparations… in response to an outbreak of plague in Marseille, France in 1720 that he expected might threaten England. By this time in the Second Plague Pandemic (1350s–1722) there could be enough years between occurrences that one or more generations of Londoners would not have experienced it, or would have no older friends or relatives to talk with them about necessary preparations. He meant this book as a warning to people.

Due Preparations expounds practical precautions the head of a household might take to avoid plague along with providing recommendations on how Christians should prepare for death. The book has four parts. In part one Defoe discusses national policy, what his country should do to prevent plague. He evaluates measures the French took, which the English proposed to emulate. The French removed sick people to pesthouses. They cordoned Marseille to prevent people coming into town or going out, only partly successful. The English did not have a history of doing either. The second part contains two stories relating how two different families isolated themselves during the 1664–1665 plague in London. The third part is an ars moriendi, a work on the art of dying well. In it members of a family during the 1664–1665 plague in London do and do not prepare well for death. A younger brother and sister, prompted by their mother, undertake serious prayer and Bible reading together, seeking forgiveness for their sins. Their elder brother, more worldly, does not. As the plague approached, the elder brother experienced more anxiety than the other two. The last part of the book describes how this family took refuge on a ship in the Thames River owned by the two brothers to try to ensure their safety.

Bills of Mortality

Graunt, John. London’s Dreadful Visitation, or a Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year Beginning the 10th of December, 1664, and Ending the 19th of December Following.... London, Printed and are to be Sold by E. Cotes..., 1665.
From EEBO database. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Causes of Plague in London, 1664–1665

  • It was a recurrence of the Bubonic Plague that occurred in the 1340s, which killed at least a third of the European population. Subsequent outbreaks of it to 1722 are called the Second Plague Pandemic.
  • People thought it had been carried to England in bales of cotton imported from the Netherlands. Plague had been intermittent there since 1654.
  • Some people believed “miasmas”, foul air and/or dirty environments or crowded living conditions caused it. Rats lived in thatched roofs, for instance.
  • Some people believed it was a divine punishment from God for sins committed by individuals and/or societal groups.
  • Today we know that fleas carry a microorganism called Yersinia pestis from one rodent/rat/animal to another.
  • When the levels of infection reach a certain level in the rodents/rats/animals, the fleas jump to a person and bite him or her, seeking a new host.
  • Also involved were a combination of immunity patterns and demographic changes. Humans and rodents build up immunity over time. Many people were migrating to London to live from rural areas where people had less immunity.
  • Transmission from person to person happened either through the air (pneumatic), or through the blood (septicemic). While people in the 17th century did not know about germs, some, like Defoe, understood that person to person transmission happened through the air by proximity of persons.
  • Asymptomatic or ill people moving around or travelling carry it from one place and person to another.

In London in 1664-1665 Who was Most Affected by the Plague?

  • The poor, women, and children suffered marginally higher mortality rates because:
    • They were all more vulnerable to other infections also.
    • Possible inadequate nutrition disadvantaged all of them.
    • The poor lived in crowded, possibly ill-kempt, wooden homes with thatched roofs, where fleas/rats lived.
    • Women spent more time around food where fleas/rats might be found.
    • Women cared for the sick.
  • The well-to-do who could afford to leave London did so, going to their country homes or to homes of friends or relatives in rural areas less likely to be plague ridden.
  • In the London area, it hit the poorer suburban parishes on the fringes of town beginning on the West End. It spread north, east, and south across the Thames River.
  • In the City proper, the well-to-do areas suffered less, but plague was everywhere in the City in 1665.
  • People with A blood type, the most common in southeast England at the time, were more susceptible to flea bites. Weaker people succumbed. Stronger, healthier people survived, developing immunities.
Great Plague Map
“The Times” London History Atlas. Edited by Hugh Clout.
London, Times Books (Harper Collins), 1991, p. 67.

Manifestations of Plague in 1664–1665 Londoners

  • Symptoms appeared between 36 hours and 10 days, averaging six days after exposure.
  • A black pustule developed where the flea bite occurred.
  • Then, swellings appeared in the armpit, neck, or groin (lymph glands) or other places in the body, causing headache, vomiting, and cutting pain where the swellings, called buboes, were.
  • In mild cases, in which the patient already had some immunity, the infection subsided, the swellings went away, and the patient recovered.
  • If the swellings persisted, they became hard and turned purple through bleeding beneath the skin. Red lumps or dark blotches appeared at random over the body and the infection entered the bloodstream poisoning in the nervous system. Death.
  • In septicemic transmission, if the person bitten by the flea had a high concentration of the plague germ in their blood already, and then that flea bit another person, it infected the next person. This form of transmission was rarer, but 100% fatal, with a rash developing in 1-3 days causing death before lymph swellings occurred.
  • In pneumatic transmission, the patient’s breathing and coughing infected nearby caregivers, friends, and family, with a two to three-day incubation period. Body temperature fell and the lungs stiffened. It was 95-100% fatal and is the only kind of plague transmitted by human agency.
Scenes Broadside

Scenes in London during the Plague from the Wellcome Library in London. “Nine Images of the Plague in London, 17th Century.” Accessed July 28, 2020.

Remedies or Treatments for Plague in London, 1664–1665

  • Smell or chew something sweet smelling or pleasant in case you encounter bad smells, a dead body, or a graveyard. They used perfumes, Venice treacle (often made in Venice, with 65 ingredients!) or pomanders composed of combinations of rue, angelica, wormwood, snakeroot, myrrh, aloes, camphor, citron, rose leaves, or oil of amber.
  • Flee! Go where there is purer air.
  • Quarantine! The origin of the word is from the French word for forty which is quarante. Shut yourself and your family members up in your house; do not go out!
  • People had to paint a red cross on their front door, and put up a notice that said “Lord Have Mercy on Us,” if anyone living there had plague or had died from it.
  • Purify the air by keeping fires burning day and night in the streets. The poor also burned old shoes and items made from animal horn. People burned brimstone, pepper, hops, frankincense.
  • Smoke tobacco.
  • Kill animals known to carry or harbor plague, such as dogs, cats, rats.
  • Burn the clothing and possessions of people who had plague and those who died from it.
  • Physicians bled patients, lanced the buboes, tried to keep patients calm, and had them smell pouches of sweet-smelling herbs.
  • Bury the dead promptly.
  • Avoid excitement and try to live more moderately.
  • Separate the sick from the well? Unlike on the Continent, London did not routinely do this because they did not have enough pesthouses.
  • Put your own spiritual house in order.

Spiritual Aspects and Plague in London, 1664–1665

  • H.F., the protagonist in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, dismisses the notion that God sent the plague, believing it spread by natural means from natural causes. Yet, when the plague departed he said “Just then it pleased God, as it were, by his immediate Hand to disarm this Enemy.”
  • Although this idea was fading by the 17th century, in general, Christians believed in some notion of individual and collective/societal wrongdoing as a cause of plague.
  • In December, 1663 and in March, 1664, bright comets appeared in the sky. People claimed to see fire and coffins in the heavens and heard sounds of cannon. They believed these sights and sounds were signs from God of imminent punishment for their immoral behavior. The plague was the punishment.
  • People continued to go out to Church even if they did not leave home for any other reason during the plague.
  • People worked on putting their spiritual houses in order before falling ill. Two characters in Defoe’s Due Preparations for the Plague, a brother and sister, do this. People wanted to face death calmly, ready and eager to meet Christ. They confessed their sins and repented of them, reconciled with those with whom they were at odds, paid their bills and debts, and resolved to live more temperately, honestly, and healthfully.

Consequences of the Plague in London, 1664–1665

  • The Black Death and its periodic recurrences to 1722, called the Second Plague Pandemic, have generated more historical writing and speculation than many other historical events. This was the last episode of bubonic plague in England. This particular episode of plague derives much of its significance from its subsequent position in literary culture. Two classics of English literature contributed to its reputation, Defoe’s Journal… and Pepy’s Diary….
  • Trade and commerce, both national and international, experienced great disruption. English ships could not enter ports of other countries. Other countries were not willing to ship goods to England. Some trade through other English ports continued.
  • All shops and businesses in London closed in the summer of 1665.
  • The Government modified The Privy Council Orders of 1578. New Orders came out in 1666. These placed more emphasis on isolating the sick in pesthouses to prevent disease spread. London had only five pesthouses in 1665.
  • About one quarter of London’s population died, 75–100,000 of 400,000 people. Over 7,000 per week died in September, 1665. When the cemeteries were full, they buried bodies in mass graves.
  • Journal of the Plague Year says there was financial poor relief that parishes could tap into. Parishes used these funds to pay women to nurse the sick and men to watch over “shut up” homes to ensure that no residents came out, to bring food, and to carry away and bury the dead bodies. The funds came both from the Government and from people who could afford to be philanthropic. But many people did not know how to tap into these resources. Left over funds were then used to help finance rebuilding London after The Great Fire, which was in September, 1666.
  • Where did the Government’s aid funds come from? The King was the universal inheritor of titles to land and property that fell abandoned at death of their owners. Charles II granted these resources to the Lord Mayor of London and its Court of Aldermen to be sold and the resulting funds to be used to aid the poor in their distress.
  • What caused the plague to stop? Colder weather in November, 1665. It ceased by altogether in February, 1666.

Plague Exhibit Bibliography

Click on items to view sources.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron, Containing an Hundred Pleasant Novels, Wittily Discoursed, between Seven Honourable Ladies and Three Noble Gentlemen. London, Printed by Isaac Iaggard, 1620.
MHSPC Rare xx PQ 4272 .E5 A3 1620

City of London (England). Court of Aldermen. Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague. [London], printed by James Flesher..., [1665].
Online in EEBO and Microforms

Defoe, Daniel. Due Preparations for the Plague, as Well for Soul as for Body. Being Some Seasonable Thoughts upon the Visible Approach of the Present Dreadful Contagion in France; the Properest Measures to Prevent It, and the Great Work of Submitting to It. London, E. Matthews, 1722
MHSPC Rare xx PR 3404 .D9 1722

Defoe, Daniel. Journal of the Plague Year, Being Observations of Memorials, of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665, Written by a Citizen who Continued All the While in London. Never Made Public Before. London, Printed for E. Nutt, J. Roberts, A. Dodd, and J. Graves, 1722.
MHSPC Rare xx PR 3404 .J4 1722

Defoe, Daniel. Letters of Daniel Defoe. Edited by George Harris Healey. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1955
Microforms Remote 6407 r.583

Dekker, Thomas. Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker. Edited by F.P. Wilson. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1925
Main PR 2243 .P5 1925

England and Wales. Sovereign. Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Orders, Thought Meete by her Majestie, and her Privy Council to be Executed throughout the Counties of this Realm, in Such Townes, Villages, and Other Places, as are, or May be Hereafter Infected with the Plague.... London, by Christopher Barker, printer to the Queen's Most Excellent Majestie, [1578]
Online in EEBO, Microforms. The famous Plague Orders of the Privy Council.

Graunt, John. London's Dreadful Visitation, or, a Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year beginning from 20th of December, 1664 and Ending the 19th of December Following, as also the General or Whole Year's Bill, According to the Report Made to the King's Most Excellent Majesty by the Company of Parish Clerks of London. London, Printed and sold by E. Cotes..., 1665.
Microforms and online EEBO

Meade, Richard. Short Discourse Concerning Pestiliential Contagion, and the Methods to be Used to Prevent It. London, Printed for Sam. Buckley and Ralph Smith, 1720.
Microforms and Online. There is also a 1722 ed.

Pepys, Samuel. Diary of Samuel Pepys. London, G. Bell, 1893-1899.
MHSPC Rare DA 447 .P4 A4 1893 v. 4-5

Vincent, Thomas. God's Terrible Voice in the City: Wherein You Have I. the Sound of the Voice in the Narration of the two Late Dreadful Judgements of Plague and Fire, Inflicted by the Lord upon the City of London, the Former in the Year 1665. The Latter in the Year 1666. 1. Of the Cause of These Judgements, Where You Have a Catalogue of London's Sins. 2. Of the Design of These Judgments, Where You Have an Enumeration of the Duties God Calls for by This Terrible Voice. London: s.n., Printed in the Year 1667.
Microforms and online EEBO

Backscheider, Paula. Daniel Defoe, His Life. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, c1989. Main PR 3406 .B24 1989

Backscheider, Paula. "Daniel Defoe." In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Benedictow, O.J. "Morbidity in Historical Plague Epidemics." Population Studies. Vol. 41, pp. 401-431.

Bertrand, Jean-Baptiste. Historical Relation of the Plague at Marseilles in the Year 1720. Farnborough, England, Gregg International, 1973.
Main RC 178 .F9 M213 1973

Biraben, Jean-Noel. "Certain Demographic Characteristics of the Plague Epidemic in France, 1720-1722." in Population and Social Change. Edited by D.V. Glass and Roger Revelle. London, Edward Arnold, 1972, pp. 233-241.
Remote Storage HB 871 .P65 1972

Biraben, Jean-Noel. Hommes et la Peste en France et dans les Pays Europeens et Mediterraneens, Vol. 1, la Peste dans l'Histoire. Paris, Mouton, 1975
Remote Storage RC 178 .F9 B5 t. 1

Boghurst, William. Loimographia, an Account of the Great Plague of London in the Year 1665, Now First Printed from the British Museum Sloane MS 349, for the Epidemiological Society of London. Edited by Joseph Frank Payne. London, Shaw, 1894. Written, but not published that we know of, [1666]
HathiTrust online

Carey, Mathew. Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, with a Statement of the Proceedings that Took Place on the Subject in Different Parts of the United States, to which are Added Accounts of the Plague in London and Marseilles and a List of the Dead from August 1 to the Middle of December, 1793. Philadelphia, Printed by the Author, January 16, 1794. [We have several editions of this in microform and online]
Microforms 1 Microprint 1st series no. 26735-26737
Online in ECCO and HT

"Daniel Defoe." In Wikipedia. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, from Ancient Times to the Present. Edited by George Childs Kohn. NY, Facts on File, c2001.
Main RA 649 .E53 2001

"Great Plague of London." In Wikipedia. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Hays, J.N. Burdens of Disease, Epidemics and Human Response in Western History. Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, c2009.
Main RA 649 .H29 2009

Hays, J.N. Epidemics and Pandemics, Their Impacts on Human History. Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, c2005
Main RA 649 .H293 2005

Hirst, Leonard Fabian. Conquest of Plague, a Study of the Evolution of Epidemiology. Oxford, Clarendon, 1953.
Main RC 172 .H5

Hodges, Nathaniel. Loimologia, or an Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665, with Precautionary Directions against the Like Contagion. To which is Added an Essay on the Different Causes of Pestiliential Diseases by John Quincy, MD. London, printed by E. Bell and J. Osborn, 1720.
Microform and online in ECCO. [original ed. is 1672, in Latin, we have that too.]

Loomis, Joshua S. Epidemics, the Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity. Santa Barbara, Cal., Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, [2018].
Main RA 649 .L68 2018

McMillen, Christian. Pandemics, a Very Short Introduction. NY, OUP, [2016].
Main RA 649 .M373 2016

Meacham, Jon. "Pandemics Past." NYTBRMay 24, 2020, p. 9.

Morris, Christopher. "Plague in Britain". Historical Journal. XIV (1971), pp. 205-215.

Plague Reconsidered, a New Look at its Origins and Effects in 16th and 17th Century England. Matlock, Local Population Studies, c1977.
Main RC 178 .G7 P52

Rail, Chester David. Plague Ecotoxicology, Including Historical Aspects of the Disease in the Americas and Eastern Hemisphere. Springfield, Ill., Thomas, 1985.
Main RC 171 .R35 1985.

Slack, Paul. Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. London, Routledge and K. Paul, 1985. Main RA 644 .P7 S65 1985

Snowden, Frank M. Epidemics and Society, from the Black Death to the Present. New Haven, Yale University Press, [2019].
Main RA 649 .S66 2019

"The Times" London History Atlas. Edited by Hugh Clout. London, Times Books (HarperCollins), 1991, p. 67.
Oversize 3 West DA 677 .T56 1991

Winslow, C.E.A. Conquest of Epidemic Disease, a Chapter in the History of Ideas. Madison, Univ. of Wisconsin, 1980, c1971.
Remote Storage RA 651 .W5 1980

Contact the Librarian

Agnes Haigh Widder, Humanities Bibliographer
Collections Management and Development
Michigan State University Libraries
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Citation (Chicago):
Widder, Agnes Haigh. “Defoe and the Plague in London, 1664-1665.” Michigan State University Libraries. Accessed [date of usage by patron].