Can you imagine what it would be like if one out of four people that you knew were wiped off the face of the earth in only eighteen months? It is awful to imagine, but this is exactly what happened to people who lived in England during 1665 to 1666. It was all because of the Black Death, which is also known as the bubonic plague. Although the plague had struck England a few times before the seventeenth century, this last outbreak would have been very scary for anyone who lived during that time.
How did all of this happen? Well, there are a number of reasons why so many people were infected with this horrible disease. Nowadays, we are all very focused on staying clean. We take frequent baths and showers, and many of us wash our hands often in order to avoid picking up colds or other illnesses. Some of us even carry hand sanitizer around so that we can kill any harmful bacteria before it has a chance. To put it mildly, the people living in London during the 1600s were not as clean as we were. At the time, they didn’t know about all of the microscopic organisms that can wreak havoc on the human body. Human beings would not understand what caused the Black Death until over two hundred years after the 1665-1666 epidemic.
Perhaps this was why sanitation was not kept up to a high standard. If you were walking down the streets of London in 1665, chances are that you would have to hold a piece of cloth under your nose in order to keep out the stench. London streets were notoriously filthy, and the fact that people were throwing human waste out of their windows certainly didn’t help the situation. In this environment, it is not hard for us to see how all kinds of diseases could spread.
It was in 1664 that reports began to spread about other parts of Europe that had been afflicted by the Black Death. Officials at the time scrambled to figure out some way to keep it out, so they decided to start quarantining and inspecting ships from other areas, especially those that had been known for recent outbreaks. However, this was not enough to stop the terrible disease from making its way to London.
At the time, people had no idea that the ships were carrying rats that hosted infected fleas. It was these fleas that carried the bacteria, and they are the ones who passed the awful disease onto humans. However, once the person was infected, it would take up to a week for them to start feeling sick. During this time—and after they became sick—they would often unknowingly pass the disease on to family and friends. People who were already sick or old would often be the first to fall prey to the terrible disease.
For those who were infected, the symptoms were unbearable—and doctors had no idea how to properly treat it. The first signs of plague were similar to a cold or a flu; then symptoms would move on to include very badly swollen lymph nodes and necrosis of certain body parts. Since necrosis is what turns the skin black, this is probably why people started calling the disease the Black Death. People who suffered from the plague would experience terrible fevers and chills, and it was an excruciating way to die. During the advanced stage of the disease, many would vomit blood.
Whenever family members or priests would touch someone infected with the plague, they ran the risk of picking up the disease as well. Because the city was filled with muck and dirt, it’s easy to see why people living in the suburbs didn’t get the plague as much as those living in the city. Also, it affected more poor people than it did rich people. After all, a rich person trying to escape the sickness in the city would just go to their country home. Those who were poor did not have these kinds of options.
Although there wasn’t an official census at the time, it has been estimated that perhaps up to 200,000 people could have died as a result of the plague. There were so many people dying that it was difficult to find a place to bury all of the corpses. This is why, to this day, scientists are still discovering burial pits of plague victims and identifying the cause of these mass deaths. By examining the teeth of skeletons in the pits, researchers could see that they contained hints of DNA from the bacteria that caused bubonic plague.
By the end of an eighteen-month period, the city had been ravaged by death and disease. After the outbreak finally stopped, rich merchants who were coming back into the city had to bring their own staffs from the country. This was because the plague had diminished the workforce. The king himself came back into the city with his court, and it seemed as if everything was going to be normal again. However, this happened to be one of the unluckiest years that the city of London has ever experienced. Just as residents were beginning to pick up the pieces and recover from all of the destruction, a great fire engulfed the city. As a result of both issues, the entire city would end up being rebuilt.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Plague in England" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/the-plague-in-england/, February 16, 2017