by Daniel Defoe
With Ebola outbreaks on the news and debates on vaccinations on every blog, it seemed like a perfect time to return to one of the original records of a disease outbreak. I was particularly curious to read this book because it was mentioned multiple times in “On Immunity”. The author of Robinson Crusoe wrote this fictionalized account of a man who lives through the bubonic plague in England in 1665. Defoe was only 5-years-old at that time, but his account is considered one of the most accurate ones of the plague.
Defoe looks at the plague through the eyes of one man. He’s forced to decide if he should stay or go when the outbreak begins. So many people fled, but some didn’t realize they had already been infected. They carried the plague with them to other towns. Some people who were sick would throw themselves into the pits of the dead and wait their death out.
The book is surprisingly interesting for a nonfiction account written centuries ago. Defoe talked about the actually details of how the outbreak was handle. For example, when one person in a family got sick, the rest of the family was kept in their house with a guard posted out front or other times they were all sent to the sick house, where they often became infected even if they weren’t sick before.
The scene from “Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail” where they are yelling out “Bring out your dead!” was a real thing. People went around with carts and actually yelled that out to collect the dead bodies.
The standard of burying people six feet under was also established at this point. It used to be a very arbitrary depth before the plague.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s less about the plague itself than it is about the study of a society in duress. It was fascinating to see the different ways people reacted. Their fight or flight tendencies haven’t changed much over the last 300 years.