Roughly 5,000 to 10,000 years ago the bacteria named Yersinia pseudotuberculosis evolved to Yersinia pestis – known today as the culprit behind the infamous Bubonic plague. Throughout human history many outbreaks of the Bubonic plague have occurred, from the black death in Europe during the 1300’s to the recent 2014 and 2017 outbreaks in Madagascar. The first recorded pan epidemic of the plague happened in the Byzantine Empire during 541 and 542 AD, where an estimated 25 million people died. Y. pestis originates from China and the Indian subcontinent area; Due to the rise in trade it traveled to Africa and the Middle East, eventually spreading throughout the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe as well. According to the CDC, symptoms of the Bubonic plague include: “sudden onset fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes (called buboes)” – which happens when the bacteria multiplies inside the node. This Buboes appear in the nodes generally closest to the bite from an infected insect or mammal. Tissue also can become gangrene on extremities, this is when the tissue has died and turned a black colour; This is where the nickname “the Black Death” was coined from.
As mentioned before, there has been countless outbreaks and epidemics of the plague worldwide, but the 1665 outbreak in London is personally my favourite. The 16th and 17th centuries were a turning point for human society; A mix of old and new technologies and ideas blended to make it a very tumultuous time period in England. The royal family still held reign over the country, but an uptick in mercantilism caused the English economy to become very prosperous for its time. The increase in trade from around the world is part of how the plague spread to the country. The 1665 plague of London was the last major outbreak in Europe; Although it was a devastating loss of life, it brought about better infrastructure and knowledge that helped kick off the revolutionary changes to society in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The 17th century was also a turning point in scientific discoveries; 1665 was also the year Robert Hooke first saw a cell under the microscope. Knowledge about cells wasn’t common at the time like it is now, but the people did know more about the plague than you’d think. Starting in the 16th century, the clark from each parish in the greater London area would collect information about all the deaths of the week, this was then compiled into handbills known as “The Bills of Mortality”. In the bills you can read the statistics of how many had died in each parish and how they passed away as well. The information was helpful for residents of the city at the time because you could see how the plague moved from parish to parish. By the time the 1665 outbreak came around the bills were commonly found throughout the city of London. The bills could be bought from merchants or people could also get them as a regular subscription. Sometimes people would write prayers or even home remedies in the bills margins to share with others. Unfortunately, even though the bills were helpful, they couldn’t stop the bacteria from spreading throughout the city.
The small city streets and lack of proper hygiene knowledge meant the bacterium was back to ravage the city once again. As people sensed another epidemic coming, many want to leave and find refuge in villages untouched by the plague, but for the people living in those areas the thought of that was daunting. If even one infected person got out of the city, it could broaden the diseases reach further out the walls. The rich were able to leave with ease, but for the majority of the people they needed a certificate to prove their good health before leaving the city gates and that wasn’t an easy paper for poor to get ahold of and it got even harder to obtain as the disease reached its peak. Also for many poor folk, the idea of trying to afford a new home or the possibility of not finding more work held them back from leaving.
In Autumn, after over a year the plague started to slow down a bit. But if it wasn’t for ‘The Great Fire of London’, many historians argue that the plague may have continued on. The Great Fire started on September 2nd, 1666 in a bakery on Pudding Lane and was officially extinguished four days later. The fire burnt and destroyed a large portion of the city centre, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, then spread across the city wall and the River Fleet. Due to the loss of many homes and businesses, parliament enacted ‘The Rebuilding of London Act 1666’, which included widening the streets and begun the cities journey to industrialisation.
In this post industrialisation world today we don’t generally think we need to worry about the plague, especially since antibiotics were developed against the disease. But as bacteria evolve and at a faster pace than science can innovate, the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria or a new disease (like the Ebola virus in the DROC right now) causing an epidemic of possible global proportions is ever looming. Wash your hands people.
Sources to find some more information: