Life in a plague is not something we have much experience with (thankfully!). The great diarist Samuel Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”), gallivanted around London in the 17th century, keeping his diary full with duties as a member of Parliament and of the Royal Society, as well as being an official in the Royal Navy as the Brits and the Dutch were seeking to “compose their differences” with considerable maritime fervor.
While his life was full, his days and nights recounted in his remarkable diary, were ablaze with frankness and hilarity, recording love affairs, marital woes, highs and lows, philosophical peaks and troughs, and more. Were you to seek an insight into the life and times of a distinguished social climber during the restoration of the monarchy in England over this period, you had, via Pepy’s diary, a front row seat.
The Great Plague of London (1665) had this marvelous scrivener, literally “blogging” about it ongoingly. Pepys could have repaired to the country (most of the elite did so to evade infection), but he stayed in London, industriously in the Admiralty fielding logistics for the second Anglo-Dutch war, and with his quirky, almost “contagious” curiosity, he avidly noted so much of what he saw around the city.
There were daily terrors to observe of course: family discord over who would get their own grave for instance. He lamented the boring predictability of discourse all being about death. He is immersed in debates as to whether it is safe for his wife to hire a maid. After 12 months of “managing,” he lets himself be “touched” by a barber, to great relief it seems. Despite being “plagued,” he lives a full life, evidently, with considerable humor and poise – attributes our shrill pandemic over-reaction could well do with.
The plague populates his diary without usurping it. This plague has made numerous appearances during the 17th century. Apparently, April 1665 finds Pepys enjoying a measure of abundance, he speaks contentedly of his estate. And then he hears of well-heeled people boarding up their homes and cowering inside, “locking themselves” in. This is not for Pepys, who is in pursuit of a new suit, which irritated him, being delayed in delivery. His wife’s lack of appreciation for it, agitates him further. Eventually, to manage his marital disquiet, he arranges to have her shipped to the country, to a friend’s home. With her dispatched, he dines with friends, with considerable gusto, reporting himself “as merry as I could be in such company.” And then he heads out to “show, forsooth, my new suit.”
The plague intensifies, boarding up two of his favorite pubs; and he grieves, hearing of a person who had served him losing a child. A laborer he knew, succumbs and more. A coachman who was driving him around easily and with facility, was suddenly unable to stand, and struck very sick. He notes an increasing exodus to the country (seeking fresh air and sunshine, the opposite of our mad, sad “lockdown” idiocy of today). While sending his mother on as well, he lingers, to deal with matters of war, court gossip, royal news, exchanges with officials. But the plague escalates, and he notes he has to avoid certain streets and neighborhoods. He is ready to “share it with others” or to be “blessed” by the Lord.
His equanimity is astounding. His parish begins to succumb, 40 are suddenly dead. Pepys continues to pleasantly go about, engaging in “good discourse”. He marvels at the fear in which people live. He works in his bedroom each day “undressed,” indicating the plague cannot be avoided. Though he hears bells all day, tolling away mortality, this does not keep him from a wedding he greatly relishes, reporting, “Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy I ever did in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy, and honor, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments.”
Our century is a little too besotted by our own physical survival and mortality by comparison it seems. But then no government took it upon themselves to “order” him indoors either. Pepys is not in denial, he finds equilibrium in the midst of mass death, he can still rejoice in a wedding party and salute life. And this while he sadly reports a friend having lost in one day, a wife and three children. It is hard to fathom the inconsolable grief. The press of corpses leads to citywide burial at night.
Returning home late he encounters a corpse and manages to sidestep this, reminding himself to perhaps not venture out so late. The doctors are dying in Westminster, leaving the living and dying to fend for themselves, mounds of corpses abound, and magnificent composure is required to dart and weave one’s way through life -- clearly generated by the indefatigable Pepys.
1665 was the worst plague of the century, though not a patch on the Black Death of 1348. To get a sense, about 7,000 deaths a week. In 7 months, a quarter of the population perished. An equivalent today would be 4 million deaths in the NY metro area, with people literally “dropping dead” in the streets. And then, hot on the heels of this, came the Great Fire of London, a conflagration that burned this proud city literally to the ground.
And while I worry we don’t have the cultural robustness and immunity, the emotional grit, or the love of life’s stimuli our predecessors had, not only was this not the end of the world, but in a couple of years, the population of the city rebounded. The massive fire helped kill much of the rodent population that had spread the fleas behind the plague. London was rebuilt, due in part to the extraordinary era- defining genius of Sir Christopher Wren, who gave us Saint Pauls’ in its monumental current glory, as well as numerous other seminal landmarks that have come to characterize London at its most splendid.
What might we take away from all this? The apocalypse of plague and fire, was transmuted with great dedication and resolve into a grander, even more enduring city, forged in communal passion. It was to become the most powerful capital in the world for several ages. And Pepys was its remarkable chronicler.
He teaches us that death is always around the corner, it is life’s companion and alter-ego. He demonstrated we can keep living, and cheerfulness and humor are unmistakable human responses to tragedy and duress. And perhaps today, with untold riches and medical technology so far beyond Pepy’s ken, with a relatively hyped up (by comparison) pandemic, killing a tiny fraction of the infected, we are a tad too ready to abjectly suspend liberties, and eschew rationality and balance, rather than embracing our ability to embody the future we seek, while navigating the contagion, together.
Perhaps our age needs fresh chroniclers, and we too can head out and live lives worthy of recounting in the midst of it all; lives which, being vibrantly lived, can capture the spirit and imagination of an age -- even if it too turns out to be an age of transition and transformation.