Lord have mercy on us!

Reading through some plague statistics recently I was shocked to discover just how many lives were claimed by this disease in the 17th Century. I had known that during plague outbreaks hundreds of people died, but I hadn’t realised just how enormous those numbers were. What follows is a brief overview of the disease, followed by the numbers of deaths which occurred during several big plague outbreaks, recorded during a particularly virulent outbreak in 1665.

Bubonic Plague is a disease transmitted by rats. Or rather the fleas on rats. When a plague-carrying flea bites a host, human or rodent, the bacillus enters the bloodstream. This infection then spreads through the lymph nodes, leading to swellings, or buboes, in the neck, armpit, and groin. Of those infected, about two-thirds die. Symptoms of plague included vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, nausea, bleeding from the ears, fever and abdominal pain. More general pain resulted from the slow decay of the skin of an infected person which produced black spots all over the body.

In the 17th Century, an outbreak of plague was impossible to treat. Those infected were isolated in their houses for at least twenty days and were compelled to pin a paper to their front door bearing the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. The parish often paid members of the community to visit plague victims to bring them food, and, in the case of death, call for a cart to bear the body away. All bedding and linen used by an infected person was burned. Those who had visited an infected house carried a long white stick to warn others to avoid contact with them.

Some plague numbers: In 1591-2, 11,503 people died of plague. In 1625, it claimed 35,428 lives, and five years later in 1630, another 1,317. Between 1636-8, 16,213 people succumbed to the disease, and between 1646 and 1648, another 8,324. In 1665, more than 64,296 people died between January and October.

During the outbreak of 1665, the above numbers were published, along with some approved remedies for curing the plague, entitled Certain approved Medicines for the plague, both to prevent that Contagion, and to expel it after it be taken; as have been approved in the year 1625 and also in this present visitation 1665.

To correct the Aire

Thyme, Mint, Rosemary, Bay leaves, Blame, Pitch, Tarre Rosen, Turpentine, Frankincense, Myrrh, Amber. One or more of these, as they are at hand, or may be readily procured, to be cast on the coales to perfume the house.


Such as are to walk abroad, or talk with any may do well to carry Rue, Wormwood, Angelica, Gentian, Myrrh, Valerian or Setwall-root in their hands to smell, and of those they may hold or chew a little in their mouths as they go.

Inward Medicines for the Prevention of the Plague

Take a Spoon full of quick wine vinegar, wherein Wormwood chopped hath been infused. Take good Figs, thirty, Walnut kernels twenty, green Rue picked a good handful, Salt one spoonful, stamp them and incorporate them together. Take of this mixture every morning the quantity of a Prune; Children and weak bodies, as much as a Hasel nut.

For the Cure of the Plague

If any person be infected, let him sweat with Marigold drink, mingling therewith two drams of London treacle (a medicinal salve, or compound, composed of many ingredients).

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  • July 20, 2011 - 9:34 am | Permalink

    Do you know Dekker’s description of plague-ridden London in *The Wonderful Year*?

    He asks for people to reflect on what has passed, “discoursing, as it were at the end of this mortal siege of the plague, of the several most worthy accidents and strange births which this pestiferous year hath brought forth; some of them yielding comical and ridiculous stuff, others lamentable, a third kind upholding rather admiration than laughter or pity”

  • July 20, 2011 - 6:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a great post. It must have been terrible for oneself or someone in your family to catch bubonic plague, stating the obvious. But don’t you think it was quite benevolent of the parish to provide money to help the victims of the disease. I know there must have been a great fear of catching it, but maybe people just looked after each other anyway, in those days. It would be nice to think they did.

  • July 18, 2011 - 7:36 pm | Permalink

    amazing images. i read somewhere that we *still* couldn’t cure the bubonic plague if it came around, only we know to avoid flea-ridden rats, thankfully! but the figs and walnuts and herbs sound like a good try anyway.

  • July 14, 2011 - 11:14 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting article! Thank you so much for sharing.

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