The Facts of Mortality: the use of the London Bills in Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bills of Mortality have informed more than three centuries of writing about the plague. Although the Death by Numbers project stands out as the first systematic effort to digitize and process the totality of the bills, a whole bunch of writers, historians, and social scientists have kneaded the numbers collected in the Bills, looking for the historical gist of plague outbreaks in England and Continental Europe. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is one of the most well known examples of a literary approach to the 1665’s outbreak of the Plague in London. This blog post examines Defoe’s use of the weekly bills not only as the factual backdrop over which the myriad of circumstances around the plague unravel, but also as the fundamental time marker that renders London’s human element into a plague frenzy. But first, let’s get some context.

A Journal of the Plague Year being Observations or Memorials of the most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Publick as Private, which happened in London during the last Great Visitation in 1665 Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before was published in 1722, 57 years after London’s Great Plague of 1665-1666, which took the lives of over seventy thousand Londoners. The 270 page book is probably Defoe’s second most widely-read piece, after The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The book is regarded as a fictional account of the plague; a piece situated halfway between “a pseudo-history and a proto-novel” (Richertti 2005, 301). It is constructed by deploying richly-detailed and realistic narrations of a plethora of situations derived from the advance of the plague in an urban context. Although a five-year-old Daniel Defoe witnessed the plague while living in London, it has been argued that his interest in the plague stemmed from the Marseille outbreak of the plague in the fall of 1720. The ever-present menace of the plague prompted Defoe to write and publish not only A Journal of the Plague Year, but also the more didactic and moralistic Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Soul as Body.

A Journal of the Plague Year is narrated by a bachelor saddler named H.F, who only identifies himself in the very last page. Curious and inquisitive, H.F. is like a methodical flaneur: a risk-seeking stroller who, disregarding his brother’s advice of fleeing the city, wanders around London both merging with people’s flamboyant and dramatic reactions to the advance of the pestilence, and rationally examining the bizarre scenes he encounters. Some critics have argued that H.F.’s character design intends to occupy a middle ground between “religious zealots who attribute everything to the punitive hand of an angry God, and of atheistical physicians who explain everything mechanistically” (Owens and Furbank 2005, 4). But H.F also delves into moments of deeply emotional empathy, like when he describes an anonymous man in a Cloak “oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief” who is accompanying the dead bodies of his wife and several kids to their burial; after seeing the bodies placed into the pit, the man “went backwards two or three steps and fell down into a swoon” and “cried out loud, unable to contain himself” (Defoe, 67-68). H.F. is not the only character, though. The city itself is an active part of the narration. London plays the role of a monstrous organism, which both boosts and suffers the outcomes of the plague. As John Richetti points out, the encyclopedic and comprehensive nature of A Journal of the Plague Year is an epitome of Defoe’s literary project, that is, “to record, as it were, every single thing and every experience in his world and to render his historical moment with a fullness and specificity no other writer ever attempted” (Richertti 2005, 309-310).

Defoe’s examination of The London Bills of Mortality provides a timeline to the advance of the Plague during the first weeks of the outbreak. The first part of the narration is organized around the bills, by offering counterpoints between the data accrued and how the plague was experienced by the city inhabitants. Defoe conducts a detailed account of the increasing number of plague burials between late December and February 7th, in the parishes outside the London walls, like the St Giles-in-the-Fields, St Andrew’s, St Bride’s, St James, and Clerkenwell. The bills worked in the narration like a tabular-map tracking the dreadful movement of the plague eastward, towards the city within the walls. H.F narrates that, by mid April 1665, and “to the great affliction of the city”, one person “died [of plague] within the walls, in the parish of St Mary Woolchurch, that is to say, in Bearbinder Lane, near Stocks Market” (Defoe, 16).

Not only the specific information about plague deaths was relevant, but also the general mortality figures and the causes of death listed in the verso of the Bills were material for scrutiny. The increase in the general burials was a worrisome sign for the readers of the bills: “This last bill [January 3rd to 10th] was really frightful, being a higher number than had been known to have been buried in one week since the preceding visitation” (Defoe, 5). A wider variety of viral diseases and fevers were indicators of the growing hazard of a violent plague upsurge: proxies of the plague. By early June of 1665. H.F. narrates that “the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills rose high; the articles of the fever, spotted-fever, and teeth began to swell; for all that could conceal their distempers did it” (Defoe, 8). According to the narrator, spotted-fever and the plague were “looked upon as the same thing”, so he maintained a detailed enumeration of both diseases based on the bills. By early May, out of 40 burials in the parish of St. Giles, “whereof it was certain most of them died of the plague (…) there was fourteen of the spotted-fever, as well as fourteen of the plague, and we took it for granted upon the whole that there were fifty died that week of the plague” (Defoe, 7).

The figures on the bills would set the mood of Londoners during the early weeks of the outbreak. Defoe’s main character narrates that “it was observed with great uneasiness by the people that the weekly bills in general increased very much during these weeks” (Defoe, 4). In a similar way, downward trends showcased in the bills would bring some ease to the inhabitants of the city; “next week there seemed to be some hopes again; the bills were low, the number of the dead in all was but 388, there was none of the plague, and but four of the spotted-fever” (Defoe, 6). In Defoe’s narration, we learn more about H.F.’s personality through his relation with the bills, for his inclination to observe pushes him to disregard the warnings and remain in the city: “the infection increased round me, and the bills were risen to almost seven hundred a week, and my brother told me he would venture to stay no longer” (Defoe, 14).

Were the numbers on the bills an apodictic truth in the representation of the outbreak created by Daniel Defoe? Not exactly. By the end of the book, H.F. addresses an unsolved question for the London outbreak contemporaries: if the first case occurred in December 1664, why did the plague not explode until April of 1665? In addition to the explanation that a long cold winter froze up the outbreak, H.F. contends that a “fraud lay in the parish officers, searchers, and persons appointed to give account of the dead” (Defoe, 222). Searchers of the dead and parish officers would receive money from the families of plague victims “to procure, or otherwise procured, the dead persons to be returned as dying of other distempers” (Defoe, 223). This would explain why, at the midst of the outbreak’s highest point, unrelated diseases saw their numbers increase in the bills. Plague victim’s families were “very loth at first to have the neighbours believe their houses were infected”, and tried to “prevent the shutting up of their houses” (Defoe, 222-223).

More than simple forensic accounts, the bills were printed artifacts that constructed the social texture of seventeen-century London. Analyzing literary pieces like Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year help unfold not only the variety of social facts that existed beyond the inert numbers, but also the historical realities being constructed by the process of producing the Bills. Stay tuned for an in depth analysis of 1665’s bills and a side-to-side comparison with Defoe’s figures.

– Hernán Adasme

Works Cited

  • Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. Classic illustrated Edition, Kindle edition.
  • Owens W.R., and P.N. Furbank, editors. Satire, Fantasy and Writings on the Supernatural by Daniel Defoe Vol 8: An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005.
  • Richertti, John. The Life of Daniel Defoe: A Critical Biography. Willey, 2005