Anna Abney on Plague Remedies… then and now

07/06/2021

Duckworth’s upcoming title The Master of Measham Hall is set in the mid-seventeenth century – 1665 to be exact. Fourteen years following the end of the bloody and draining Civil War, England was still addled by religious and political angst. To make things worse, plague struck the land once more.

After the last fifteen months, to say that we know a little bit about pandemics would be an understatement. Fortunately, with vaccine rollouts underway, Summer 2021 may see a bit of normality return. But what was it like in the summer of 1665? Without the technology we have today, what measures were put in place to tackle the disease? And how does it differ from 2021?

Author Anna Abney takes a look…

The idea for The Master of Measham Hall came some years ago, when I was teaching Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year to English Literature students. The knock-on impact a deadly pandemic would have on other aspects of people’s lives – apart from illness and death – hadn’t really occurred to me (this was before Covid-19). I was fascinated by the way London boroughs closed themselves off to outsiders and many people were made homeless. Defoe describes an encampment in Epping Forest set up by just such people and this was going to be the focus of the novel. My characters, however, had other ideas about the direction of the novel. Alethea Hawthorne is a headstrong young woman and, as I was writing, her journey and the need to get back to her home in Derbyshire took over.

A lot of plague cures and preventatives seem outlandish to us today, but editing the novel during lockdown, I was struck by how many of the precautions taken by people in the seventeenth century were like those we have been using against Covid. Social distancing, for example. was advocated because the plague was believed to be airborne (although it is a bacterial infection not a virus). Once infected by contaminated air, it could be passed from person to person. Stephen Bradwell, a London physician, advised:

‘be contented to live as solitary as your calling and business will give leave. … if you stand to talk with another be distant from him the space of two yards. But if you suspect the party to be infected, let the space of four yards part you’ (A Watch-Man for the Pest, 1625).

Francis Herring stated that ‘stage-plays, wakes, feasts and may-pole dancings are to be prohibited by the public authority’ (Preservatives Against the Plague, 1647). Though, as Margaret Calverton in The Master of Measham Hall notes, the authorities, then as now, could be worryingly slow to act.

Herring entreats the governors of the city of London and ‘all rich men’ to look after their poor brethren and stop ‘idle vagabonds’ wandering up and down, spreading infection. He is also, unusually, a keen proponent of hand washing, using rose-vinegar and water.

The streets were cleaned, getting rid sewage and refuse, which must have had a beneficial effect. Bradwell exhorted keeping every room in the house clean, leaving ‘no sluttish corners.’ Though another ‘learned physician’ suggested placing peeled onions in a room to ‘gather all the infection into them’, which can’t have smelt too good. Fires were burnt to purify the air, both inside and out. Margaret follows the sort of recipe Bradwell recommends, using pitch, tar, turpentine, and rosin. It must have been pretty pungent.

Some people also used masks, like my character, Giacomo, while others, like Alethea, carried medicinal posies of herbs and flowers. Bradwell warns against wearing absorbent material like wool or leather but thought women’s whalebone bodices were ‘good armour’ against the plague.

While there is discussion of vaccine passports being issued now, in the seventeenth century you needed a certificate of health to travel (as Alethea, discovers). Businesses closed and London went quiet. Special hospitals (or pest-houses) were built, and suspected plague victims were locked into their homes for enforced quarantine.
Then, as now, desperate people turned to dubious remedies. Herring advises against the popular wearing of amulets filled with arsenic around the neck. Fortunately, we don’t go in for the kind of ‘purging’ popular then – bloodletting, suppositories, and vomiting. Neither do we believe, as they did then, that disease is ‘sent from God’ to punish us, though at her lowest point, Alethea starts to fear this might be the case.