Middle Ages Plague

The Great Plague of London, which happened from 1665 to 1666, was considered the last epidemic of Bubonic plague in England. It killed an estimated 100,000 people, about a quarter of London’s population.

It was not the first time

London has been hit by the plague before. During the Black Death that swept through Asia and Europe from 1346 to 1351, the Bubonic Plague also reached London in 1348. However, the Great Plague of London was on a smaller scale.

The cause

Like in the Black Death, Bubonic plague was caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacteria in the intestines of fleas. The bacteria was transmitted to humans after fleas bit them.

The plague was passed on to other humans if they touched the infected tissue of someone with the plague or breathed in their cough.

Why it happened again 

This epidemic was blamed on rats from the Netherlands which had been experiencing the plague on and off since 1599. The rats supposedly reached London on Dutch trading ships from Amsterdam.

Why it spread quickly 

London in 1665 was a crowded city. In all it was around 448 acres all surrounded by a city wall. In the poorer parts of the city buildings were built so close to each other it was crowded.

Maintaining hygiene was a problem. Raw sewage flowed in the streets, animal dung was everywhere, and garbage was a problem.

The poor sanitary conditions and availability of food allowed the rats from Amsterdam to breed into colonies. Their fleas began to spread to humans.

At first only a few people caught the plague, but it began to spread quickly because the city was so crowded. Authorities had to impose quarantine on houses with inhabitants who had the plague.

Interesting facts about the Great Plague

  • During the winter of 1664, a comet was seen in the sky. Many considered it to be an omen of bad things to come. The plague began during summer of the following year.
  • At the height of the epidemic the rich began to leave the city in great numbers, choking up the roads.
  • Most of the victims were the poor who could not leave the city.
  • What added to the confusion was that at the time people were not required to report if someone in their family died. Authorities hired “searchers of the dead” to look for dead people and report the cause of death to them.
  • Another thing that added to the confusion was the families who didn’t tell how their family members died. They didn’t want records to show there was a plague victim in their family.
  • During the plague authorities ordered the killing of cats and dogs, believing they caused the disease. It had the opposite effect as the rat population only grew.
  • In the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, people shut themselves up in their houses after the plague arrived. Almost all people there died but they prevented the plague from spreading to nearby areas.
  • According to legend the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosy” was inspired by the plague.

London already experienced the Bubonic Plague before, why were they not prepared?

Even up to this time people still didn’t know the plague was transmitted by fleas. They still blamed it on unusual weather, sickness in livestock, bad air, and other phenomena.

Did the plague just happen in London? 

Although it was called the Great Plague of London it also spread outside London.

What was done to combat the plague?

People lit bonfires in parts of the city, believing the fire would drive the bad air away. Doctors recommended smoking tobacco. Authorities also quarantined houses with infected individuals.

What happens when a house is quarantined?

The house would have its door marked with a red cross and the words “Lord have mercy upon us”. A watchman was assigned to make sure no one got in or out of the house.

What was one good thing to come out of the plague?

In 1666 a law was passed to rebuild parts of London. Streets were widened, open sewers banned, and more hygiene standards were implemented.