Sunday, 16 January 2022

History Repeats


It seems there really is nothing new under the sun.  I have begun reading a very old book titled “Old St Paul’s,” a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth that was first published in 1841.

The story is set in the 1660s in London at the time of The Plague and the Great Fire.  Although a novel, the author based much of his information on written texts from the time and I found it quite astounding how many statements about the bubonic plague paralleled the Covid pandemic the world currently is facing.

I thought I would write some of them here, for those who wanted to read them. 


The “pestilence” had previously been present in Amsterdam and Hamburg, but efforts to contain it had failed and it arrived in England at the end of 1664.  The population responded with pure panic:

“Smothered for a short time, like a fire upon which coals had been heaped, it broke out with fresh fury in several places.  The consternation now began.  The whole city was panic-stricken; nothing was talked of but the plague – nothing planned but means of arresting its progress – one grim and ghastly idea possessed the minds of all.  Like a hideous phantom stalking the streets at noon-day, and scaring all in its path, Death took its course through London, and selected its prey at pleasure.”


Misinformation abounded:

“The alarm was further increased by the predictions confidently made as to the vast numbers who would be swept away by the visitation; by the prognostications of astrologers; by the prophesyings of enthusiasts; by the denunciations of preachers, and by the portents and prodigies reported to have occurred.  During the long and frosty winter preceding this fatal year, a comet appeared in the heavens, the sickly colour of which was supposed to forebode judgment about to follow.  Blazing stars and other meteors, of a lurid hue and strange preternatural shape, were likewise seen.  The sun was said to have set in streams of blood, and the moon to have shone without reflecting a shadow; grisly shapes appeared at night – strange clamours and groans were heard in the air – hearses, coffins, and heaps of unburied dead were discovered in the sky, and great cakes and clots of blood were found in the Tower moat; while a marvellous double tide occurred at London Bridge.  All these prodigies were currently reported, and in most cases believed.”


People took precautions, like wearing face coverings:

“Shrinking into a door-way, and holding a handkerchief to his face, to avoid breathing the pestilential effluvia, Leonard saw that there were other coffins in the cart, and that it was followed by two persons in long black cloaks.”

But some precautions we might consider a little extreme:

“Mr Bloundel would not touch the packet until he had guarded against the possibility of being infected by it.  Seizing it with a pair of tongs, he plunged it into a pan containing a strong solution of vinegar and sulphur, which he had always in readiness in the chamber, and when thoroughly saturated, laid it in the sun to dry.”

“… he now thought to expel the external air by setting fire to a ball, composed of quick brimstone, saltpetre, and yellow amber, which being placed on an iron plate, speedily filled the room with a thick vapour, and prevented the entrance of any obnoxious particles.”


Little was known about how to treat the disease:

“There are few known remedies against this frightful disease; and what few there are, must be adopted cautiously.  My own specific is sack (a type of wine).  ‘Sack!’ exclaimed Blaize in astonishment.  ‘Henceforth, I will drink nothing else.  I like the remedy amazingly.’”

Every case of the disease had to be reported to the appropriate authorities, in this case the Examiner of Health.  Once it was verified that disease was present in the house, the place was closed down for a month and a watchman set at the door so that none could leave or enter the premises – a bit like our lockdowns today.

One thing we don’t have though, is someone painting a foot-long red cross on our front doors with the words above it reading “Lord have mercy upon us.”


As happens today, some rebelled against official restrictions:

“The rigorous measures adopted by the authorities (whether salutary or not has been questioned), in shutting up houses and confining the sick and sound within them for forty days, were found so intolerable, that most persons were disposed to run any risk rather than be subjected to such a grievance, and every artifice was resorted to for concealing a case when it occurred.”

None of these measures helped stop the plague following due process, and many restrictions were waived as more and more got sick and died.  There simply were not enough people left who could fill all the jobs as watchmen, doctors etc.

The only ones who profited were those who operated the Death Carts driving around the city collecting corpses – many times there was no one to pay them, so they simply helped themselves.


The thought of living in those times fills me with horror, and I can imagine the fear that many folk had.  The plague never really ended until the Great Fire killed off the rodents and fleas that were the unsuspected carriers of the disease.

One thought does comfort me though.  However awful the situation is that mankind faces, there is always hope that the world will carry on.  Bad times pass and turn into history. 

We just happen to be living in a moment of history as it takes place!

Hugz to everyone,

Margaret 😊



  1. What a fascinating book you have found and it's right about history repeating itself. I'd love to be around in 200 years time to see the stories written about living through covid

  2. Fascinating comparisons to today’s life.. The author’s name took me right back to the early 1970s when we moved to Preston in Lancashire, UK. East of Preston and north of Blackburn is an area known as Pendle. He wrote a book called Lancashire Witches, again it was a novel based on fact and told of wise women healers who were persecuted and tried as witches. It’s years since I read the book but the rumours and folk lore in the Pendle area still abound.

  3. As you say not much changes, history repeats itself often, and we never learn.

  4. There are many similarities indeed. A pandemic is a pandemic after all. Let's take heart that even this one can't last forever, and the global death toll is miniscule compared with plagues of the past, especially when factored as a percentage of the population.

  5. We have the vaccines which could make this pandemic easier on everyone and people choose not to use it. I still find it hard to understand. I wonder if people fearing the plague have taken such help?

  6. I'm amazed at the similarities between the Bubonic Plague and Covid. Vaccine or no vaccine this thing will have to run its course. Stay well!!

  7. Interesting post, Margaret. It's easy to see how history repeats. Thankfully, with the advances in epidemiology we no longer face the same dire consequences as our ancestors once did. I hope our leaders don't hear about those red crosses on our front doors, they always seems to be looking for new ways of putting the fear of Our Lord into us.

  8. They akwaysxsay history repeats itself.

  9. I love learning about history. Theres one I have that I need to get back into which is the diary of Samuel Pepys in it he talks about the great fire of london in 1666.

  10. And mankind never learns.....

    🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥

  11. As you say, many parallels with today's Covid outbreak, but at least there is understanding of the disease and treatments available.
    Thanks for your write up
    Stay safe


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