By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
The plague that came to Eyam was a side effect of the epidemic raging in London at the same time. This outbreak of the Black Death was the last one of any real consequence in England. Although subsequent outbreaks after 1352 had tended to be much less virulent in nature, the Black Death in Britain went out with a bang rather than a whimper.
Great Outbreak of the Black Death
The outbreak that ravaged London in 1665–1666 was appropriately known as the Great Plague of London, and it left an indelible stamp on the consciousness not just of England but of the whole Western world. This particular outbreak incorporated so many of what we might call classic elements of earlier outbreaks.
First, there were the astrological phenomena that were identified as the cause of the plague by the medical faculty of the University of Paris during the first wave. It was reported by numerous eyewitness sources that in 1664, a bright comet or meteor was seen streaking through the sky over the English capital. Looking back from the vantage point of 1667, one probably couldn’t help but see this event as an omen of what was to come next.
In 1664, British officials got troublesome reports of outbreaks of plague on the continent. They immediately tried to implement quarantine measures, including forcing merchant ships coming from overseas to wait in isolation for 40 days and only allowing those ships into its port cities that had traveled from certified plague-free cities and which thus carried an official certificate of health.
As we all know by now, these measures just don’t provide adequate defense against infected fleas that may have been lurking in goods that were waiting to be unloaded and sold. It is likely that the plague entered Britain on a ship coming from the Netherlands, and there seem to have been some cases in the fall of 1664.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A False Sense of Security
The winter of 1664–1665 was a hard one—so cold that the Thames froze over—and this may have slowed the plague down and given people the sense that maybe they had dodged a bullet. Nope. By the summer of 1665, the plague was rampant in London. The great diarist Samuel Pepys made a note of it in his journal, commenting on the number of houses that were being shut up and shut off to contain the plague.
Those who could, fled the city, including the royal family, who decamped for Salisbury. Daniel Defoe described the scene, stating: “Nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, etc.; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.”
In July, plague deaths increased every week at an exponential rate. Bodies were hastily buried in mass graves known as “plague pits”. According to one account, cartloads of dead were brought to one end of a plague pit and dumped in; at the other end, workers were digging furiously to enlarge the mass grave but could barely keep up. The plague pit outside the district of Aldgate is estimated to have contained over 1,000 corpses.
Learn more about plague outbreaks of 1353-1666.
The Great Fire of London
By September, one count has 7,000 people a week dying, and we know that that number is likely to be an underestimate because when an epidemic of such virulence hits, whole families or neighborhoods are wiped out, and no one is left to record the numbers of the dead.
The other reason we don’t have exact numbers is that many records that did exist were destroyed in the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666. On the September 2, a fire broke out in the city. Given that resources and infrastructure were already seriously strained or broken by the outbreak of plague, there was little that could be done to stop it.
It’s enough to say that it may be, in the end, what brought the epidemic to its conclusion. Surely, plenty of rats and fleas perished, and when this most important link of the plague “food chain” was removed, the plague very likely lost almost all of its potency.
In any event, while the plague was over. One thing we can learn from the history of the Black Death is that humanity has suffered great agonies throughout the ages, but our resilience is remarkable.
Learn more about Jewish persecution during the Black Death.
Did the Black Death Finally End?
The Black Death didn’t return to the world in any substantial form from the end of the 17th century to the end of the 19th century. That’s when the Third Pandemic arose in India and China. It was this outbreak that gave scientists their first lead as they tried to conclusively identify what it was that had killed off half the population of the medieval world in the mid–14th century—what we now call the Second Pandemic—and what had carried off between 25 and 40 percent of the Byzantine world in the 6th century—the event we now call the Plague of Justinian.
To be sure, the bubonic plague has not disappeared entirely from the world—it’s still found in parts of Asia and the American Southwest, especially among rodent populations. And in the 21st century in the US, there are usually between and 2 and 20 cases a year.
If these are diagnosed early enough, they can usually be treated successfully with antibiotics, but in 2015, there were four deaths from the plague—probably because it is one of the last things a medical professional is going to consider when presented with a patient who has symptoms that in many regards resemble the flu.
Common Questions about the Last Major Outbreak of the Black Death In London
It appeared that the plague had slowed down with the arrival of winter. This led them to believe there would be no outbreaks of the Black Death in London.
It could be because the outbreak of the Black Death outbreak led to many families dying with no one to report their deaths. Also, the great fire of London destroyed most of the available records.
Some outbreaks of the Black Death have happened since the London outbreak. This has helped researchers understand the plague. The disease still exists today, although it’s rare and hard to identify.