Sunday, October 07, 2007

Plague prediction from the behaviour of children, and coffee as a remedy, 1665

In sprucing up a lecture I came across the little pamphlet The prophecie of one of His Maiesties chaplains, concerning the plague and black-patches with Mr. Gadburies happy and joyful predictions, for the decrease of the plague both in the city and suburbs; the time when; the manner how; by God's permission, and according to natural causes; the effects and motion of the planets, and what every week may produce for the thrice-happy and welcome abatement of this sad and dismal pestilence; and the city of London to be wholly acquit thereof about (or before) Christmas (1665).

This ill-founded announcement of hopeful news ( the pamphlet gives both the astrological reasons for the outbreak, and repeats the hopes Gadbury had raised for an amelioration in August when ‘the fortunate Planet Venus … may so happily contemper the fury of it’ by entering into ‘a Trine of the Sun’ – no such luck, of course) brings together several oddities. Taking me back to some of my earliest postings on the fashion for black face patches, the pamphlet mentions a royal chaplain denouncing them as connected to, and in some sense responsible for, outbreaks of plague:

“And 'tis worthy of serious consideration, that about 20 years ago, one of the Chaplains of his late Majesty King Charles the First of ever blessed memory, did preach at Bristol upon this Text out of Gen 4.15 (‘And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him’) And in his Sermon did speak often against black patches and beauty-spots; and, among other things, said they were Fore runners of other Spots, and Marks of the Plague; and presently, within a very little while after, the Plague broke out among them, and all those persons that did wear them, fled the Town.”

If fashion can be connected to the plague, so can all kinds of behaviours. Arguing rather unconvincingly that God in His infinite mercy (!) sends warning signs (but the plague nevertheless tends to arrive ‘unawares’), the author runs through a few of the bad signs to look out for:

“Though the Plague cometh unawares, and seizeth upon a man on a suddain, yet such is the infinite mercy of God, and the providence of Nature, that it giveth always warning enough to any one that will diligently observe it …

… First the Reader may be pleased to observe, the Signs immanent and approaching of great Mortality; Mr Kelway in the third Chapter of his Treatise of the Plague printed at London 1593 hath these words: When we see young Children flocke them selues together in companyes, and then will faine some one of their company to be dead amongst them and so will solemnize the buriall in a mournefull sorte, this is a token which hath bene well obserued in our age, to foreshew great mortallitie at hand.

The allusion is to Simon Kellwaye’s A defensatiue against the plague contayning two partes or treatises: the first, shewing the meanes how to preserue vs from the dangerous contagion thereof: the second, how to cure those that are infected therewith. I in fact had to fill out the faintly-inked quotation in the 1665 text from the 1593 source.

So, it’s a bad sign if you see the children out playing at funerals. I find this interesting, and, I must confess, to have a faint possibility of plausibility, like those stories of animals predicting disasters. William Lilly, in his manuscript ‘History of his Life and Times’ (I read the 1822 printing of this fascinating work) firmly believed in this indication of bad times ahead. (I concede that Lilly firmly believed in all kinds of indications of bad times ahead – that was his stock-in-trade.) But here he is on the 1625 outbreak (and, at first, on what has to be a smaller outbreak from his earlier London years, 1620 onwards):

“I will relate what I observed the spring before it broke forth. Against our house every night there would come down, about five or six of the Clock, some hundred or more boys, some playing, others as if in serious discourse, and just as it grew dark would all be gone home; many succeeding years there was no such, or any concourse, usually no more than four or five in a company. In the spring of 1625, the boys and youths of several parishes in like number appeared again, which I beheld, called Thomas Sanders, my landlord, and told him, that the youth and young boys of several parishes did in that nature assemble and play, in the beginning of the year 1625 ‘God bless us’, quoth I, ‘from a plague this year’.

Was there some unrecorded lore among 17th century children, some observation they had made? Boys were perhaps close observers of the behaviour of rats, as a source of sport. Had they noticed (as used to be the case with local tribes when the plague was still confined to the steppes) that the population of rodents was diminishing? Before the plague got out of central Asia, the people there knew that if the marmots were sick, you stayed well away. I read somewhere that the Chagatai horde led by Timur-i-Leng (Tamburlaine) swept through, knowing nothing of this, and freed the bacillus into circulation across the hemisphere.

The 1665 pamphlet offers the usual desperate remedies – wood fires, dosing yourself with vinegar, and coffee. Yes, coffee.

“Kindle a wood-fire in the Chimney, to consume and destroy all the infectious vapours… Venice-Treacle, Vinegar is a most excellent Antidote against the Plague, and to drink 2 or 3 Spoonfuls in a Morning is very good … Coffee is commended against the Contagion.”

What a pitiable life they led!

1 comment:

Adam Roberts said...

I love those Molesworthesque splotches of ink on the titlepage you reproduce at the top, there ... unless they're actually ancient splashes of black coffee?