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Documents of the Plague

These everyday documents from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, saved by some chance of history, are now quite rare. Both deal with the same subject—the recurring menace of the plague.


The bubonic plague was a fact of life in the early modern age, having revisited Europe and the British Isles often since its first appearance in Sicily in 1347. Periodically, it reached crisis proportions. In the twelve months beginning in December 1592, almost 11,000 people died of infection in London, and public life ground to a halt. With the theaters closed, Shakespeare is thought to have written his epic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece during this time.


While no one knew what caused the plague, this government-issued booklet from 1592 sought to contain it with a variety of regulations. The most severe of these imposed a quarantine on any affected house built close to others, requiring that residents be closed in (with provision for supplies) until five weeks after the last death from plague in that home. Anticipating modern public-health strategies that stress prevention, the booklet also shares "sundry good rules and easie medicines" to ward off the plague, offering a mix of sense and nonsense to modern eyes. Suggestions included improving the air circulation in houses; filling them with fragrant scents; and eating such "medicines" as buttered, vinegar-soaked bread sprinkled with cinnamon.


The plague bill, a form filled out by local officials in 1609, provides a glimpse of another outbreak seventeen years later. Such weekly bills provided important statistics that gave government leaders a sense of where and how fast the plague was spreading. This one indicates 364 deaths, of which 177 were due to plague, in London in the last week of August 1609—the worst year for plague in the twenty-two-year reign of James I. In that year, actors and playwrights were left with little occupation as the theaters closed once again.

Miscellaneous Documents. 1578. London, 1592

London - BILLS OF MORTALITY - Blank Bills (Briefs). London, 1609

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