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The Great Plague

, 384 pages

20 b&w illus.

August 2006



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The Great Plague

The Story of London's Most Deadly Year

In the winter of 1664-65, a bitter cold descended on London in the days before Christmas. Above the city, an unusually bright comet traced an arc in the sky, exciting much comment and portending "horrible windes and tempests." And in the remote, squalid precinct of St. Giles-in-the-Fields outside the city wall, Goodwoman Phillips was pronounced dead of the plague. Her house was locked up and the phrase "Lord Have Mercy On Us" was painted on the door in red. By the following Christmas, the pathogen that had felled Goodwoman Phillips would go on to kill nearly 100,000 people living in and around London—almost a third of those who did not flee. This epidemic had a devastating effect on the city's economy and social fabric, as well as on those who lived through it. Yet somehow the city continued to function and the activities of daily life went on.

In The Great Plague, historian A. Lloyd Moote and microbiologist Dorothy C. Moote provide an engrossing and deeply informed account of this cataclysmic plague year. At once sweeping and intimate, their narrative takes readers from the palaces of the city's wealthiest citizens to the slums that housed the vast majority of London's inhabitants to the surrounding countryside with those who fled. The Mootes reveal that, even at the height of the plague, the city did not descend into chaos. Doctors, apothecaries, surgeons, and clergy remained in the city to care for the sick; parish and city officials confronted the crisis with all the legal tools at their disposal; and commerce continued even as businesses shut down.

To portray life and death in and around London, the authors focus on the experiences of nine individuals—among them an apothecary serving a poor suburb, the rector of the city's wealthiest parish, a successful silk merchant who was also a city alderman, a country gentleman, and famous diarist Samuel Pepys. Through letters and diaries, the Mootes offer fresh interpretations of key issues in the history of the Great Plague: how different communities understood and experienced the disease; how medical, religious, and government bodies reacted; how well the social order held together; the economic and moral dilemmas people faced when debating whether to flee the city; and the nature of the material, social, and spiritual resources sustaining those who remained.

Underscoring the human dimensions of the epidemic, Lloyd and Dorothy Moote dramatically recast the history of the Great Plague and offer a masterful portrait of a city and its inhabitants besieged by—and defiantly resisting—unimaginable horror.

A. Lloyd Moote is an emeritus professor at the University of Southern California and an affiliated professor at Rutgers University. He is the author of four books on seventeenth-century European history. Dorothy C. Moote, now retired, was a medical research specialist at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles. They live in Princeton, New Jersey.

"The Mootes write with an impressive combination of storytelling and scholarship... Their work provides an example that local historians might consider copying for other locations in Britain."

"The Mootes' enthusiasm at their archival discoveries flavours their lively account of the Plague Year."

"This is now the best book available on London's 1665 plague epidemic."

"An extraordinary and insightful account of life in London during 1665, when nearly 100,000 people died of the plague... The story they tell is of two Londons, the working poor of the 'alleys and cellars and tenements,' and the rich, titled, and merchant classes, and how they became 'interdependent' during 1665... An epilogue on the development of microbiology and antibiotic cures forcefully argues that modern society still needs to be better prepared for future infectious diseases."

"Extraordinarily accomplished... A book of rare distinction, one that is able to analyze a city in crisis while never losing sight of the individual lives contained within it. From the tiniest microbe to the most blustery regal proclamation, there seem to be no aspect of Pestered London to which the Mootes did not have access."

"In this excellent book, husband and wife Lloyd and Dorothy Moote, a historian and biologist, respectively, have brilliantly captured the human, medical, and political dimensions of the Great Plague in London and the surrounding areas."

" The Great Plague is a great read. The authors skillfully integrate evidence from a number of sources, and their enthusiasm for their subject is infectious."

"In this crowded field, this jewel of a book brings a new dimension by telling the story of how the rich and the poor who stayed rather than escaped survived rather than died, maintained order rather than succumbed to chaos, and provided support and sustenance rather than betrayal and impedance."

"This is a great story of the great plague of London in the 1660s... Fascinating."

"Based on sound historical research, this is a vibrant retelling of the social, economic, and political context of the Great Plague of London. Lloyd and Dorothy Moote's approach is refreshing and riveting. Their book should have a very wide appeal among general readers and will be of great interest to students and scholars as well."

"I read this book with enormous pleasure. It succeeds perfectly on all levels, from new scholarship for academics to a great read for everyone else.... The interwoven narratives of Pepys and other witnesses give a wonderful feel of London's tensions. As an account of a city whose economy slips into crisis as a result of a medical catastrophe, this has never been bettered.... The care and craftsmanship which have gone into it are evident in all the chapters."

"I felt myself walking in the company of Pepys through the streets of a plague-stricken London even as I flew through turbulent skies over a storm-tossed Atlantic."

"The authors... have produced a readable and reasonable account that should now be the first choice of readers who want to know the story."

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