THE GREAT PLAGUE by Stephen Porter

THE GREAT PLAGUE

KIRKUS REVIEW

A well-documented and well-illustrated account of the bubonic-plague epidemic that struck England in 1665—66, killing some 20 percent of London’s inhabitants. Before examining the Great Plague, disaster specialist Porter (The Great Fire of London, not reviewed, etc.) describes the impact of earlier epidemics that had repeatedly swept across Europe in the previous three centuries, affecting not just social and economic life but beliefs, literature, and art. In London, weekly Bills of Mortality reporting the number and cause of deaths had been issued since the early 1600s to provide warning of an impending outbreak and encourage measures to check its progress: quarantining incoming ships, isolating the sick, lighting fires in the streets, fumigating houses, and killing stray cats and dogs. Many of those with the means to do so fled to the countryside; the poor, however, stayed in the city, and it was they who suffered the most. Porter shows how individuals and families endured illness, enforced isolation, and loss of employment; how London and some provincial towns suffered a ruinous loss of trade; and how the government was severely hampered in its war efforts against the Dutch by the ensuing economic recession and reduced revenues. He also depicts how rapidly London recovered, with the population returning to its former size within two years after the epidemic. While Porter’s text does not emphasize individual human-interest stories, some of the 70 illustrations he has included—grim pest-houses where the sick were confined, and dead bodies lying on the street, being loaded onto a cart, or dumped into a mass grave—give a vivid sense of the personal tragedy and horror of the Great Plague. Porter’s close, clear look at one epidemic’s impact on its culture will be of obvious interest to a world still threatened by the capability of biological weapons to spread smallpox or anthrax to millions. (History Book Club selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-7509-1615-X
Page count: 224pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1999




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