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The Great Plague

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The Great Plague
The Story of London's Most Deadly Year. By A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote. (The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London: 2004. Pg. xxi, 357. Illustrations, Tables.) ISBN: 0-8018-7783-0.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 23, 2004

Bubonic plague was one of the great scourges of mankind. In successive waves it marched across Asia and Europe decimating the population and changing the political and economic landscape in almost every region it touched. Even today, we are not free of the threat of plague. It is still endemic the world over, infecting rodents, cats, birds, and other animals - such a man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , about 1,000 - 3,000 people contract bubonic plague each year. The last, major outbreak of bubonic plague, is thought to have begun in Hong Kong, in 1894. By the time that epidemic had burned itself out, it had spread around the world and killed more than ten million people in India alone!

In The Great Plague, The Story of London's Most Deadly Year, A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote provide a compelling look at the impact that an outbreak of plague in 1665 had on the city of London. During the Great Plague of 1665-66, nearly of third of London's citizens died. Other cities in England were even harder hit, with cities such as Colchester losing half its population. The Mootes are well placed to document this tragic period in London's history. A. Lloyd is a historian who specializes in 17th century European Political history, and his wife, Dorothy, is a microbiologist. By combining their respected specialties, they are able to chronicle both the scientific and the historical aspects of the plague and its effect on the population.

The story of the Great Plague of 1665 actually begins in the Winter of 1664-65, when the first cases of plague began to reappear in London. (Plague had last decimated the city in 1636.) The Mootes follow the course of the epidemic from its first sporadic appearance, through 1669 when the epidemic finally petered out. The main focus of the book, however, is upon the year of 1665, when the plague took its heaviest toll upon the city. Using diaries, letters and other personal accounts, they present an insightful look at how ordinary people reacted to the plague, and why some of those that could have fled, choose to stay and try to help the afflicted. Throughout this work they also make use of official documents, such as church records, city compiled burial records, and plague related legislation, to document mortality figures and to examine how the city officials responded to the outbreak.

1665 was the deadliest year in London's history. Although the plague disregarded rank when selecting its victim, it was the poor that suffered most under the onslaught. In recounting the course that the plague took that year, the Mootes describe why the poor died in disproportional number when compared to the more wealthy members of society, and how each segment reacted to the devastation around them. In addition to chronicling the historical course that the epidemic took, and its political and economic impact, the authors also detail the scientific aspects of the plague. For example, they discuss how it was spread, the mechanics of the disease process, why it was such a deadly disease for humans, and how the disease has mutated over time. Most important, the author's describe how the residents of London dealt with the impact of the disease, both physically and spiritually.

In the epilogue to this book, the authors describe some of the major occurrences of plague, since 1665, and the risk of another major epidemic sometime in the future. They also discuss such pertinent topics as the risk posed by other diseases such as AIDS and SARS, and the heightened level of vigilance that is needed to try to stem off the next great plague - whatever its cause. In short, The Great Plague is a fascinating book. Part social history and part medical history. This narrative will intrigue general readers and historians alike.

Related Reviews:

The Great Plague, By Stephen Porter
A energetic account of the Bubonic Plague epidemic of 1665-66 and the effect that it had on English society.

The Black Death in Egypt and England, by Stuart J. Borsch.
An in-depth comparative study on the effect of the Black Death on Egyptian and English economies and agricultural systems. Also examines how agrarian practices in both countries affected their recovery rates.

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