Annalee Newitz looks at the Great Plague of London and 17th century social distancing

Originally published at:


The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Daily entries from the 17th century London diary


Available from Project Gutenberg.




Though Cromwell had died in 1658, the king had him exhumed, his corpse put in chains and tried for treason.

That sounds absolutely Trumpian.


This “king” Charles guy sounds like a liberal elite. Doesn’t sound like someone I’d like to have a beer with. He was probably the reason the East India Trading Company went bust. LOSER!


Something that I learned reading about the famous cholera map of London in 1854: plague was generally considered an inevitable part of urban life, completely unavoidable. The lessons learned from that outbreak literally empowered humanity to build bigger cities.

To my mind our current limitation on the health and well being of urban dwellers, has to do with the cultural value of punishing the poor. These pandemics and pandemic scares are going to continue as long as poverty is considered a moral failing that merits punishment.


For those interested, Neal Stephenson’s historical fiction book “Quicksilver” covers this period in his unique literary style, worth a read if you enjoy deep-dives into the lives and technologies of Newton and some of the other scientific luminaries of the age.


I cannot think of that work without being reminded of 84 Charing Cross Road:


In the Kings defense- Cromwell was an absolute regressive puritanical bastard. He was rightfully hated- imagine the puritanical daydream of the morons that still support trump, and that’s not half of the nightmare that was Cromwell.

I, for one, am not gonna stop the gravedigger ready to try Trump’s festering corpse years after he dies of big macs for what he’s doing now, but then I’m all for defiling his grave in general


I don’t think I can stomach comparing Cromwell to Trump.

Cromwell at least fucking led and fought in the cavalry in battles for what he believed. The only spurs Trump has worn … well … we know of those.

But yes Cromwell was a tyrant. And a puritanical non-Xmas having son of a bitch.


Rome had a sophisticated system where they would bring slaves from all over the empire to Rome, and they would eventually usually be freed and become Roman citizens, because it was such a pestilential shithole that it was never even able to sustain its population by reproduction. More people died of disease than were born every year.

I’m not saying that’s not totally unconnected to outcomes, but this pandemic has a lot more to do with wildlife wet markets than poverty, and eliminating poverty would make it easier to mitigate, but it wouldn’t have stopped it.

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I think this was probably necessary in the day. Cromwell had deposed the King, ruled the country as Lord Protector for many years, died of natural causes, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The King needed to stabilise his position, which meant getting that awful chap out of the abbey toot sweet, and removing any focal points for his remaining supporters.

The only thing Charles II shared with Trump is a regrettable inability to keep certain parts in his trousers; but he seems by all accounts to have been a loveable playboy, and not a serial rapist.


Also: cute spaniels.


Plus, Cromwell had killed Charles II’s dad. It’s understandable he was a bit upset. And the syphilis probably didn’t help.


We can’t talk about the Great Plague of 1665 without talking about Eyam.

As the disease spread, the villagers turned for leadership to their rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, and the ejected Puritan minister Thomas Stanley. They introduced a number of precautions to slow the spread of the illness from May 1666. The measures included the arrangement that families were to bury their own dead and relocation of church services to the natural amphitheatre of Cucklett Delph,[15] allowing villagers to separate themselves and so reducing the risk of infection. Perhaps the best-known decision was to quarantine the entire village to prevent further spread of the disease.


I think you are confusing origin or source, with spread.


Fun fact: Cromwell is commonly believed to be the last person known to have died from native English malaria.


Of course our current system more closely resembles the late empire when small farmers sold themselves into slavery because they could not compete against large farms owned by the wealthy which were tended by slaves. The concentration of wealth became worse and worse.