Non-Fiction Reviews

How Norwich Fought Against The Plague

(2021) Frank Meeres, Poppyland Publishing, £9.95, pbk, 138pp, ISBN 978-1-909-79682-9


Obviously inspired by the current CoVID-19 pandemic, the author has taken a look at how Norwich coped with the plague, from its arrival in 1349 until its final departure in 1667.  Whilst this book is only about Norwich, most of what it describes would have been occurring all over the country and, indeed, much of Europe: it is a snapshot of how one city coped but the problems and lessons were the same for everyone.  The city suffered from the plague many times over the three hundred and eighteen year period - and we complain (at the time of writing) about a mere eighteen months!

Frank Meeres is a graduate of King’s College, University of London, and spent his career as a historian and archivist in the Norfolk Records Office.  In that time, he learnt a great deal about the history of Norwich and Norfolk, as well as how to research the past.  As this book makes clear, the records from those days are far from comprehensive and much detective work has had to be done, checking this city record against that parish record, etc., and applying simple logic and common sense.

When it comes to accuracy in assessing the number of deaths from the plague, one can only hope for reasonable estimates.  Many parish records are missing, there was no standard for the details that had to be noted – different parishes recorded things differently – and much inference has to be made from the existing figures and comparing, as best one can, like with like.  Some parishes only recorded numbers, some names, some even recorded if a burial was for a plague victim, but even so the level of detail could vary from day or day or be dependent on who wrote the entry.  To add to that, Strangers were recorded with less detail (in Norwich, Strangers was the term applied to Dutch and French-speaking refugees from the Spanish Netherlands).  From his many comments on what he could, and could not, find and how he crosschecked and compared records, the author gives a very good insight into the ways (and problems) of a historical researcher.  Whilst the plague might not be recorded as the cause of a death, if the average weekly burials in the city was somewhere between thirty and fifty but rose steadily to almost two hundred and fifty before slowly returning to normal, then one gets the picture that something devastating was most definitely happening and the period over which it happened.  Even today, we are unsure of the total number of CoVID-19 deaths, with different countries measuring them in different ways, and our own country having had different methods over the period, but a very good indication is how the death rates over the period compare with the normal rates - as our news reports have often reminded us.

Today’s methods of dealing with our pandemic are very similar to those used against the plague, though we have been more lenient.  Hospitals, as we know them, were all but unheard of and doctors both rare and expensive, and they had none of our modern medicines.  The main treatment for the plague was to take to your bed and hope you did not die.  When citizens contracted the plague they were confined to their homes, along with their family and any staff or apprentices, and the building boarded up and marked.  The building would only be reopened when the last case of illness had been at least four weeks previously or if everyone had died.  The city employed four classes of ‘key workers’; women were employed as Searchers and Keepers whilst men were employed as Bearers and Watchmen.  A Searcher was one who examined the bodies of the dead and decided whether or not they were victims of the plague, an imprecise process at best.  A Keeper would be appointed for each infected house and it was her daily duty to deliver food and drink, plus any other necessities, to the household, with a Keeper serving only one household to minimise any cross-contagion.  The household was expected to pay for their supplies unless they were poor, in which case the city authorities would pay.  At least one Watchman would be appointed for each infected household to ensure that no-one left and no-one entered, though in reality, given the numbers, they might only have been appointed for those families more likely to break the rules.  Finally, the Bearers would take away the dead.  Those that either worked in some capacity with plague victims or who had survived the disease carried coloured staffs when out and about to warn people that keeping their distance was advisable.

As today, schools were closed, not that many children attended schools, as they were demonstrably a source of infection between families.  Businesses carried on as best they could though there were social distancing practices, for example trade was often done outside of a shop rather than within it, some trade was limited to market places (i.e. out of doors), and trade between neighbouring towns was severely limited and sometimes forbidden.  Older people were advised to stay in their homes, and places such as the Great Hospital, a home for elder members of the community, was kept isolated from the public - rather like today’s care homes.  Incidentally, the Great Hospital is still a home for the elderly and much sought after in its modern guise as sheltered housing.

During our pandemic we have heard from people who believe that visiting loved ones is more important than anything else (and I am sure many of us have noticed instances of neighbours flouting the rules). You might be interested in one of the Privy Council’s plague orders from 1579/80 which says (in more modern English): ‘If any ecclesiastical or lay person says or writes that it is uncharitable to forbid the visiting of the infected, pretending no person shall die until his time, such person shall be apprehended; and if in ecclesiastical orders, he shall be forbidden to preach; if lay he shall be forbidden to utter such dangerous opinions on pain of imprisonment.’.  Even then, with the near certainty of death for those who became infected, there were those who simply did not get the message.

The impact of the many visitations of the plague was severe on businesses and there were great costs to the city.  Collections were regularly taken up from the public and churchgoers, with many aldermen paying substantial amounts out of their own pockets.  In those days, people such as aldermen were chosen not for their political party but for their place as senior members of society, often being successful businessmen.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how people dealt with the plague and its impact on day-to-day life.  It is well researched and well written. It sheds interesting insights into the processes of researching the past and shows us that, despite our advances, much about society remains the same.  The book is subtitled ‘Lessons from the Past’ and it does indeed contain useful lessons. There are some current politicians and business people who could do with reading it, as well as some of our Moaning Minnies with their ongoing complaints on social media of the inconveniences they have ‘endured’.  Compared to the days of the plague, we have had it very, very easy indeed and we should be grateful.  That does not mean, though, that we should be complacent - plague is plague, whether it be bubonic or CoVID-19!

By the way, and I add this for your amusement and interest, in the early days of the first CoVID-19 lockdown there were news reports of a youth from the Norwich area seen walking round in the costume of a plague doctor - the long leather coat and leather hat and the long, beaked mask.  Some of the local Mums complained, saying that it frightened the children, and he was, in the words of the police, ‘offered some advice’. I think it was shame that he was stopped - people needed to be scared, or at least made strongly aware of the seriousness of the pandemic. Perhaps if doctors and nurses had worn such masks in the hospitals then certain ‘doubting’ members of society might have taken the rules on self-isolation and social distancing a little more seriously?

A final thought (though not gleaned from this book) - the word ‘quarantine’ comes from the old Italian word ‘quarenta’, meaning forty, and comes from the policies enacted by the city of Milan in the middle of the fourteenth century to keep out the plague.  Those visiting the city were forced to camp outside the city walls for a period of forty days; only if they were still healthy by then were they allowed in.  It was a very successful policy and Milan was noticeably ‘free’ of the dreaded disease.  Indeed, it was such a successful method that it has gone into the language and its use has survived for seven hundred years.  It seems that we, or at least most of us, have learnt some lessons from the past!

Peter Tyers


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