I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter over the past week. Some evenings, it feels like I can’t help myself. I scroll and refresh, watching as the numbers keep rising: total cases in New York, total cases in the US, restricted travel zones, conferences canceled. Even on their own, the numbers feel unmanageable, but something about the perpetual scroll of the newsfeed makes things seem even less certain. Nothing remains true for long.
COVID-19 has quickly become the outbreak of the digital era. SARS and H1N1 played out on the evening news, but this — this is happening in real time, in piecemeal, in limited character counts. While epidemics have come and gone before, it feels unprecedented, at least in my lifetime as a 30-something, to watch things play out in this way. And as the numbers get bigger and bigger, our individual worlds get smaller and smaller. Social distancing, classes moving online, self-imposed quarantines — all of these important preventative measures (measures we absolutely should be taking) have the unfortunate side effect of leaving us, quite literally, mostly alone.
I’m reminded, though, that people have found a way to deal with being alone in times like this before. As someone who works mostly on early modern England, my thoughts these days have been on what life might have been like during plague outbreaks. London did not have an easy go of things in the early seventeenth century. The bubonic plague had returned with a vengeance and the rapidly growing city was hit by outbreak after outbreak. 1592, 1603, 1625, 1630, 1636, 1637 — summer after summer, theaters closed, streets emptied, and those who could fled to the country. And as bad as these years were, they were all prologue to the worst of it. In 1665, the city was rocked by a final major outbreak, known later as simply the Great Plague.
The city was leveled. Nearly a quarter of the population died and much of the city was quarantined. For the few London residents who were still mobile, knowing how and where the plague was moving through the city was the difference between life and death. Partially in response to this need, the city began publishing official bills of mortality, records of the number of burials in a parish during a given week. (1) Londoners read these voraciously — and, more importantly, quickly adapted these official documents into popular prints designed to fit the needs of a suffering city. From the official bills emerged a small subset of broadsides, usually referred to as “Lord Have Mercies” after the documents’ commonly shared title. (2) These were pastiche creations: for about a penny, you’d get a prayer, some plague remedies, historical records of some previous outbreaks, woodcut illustrations and — most importantly — that week’s death toll.
But maybe most interesting was what the Lord Have Mercies didn’t include — or rather, what the reader had to add themselves. As you can see in the example above, the broadsides would preprint weekly headings for the next month or so, leaving spaces in the margins to allow owners to write in the death tolls themselves. This feature probably benefited both the printer and the purchaser: the printer saved some time and effort setting the type, and the purchaser saved themselves from making multiple dangerous trips into the market during the outbreak. Owners might have sought out official bills of mortality, either shared with a neighbor or posted in a common location, to get the figures; figures may have also spread by word of mouth, neighbor to neighbor, creating these individual ongoing records of the plague’s movement through the city.
These DIY plague bills tell some powerful stories about life in London during the outbreaks. Some surviving copies show a few weeks’ worth of notes, followed by silence; the owner disappears into history, maybe continuing their writing in the margins of another Lord Have Mercy or maybe falling victim to the epidemic. Other copies, however, are testaments to survival. In the example shown above, the owner starts recording in July 1665, one of the worst months of the outbreak. They continue, week after week, through the waning of the plague in the early months of the following year.
In another surviving example, below, the carefully-handwritten records curl around the margin of the document into the bottom, where the owner records totals for every week through the following October — except, of course, the two weeks in September when all of London was on fire.
What might it have been like to keep these records? In some ways, it must have been terrifying, having to write down larger and larger numbers each week, watching the totals grow as the months wore on. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think there may have also been some comfort in the practice. By being able to create a kind of narrative of the disease, by being able to quantify the city’s shifting population, I like to think these quarantined Londoners got some sense of relief, of order among the chaos. And as the numbers began to decrease — as their handwritten totals got smaller and smaller — they may have grown more and more hopeful that their city might someday be safe again.
I think about the owners of these broadsides while I look at Twitter. There’s a similar sense, I think, of writing our own history during a pandemic. Here in the United States, we’ve not been quarantined (not just yet, at least, not all of us), but, for those of us now working or teaching from home, canceling conferences and postponing trips, it’s starting to feel a bit like it. And as I keep checking Twitter, the numbers keep rising, and I keep wondering how much worse it will get before it gets better.
But maybe there’s an upside. Unlike these broadside owners, I’m not looking at the numbers alone. While I’m anxiously refreshing Twitter, I’m also swapping online teaching ideas with colleagues at other institutions. I’m group-chatting with the friends I won’t see at the conference I can’t attend and emailing all the other extroverts now working from home and desperate for some human interaction. There are dangers to experiencing the pandemic in real-time — panic, misinformation, miscommunication — but there are silver linings, too. It looks like we’re going to be alone, at least for a while; at least we can be alone together.
1. Burials, but not deaths; numbers were calculated from parish records of churchyard burials. But London was also home to many non-Christians, as well as strict Christian reformed sects (Quakers, in particular) that didn’t practice churchyard burial. Given this, most modern plague scholars agree that the bills systematically underestimate total deaths in the city.
2. For more on these broadsides, see Stephen Greenberg, “Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London,” Huntington Library Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2004): 508–527; Mark Jenner, “Plague on a Page: Lord Have Mercy On Us in Early Modern London,” Seventeenth Century 27, no. 3 (2012): 255–286; and Eileen Sperry, “Lord Have Mercy On Us: Broadsides and London Plague Life,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 49, no.1 (2018): 95–114.