Monday, June 24, 2024

4 centuries after the plague, some remarkable similarities

There are plenty of time-honored expressions for today’s flu phenomenon. They range from the elegant French plus ça change plus ça reste la même (the more things change the more they remain the same) to the plain vanilla American, “same old, same old;” to the memorably mangled Yogi Berra-ism “déjà vu, all over again.”

They could also be neatly summed up as “misery loves company.”

In countless countries around the world in 2020 people are chafing at the misery, inconveniences, prohibitions or outright obstacles — in coping with a pandemic.

Relax: they’re nothing new under the sun. As Mexicans rue the absence of their iconic beers and fret at the shuttering of their favorite watering holes, restrictions and controversial regulations, they can take solace from the following, wryly written and published during another pandemic almost four centuries ago in 1665. Here are some remarkable similarities.

How is it spread?

(Even today the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization can’t agree: but in 1665?)

… some people, now the contagion is over, talk of its being an immediate stroke from Heaven, without the agency of means, having commission to strike this and that particular person, and none other which I look upon with contempt as the effect of manifest ignorance and enthusiasm; likewise the opinion of others, who talk of infection being carried on by the air only, by carrying with it vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures, who enter into the body with the breath, or even at the pores with the air, and there generate or emit most acute poisons, or poisonous ovae or eggs, which mingle themselves with the blood, and so infect the body: a discourse full of learned simplicity, and manifested to be so by universal experience; but I shall say more to this case in its order …


(With some obvious differences)

… all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such-like causes of assemblies of people be
utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.

But what about my beer?

(An “English breakfast” in 1665 began with beer)

… That disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague. And that no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening, according to the ancient law and custom of this city, upon the penalties ordained in that behalf That the brewers and tippling-houses be looked into for musty and unwholesome casks …

My pets?

(Notice horses, the 17th-century automobile, are exempt)

˜That no hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or ponies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the city, or any swine to be or stray in the streets or lanes, but that such swine be impounded by the beadle or any other officer, and the owner punished according to Act of Common Council, and that the dogs be killed by the dog-killers appointed for that purpose.


(Why they are called “hacks?”)

That care be taken of hackney-coachmen, that they may not (as some of them have been observed to do after carrying of infected persons to the pest-house and other places) be admitted to common use till their coaches be well aired, and have stood unemployed by the space of five or six days after such service.

What do you mean I can’t go out in public?

All public feasting, and particularly by the companies of this city, and dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, be forborne till further order and allowance; and that the money thereby spared be preserved and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.

So stop grousing everybody, this has happened before. Yogi Berra was right, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

(I’d like to express my thanks to the Gutenberg Project, dedicated to making available (over 60,000 so far) classic works, on-line, free of charge. Since I’m a science fiction buff, I also have to wonder why this particular work was posted in January 2020, before news of the coronavirus was widespread.)

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