In Time of the Plague

plague_detail.gifI’m nearly finished with Neal Stephenson’s mammoth novel Quicksilver. Quicksilver is the first novel in Stephenson’s so-called Baroque Cycle (the second, The Confusion, was published in May and the third book is due in September). The Baroque Cycle is about, in no particular order, banking, cryptography, alchemy, puritanism, the Stuart kings of England, Versailles, calculus, piracy, Sir Isaac Newton, the Great Fire of London, the Black Plague, and just about any other facet of late 17th century Western Europe you can think of.

Some of the most gripping scenes of the novel occur in London in 1665, when the city was ravaged by the bubonic plague. Over 100,000 Londoners died that year (6,000 deaths a week at the plague’s peak). To the right is a detail from the frontispiece of a book published in London a year later, called “A Help for the Poor Who Are Visited with the Plague.” Written by a clergy, Thomas Willes, the book captures the full horror of the plague: I spare none, says the skeleton Death (whose dyslexia only adds to the eeriness of the image).

I’ve always been fascinated by plague narratives, and to judge from popular culture, so is everybody else. Plague–which could be any deadly, contagious biological epidemic–makes for good disaster films (28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead), as well as fiction (going back to the 14th century and Boccaccio’s The Decameron and up to and through Stanley Kim Robinson’s alternative history of the world The Years of Rice and Salt). Even our international policy is guided by the plague; what is biowarfare if not an updated version of the Black Death, engineered by humans, in which a missile or the mail becomes the vector instead of a flea?

Below is the rest of the woodcut from the frontispiece of Willes’ plague work (click the image for a larger version). From the illustration you can see something else about plagues: so often they are imbued with religious meaning. Salvation, redemption, sanctification–these are the counterweights to destruction, disease, and death. And this is as true today as it was in the days of the Black Death of England. Just listen to the prevailing rhetoric of war…