Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 6.  Contagion?

excerpts from
Samuel Pepys' Diary

relating primarily to his account of events surrounding the so-called Great Plague of London
which began in 1664 and was interrupted by the Fire
that destroyed much of the City of London in September 1666
23.  ...We were told to-day of a Dutch ship of 3 or 400 tons, where all the men were dead of the plague, and the ship cast ashore at Gottenburgh....
Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society.

This was a harpsichord-like instrument in appearance.

5.  ...So to the Coffee-house (Map 1, 7) and there fell in discourse with the Secretary of the Virtuosi of Gresham College, and had very fine discourse with him.  He tells me of a new-invented Instrument to be tried before the College (Map 1, 6) anon, and I intend to see it....  To the Musique-meeting....  And the new instrument was brought called the Arched Viall--where being tuned with lute-strings, and played on with kees like an organ--a piece of parchment is alway kept moving; and the strings, which by the kees are pressed down upon it, are grated, in imitation of a bow, by the parchment; and so it is intended to resemble several vyalls played on with one bow,--but so basely and harshly, that it will never do.  But after three hours' stay it could not be fixed in tune:  and so they were fain to go to some other musique of instruments....

Edward Montagu, First Earl of Sandwich--Pepys' first cousin, once removed; politician, naval commander and diplomat; appointed young Samuel Pepys his secretary, thus launching his career in naval administration

10.  ...This day, by the blessing of God, my wife and I have been married nine years:  but my head being full of business, I did not think of it to keep it in any extraordinary manner.  But bless God for our long lives and loves and health together, which the same God long continue, I wish, from my very heart.

24.  ...Into the galleries at White Hall to talk with my Lord Sandwich; among [other] things, about the Prince's writing up to tell us of the danger he and his fleet lie in at Portsmouth, of receiving affronts from the Dutch....

Guy Fawkes, or Gunpowder Treason Day

a household servant

5.  ...to the Duke's house to see Macbeth, a pretty good play, but admirably acted.  Thence home, the coach being forced to go round by London-wall home, because of the Bonefires; the day being mightily observed in the City....

10.  ...My little Guirle Susan is fallen sick of the meazles we fear, or at best of a Scarlett feavour.

11.  ...Here was a gentleman attending here that told us he saw the other day, and did bring the draught of it to Sir Fr[ancis] Prigeon, a monster born of an hostler's wife at Salsbury, two women children perfectly made, joyned at the lower part of their bellies, and every part perfect as two bodies, and only one payre of legs coming forth on one side from the middle where they were joined.  It was alive 24 hours, and cried and did as all hopeful children do; but, being showed too much to people, was killed....

21.  ...This day for certain news is come that Teddiman hath brought in eighteen or twenty Duchmen, merchants, their Burdeaux fleet, and two men of war to Portsmouth.  And I had letters this afternoon, that three are brought into the Downes and Dover--so that the war is begun:  God give a good end to it....

The Comet of 1665

The comet was first observed in Spain on 7 November; last seen on 10 March 1665
15.  ...to the Coffee-house, where great talk of the Comett seen in several places and among our men at sea and by my Lord Sandwich, to whom I intend to write about it tonight.... 

17.  ...Mighty talk there is of this Comet that is seen a'nights; and the King and Queene did sit up last night to see it, and did, it seems.  And to-night I thought to have done so too; but it is cloudy, and so no stars appear.  But I will endeavour it.  Mr. Gray did tell me tonight, for certain, that the Dutch, as high as they seem, do begin to buckle....

21.  ...My Lord Sandwich this day writes me word that he hath seen (at Portsmouth) the Comett, and says it is the most extraordinary thing he ever saw.

23.  ...It being a bright night, which it hath not been a great while, I purpose to endeavour to be called in the morning to see the Comett; though I fear we shall not see it, because it rises at the highest but 16 degrees, and then the houses will hinder us.

24.  Having sat up all night, to past 2 a-clock this morning, our porter, being appointed, comes and tells us that the Bell-man tells him that the star is seen upon Tower-hill (Map 1, 10).  So I, that had been all night setting in order all my old papers in my chamber, did leave off all; and my boy and I to Tower hill, it being a most fine bright moonshine night and a great frost, but no Comett to be seen; so after running once round the Hill, I and Tom, we home and then to bed....  This evening, I being informed, did look and saw the Comett, which is now, whether worn away or no I know not, but appears not with a tail; but only is larger and duller than any other star, and is come to rise betimes, and to make a great arch, and is gone quite to a new place in the heavens than it was before--but I hope, in a clearer night something more will be seen....

31.  ...Public matters are all in a hurry about a Duch warr.  Our preparations great.  Our provocations against them great; and after all our presumption, we are now afraid as much of them, as we lately contemned them.  Every thing else in the State quiet, blessed be God....


Go to:
  • Astronomia Magna (1537) by Paracelsus (1493-1541);
  • excerpts from the Diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703):
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes