In 1519, eight years before Martin Luther wrote Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, the Swiss preacher and reformer Huldrych Zwingli faced a deadly outbreak of plague in Zürich. It would have been safer to flee the city, but Zwingli stayed to minister to the sick and dying among his congregation, caught the disease himself, and nearly died. He wrote a poem, later set to music, chronicling his experience. The ‘Pestlied’ is a rare and visceral first-hand account: ‘Ich mein, der tod | sey an der thür’ (‘I think that death | is at the door’). The lines are both alien and familiar, out of time but topical, the archaic Swiss-German rhymes lyrically captivating but linguistically confusing (Luther once dismissed Zwingli’s dialect as ‘churlish, shaggy German’).
Quarantine has always been a political tool, imposed on citizens by governments. In 1631, Charles I received a report from one of his physicians, Théodore de Mayerne. The king had asked Mayerne to look into how England’s quarantine procedures, especially in London, could be updated to meet current standards in the more civilised cities of France and Italy. Mayerne pulled no punches. People infected with plague in London should no longer be isolated either with their families at home or in makeshift sheds elsewhere. There should be new hospitals for the sick and separate ones for their contacts. Above all, Mayerne called for the creation of a metropolitan board of health, properly funded and with ‘absolute power’ in time of infection. Only that could guarantee ‘order’, the ‘soul and life of all things’, and so safeguard ‘the public health of all’.
Dead bodies are being evicted from East London to make way for the new Crossrail station at Liverpool Street. Crossrail is gentrifying the soil. Last week archaeologists began digging up skeletons from what used to be the Bedlam, or Bethlehem, burial ground. The cemetery took its name from the lunatic asylum, which was close by, and some of the people buried there were former inmates. But it was mostly used, between 1569 and 1738, by East London parishes as an overflow cemetery for ill-favoured corpses, an underground slum for the dead.
The discovery of the Crossrail 13 – the skeletons found buried 2.4 metres under the road round Charterhouse Square – came as no surprise. John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London said that on account of the pestilence ‘the churchyards were not sufficient... The Bishop of London, in the year 1348, bought a piece of ground, called “No mans land”... for the burial of the dead.’ It was close to Charterhouse. Plague had arrived in England from France that summer, and came to London in the autumn.