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p. 946. Enduring imagesfree

  • Paul Slack


‘Enduring images’ examines the depiction of plague in art and literature to understand how the disease was imagined in the past. Images of plague have a continuous history, invented and elaborated over the centuries. The earliest of these images refer to the supposed supernatural causes of great epidemics. Many civilizations have attributed disease to angry gods. By the seventeenth century print was bringing images of plague to a wide audience, allowing local authorities to present the official view of epidemics and advertise precautions against it. Plague became a popular topic for literary fiction in the early nineteenth century.

The images that have been attached to plague are very diverse. They include graphic metaphors like the arrows of Apollo and the swords of biblical angels, which symbolize its causes; and literary conventions such as those of Thucydides and Boccaccio about the disruption of families and societies which summarize its consequences. Over time, new icons have been added to them, such as plague-saints and plague-doctors, and metaphors were borrowed from other contexts and commonly applied to plague, like the Dance of Death and visions of the Apocalypse. Taken together, they determined how plague was imagined in the past and how it has been described in histories and fictions down to the present. Like the public health policies of the previous chapter, images of plague have a continuous history, invented and then elaborated over the centuries.

Invention and purpose

The earliest such images and the most long-lasting tell us about interpretations of plague quite distinct from the notions of contagion and local pollution which shaped the policies of governments. They referred to the supernatural causes of great epidemics, which, when properly understood and manipulated, similarly offered ways of driving the disease away. Many civilizations and religions have attributed disease, and epidemic p. 95disease in particular, to angry gods or spirits who must somehow be appeased, like the ‘jinn’ who wielded ‘the sword of plague’ in popular tradition in the Muslim world from the Middle Ages down to the 19th century. But no other religion has been as creative as Christianity in devising means of propitiating the gods through the use of intermediaries, notably saints specially identified for the purpose.

St Sebastian, martyred in the 3rd century, was the first of them. His association with plague began in 680 when his relics were brought from Rome to Parma and were said to have ended an outbreak of plague there. By the 16th century, there were pictures of him, his body shot through with arrows, in churches all over Catholic Europe. St Roch (or Rock or Rocco), pointing to a bubo on his thigh and sometimes shown with his dog, was often painted alongside him (see Figure 11). Roch was supposed to have been born in 1327, to have cured plague victims, and to have been fed by his dog in the woods after he caught the disease himself and was expelled from Piacenza. The date and the stories come only from sources in the early 15th century, however, when his cult originated and took off.

Other figures from the past were similarly resurrected and reinvented, their reputations usually beginning with the identification of some particular place to which they were attached and then spreading beyond it. Naples had the relics of St Gennaro (Januarius), a 4th-century martyr, including his miraculously liquifying blood which was carefully watched for omens of plague from 1527 onwards. Plague ended in Palermo in 1625 when the relics of St Rosalie, a 12th-century hermit, were carried in procession; and St Thecla, a 1st-century virgin, was supposed to have saved Este from plague in 1630. The Virgin Mary herself, the most universally popular of all intermediaries, was adopted by particular cities as their special protector, from Paris in the late 6th century to Venice and Lyons in the 17th. Often depicted in paintings and on processional banners shielding the citizens p. 96under her capacious mantle, she sometimes had Roch and Sebastian on either side of her.

Many of these images were ex-voto offerings, intended and believed to have instrumental effect. In the folk culture of pre-Reformation and Catholic Europe, the relationship between saints and those they specially defended was like that between patron and client or a feudal lord and his retainers. Popes like Urban VIII, who gave official approval to the cults of Rosalie and Roch in 1629, might not have put it so crudely, but it implied reciprocal duties and obligations almost of a contractual kind. Prayers and gifts to the saints certainly offered as much solace and hope of relief as the medicines bought from physicians or apothecaries, perhaps more. These were not passive responses to epidemics but a form of direct action, designed to gain some control by negotiation with the powers that sent them.

It followed from the reciprocity of the relationship that thanks must be given for mercies received, and the success of supernatural intervention commemorated, preferably in concrete or ritual form. Rome still has the statue of St Michael the Archangel sheathing his sword on Castel Sant’Angelo; Vienna its plague monument on the Graben finished in 1693; and Budapest a column in Buda and a chapel dedicated to St Roch in Pest commemorating epidemics between 1690 and 1711. In Venice, the churches of the Redentore and S. Maria della Salute were built in thanksgiving for the departure of plague in 1576 and 1630, and there were votive processions to them, as well as to the Scuola of S. Rocco, in the regular ritual calendar of the doge and citizens. They are all reminders of the tenacious hold of religious perceptions of plague far into the 18th century, in Catholic Europe at least.

Graphic representations of plague, whether on monuments or canvas, often referred to more than its supernatural origin, however; and sometimes their only purpose can have been to p. 97show something of plague's reality. Several of the pictures of Carlo Borromeo, which proliferated in oils, frescos, and engravings after his canonization in 1610, show him ministering the sacraments to the infected inside and outside the plague hospital of Milan in 1575–6, with images of the sick and dying all around him. There p. 98are at least three contemporary paintings of the plague of 1656 in Naples, all of them focusing on the heaped-up bodies of the infected. They made as little reference to supernatural agencies as the early manuscript illumination showing coffins being hurriedly assembled which comes from Tournai during the Black Death (see Figures 5 and 7). Poussin's depiction of The Plague of Ashdod of 1630–1, which influenced many later artists, refers back to the biblical plague of the Philistines and to their god, Dagon, who conspicuously failed them, but it seems chiefly designed to illustrate contemporary horrors wherever plague occurred. Prominent in the foreground is a representation of a dead or dying mother with a suckling infant, a motif whose origin lies in Raphael's drawing of Il Morbetto, itself much copied thanks to printed engravings derived from it.

17. Santa Maria della Salute, built after the plague of 1630 in Venice

By the 17th century, print was giving many kinds of image of plague a wide audience. Some of them were commissioned by local authorities to present the official view of epidemics, and p. 99p. 100advertise the splendid modern precautions they adopted against them. There were engravings of new plague hospitals, but also of guarded gates and gallows for offenders against quarantine regulations, as in Rome during the plague of 1656–7. In the 1720s, the city of Marseilles commissioned prints which show a fine town hall and avenue leading to the pesthouse but also bodies piled up on carts in front of them. Some of the earliest representations of plague-doctors, dressed head to foot in protective clothing and wearing masks with beaks containing aromatic substances, similarly date from the plagues of the 1650s and 1720s, and can scarcely have been any more reassuring.

18. Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod, painted 1630–1

19. A physician wearing protective clothing against plague in 1656

Much cruder than any of these, and appealing to a more popular audience, were the woodcut illustrations of plague on cheap printed broadsides, which seem to have been particularly common in 17th-century London. One broadside shows several scenes in succession, as in a strip cartoon: a sick room with a searcher of the dead ready to examine the patient; streets with searchers, coffins, and funeral processions; the walls of the city, with corpses being buried outside them and people in flight confronted by armed guards in the countryside. The intended effect was one of order being imposed amidst disorder, but it offered little hope of escape, only the necessity for resignation and endurance. Some of London's bills of mortality contained similar illustrations of the city, with a destroying angel or a triumphant skeleton like that in a dance of death alongside their statistics (see Figure 14). Other broadsheets recommended prayers as well as medicines to remind people of God's judgements, but in Protestant England, there could be no recourse to intermediaries and intercessors like the saints who might ensure some miraculous deliverance.

In London, as in some other cities, Catholic as well as Protestant, popular printed literature also offered ways of imagining plague in prose and verse as enduring as those on woodcuts and engravings. The plague pamphlets of Thomas Dekker published in England between 1603 and 1630 incorporated several of them. One had a p. 101title-page showing a plague-stricken London with an infant and dead mother in the foreground (Figure 13) and its contents refer to Apollo and God's arrows striking the city's ‘sinfully polluted suburbs’. Others called Londoners to repentance and condemned the way countrymen treated those who fled. But they also contained stories designed to amuse as well as to edify, like one about a drunkard waking up in a plague pit and finding himself surrounded by corpses. Dekker said he intended to evoke ‘a happy laugh’ in his readers because, as physicians had explained, ‘mirth is both physical and wholesome against the plague’.

Satire, making fun of plague, was one way of fighting it, making it familiar, perhaps cutting it down to size. It had been used in the past, by a Florentine poet in 1532, for example, and was often to be used again, even by authors personally affected by the disease. Dekker's contemporary, Ben Jonson, depicted plague in what might seem to us wholly contradictory ways. In his plays, there are comical figures who bring plague in from London's suburbs, and a great projector, Sir Politic Would-Be, who hopes to make a fortune from his invention of special bellows to blow the smell of onions over ships in quarantine. Yet Jonson was also the author of a lament on the loss of his son, ‘his best piece of poetry’, who had died in the London plague of 1603. Jonson himself was safe in the country, where he had a vision of the boy with ‘the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead’, like the crosses on infected houses, and he blamed himself for this judgement of providence because he had loved his son too much.

When plague withdrew from Europe in the 18th century, it left behind multiple ways of representing it. Many of them were represented in the literature published in the 1720s and 1730s, in the wake of what turned out to be the last epidemic in France. There were narratives and medical tracts, odes and epistles, about the plague of Marseilles, including Jean-Baptiste Bertrand's Relation historique, written in 1721 while disease still raged there. Along with drawings and engravings, they made the city itself an p. 102icon of plague for centuries after. Their equivalent in England was a single work, with a lasting influence all its own, Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722.

Defoe had reported on events in Marseilles in his newspapers, and he set out to reconstruct the London epidemic of 1665, with all its events ‘public as well as private’, in order to show what might happen again if the disease reached England from Provence. He drew upon publications from 1665 and had his narrator, ‘H.F.’, reflect on topics which were commonplace in earlier plague literature: the question of whether keeping plague secret in order to avoid panic was better than public knowledge of an outbreak, the vexed problem of flight, and the difference between proper religious piety in the face of infection and passive ‘Turkish fatalism’. He reported stories which might easily have come from Dekker's pen or from accounts of earlier epidemics, about bearers of the dead suspected of stealing sheets off the backs of the corpses they buried, and about drunkards in alehouses mocking devout mourners outside and ‘laughing at the word judgement’. But Defoe was particularly intrigued by the question of how far the interests of public safety should be allowed to override those of private individuals.

He had no doubt that plague was contagious, though others denied it. One of his newspaper reports shows that he had no time for the merchants who opposed quarantine restrictions on commerce, and in doing so ventured ‘the welfare of the whole kingdom … for the wretched gain of a private man’. In the Journal, he similarly defended household quarantine in London: ‘It was a public good that justified the private mischief.’ Equally, however, ‘the severity of those confinements’ made people desperate and disorderly. Defoe tried to understand both sides and not to condemn either of them. The actions of parish officers were sometimes ‘cruel and rigorous’, but they ‘did their duties in general with as much courage as any, and perhaps with more’, since they worked ‘among the poor who were more subject to be infected and p. 103in the most pitiful plight’. All of them were victims of circumstance. ‘There was no remedy: self preservation obliged the people to those severities which they would not otherwise have been concerned in.’

The comprehensive scope and balanced judgements of Defoe's Journal did as much as the quantity of publications about Marseilles to ensure that literary depictions of plague survived along with other images of what it had once meant. Like the Athens of Thucydides and Boccaccio's Florence in previous centuries, London in 1665 and Marseilles in 1720 became obvious points of reference when plague stimulated the imaginations of European authors again and old images were revisited after 1800.

Survival and revival

Memories of plague survived its disappearance from Europe in a variety of forms. Some of them were simply anachronisms, like the painting which Napoleon commissioned of his visit to the plague sick in a hospital in Jaffa in 1799, showing him in the role of another Borromeo. British cartoonists mocked his presumption. The need for intercessors and intermediaries was disappearing. But other images of plague were given a fresh vitality, the more distant they became from everyday experience. That was partly prompted by the perennial fascination of something wholly ‘other’, but interest in past plagues also gained a new relevance when cholera in the 19th century and HIV/AIDS and new virus infections in the 20th threatened to recreate similar epidemic disasters. Images and stories of plague in various literary genres acquired a life of their own.

The first indication of new life came just before or soon after Napoleon had himself painted as Borromeo, in the period between the 1790s and the 1830s. Before then, some images of plague, including metaphors of pollution and references to punishing deities, had been applied to smallpox, but that disease was more p. 104easily visualized as an individual affliction than as a sudden universal calamity. It encouraged a fascination with personal pain and the grief of the bereaved better suited to 18th-century sensibilities than recollection of collective horrors. Scares about ‘pestilential fevers’ spreading from the poor to the rich were sometimes revived by gaol fever, typhus, but cases were localized and irregular. Much closer to the real thing were outbreaks of yellow fever in North America in the 1790s and cholera in Europe in the early 1830s, which were as corrosive of some of the optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment as the political disturbances and revolutions with which they coincided.

Cholera in particular evoked memories of plague. Histories of past epidemics had been published in New England in the 1790s, prompted by yellow fever. Cholera produced more, some of them popular, some of them founded on serious scholarship. Defoe's Journal was reprinted in full in 1835, for the first time since 1755, and with a modernized text. Hecker's seminal history of the Black Death appeared in 1832, and inaugurated a series of depictions of 14th-century epidemics, with their flagellants, dancing manias, and persecutions of the Jews, all of them examples of extremes of human behaviour scarcely acknowledged by the civilized sensibilities of the Enlightenment. Plague became a topic for ‘Gothic’ recreations of more barbarous ages, of disastrous events supposedly reshaping the whole course of history.

Changes in literary culture associated with Romanticism belong to the same period and also had their effect. It can be seen in the evolution of an image often associated earlier with plague and collective horror, the danse macabre (see Figure 8). It had been a part of folk culture since the 15th century, and given wide circulation by prints copying Holbein's famous drawings of 1538. In 1813, Goethe's poem Der Totentanz elevated the Dance of Death to literary prominence. His dancers, ‘so poor and so young, so old and so rich’, retained much of the social symbolism they had in the past, but the motif was soon put to new uses. It was employed by p. 105critics of the bourgeoisie and absolute government in 1848, and scenes of dances and balls allowed writers from Flaubert to Strindberg to explore more profound and intimate relationships between the living and the dead. The dance inspired musicians too, from Liszt or perhaps Schubert (in ‘Death and the Maiden’) onwards, and it acquired its own scholarly literature, beginning as early as 1826.

With or without a dance, plague itself became a popular topic for literary fiction in the early 19th century. The fashion began with a verse drama, John Wilson's The City of the Plague, published in 1816. Its dying heroine, from ‘among the hills of Westmorland’ and set against a contrasting background of plague-infected London, owes a good deal to the early Romantic poets, whom Wilson knew, but some of his scenes look back to much earlier literature. There is a satirical street party, for example, when the Master of the Revels, having lost his wife and mother in the epidemic, sings a ‘Song on the Plague’ in praise of ‘the Pest’. Of little literary merit in itself, Wilson's macabre melodrama would have been wholly forgotten had its theme not appealed to others. It was read by Pushkin in 1830, when cholera raged throughout Russia, and was the basis for his short tragedy The Feast in the Time of Plague, published in 1832, which had many imitators. Feasts and revels became common settings for fictions about disease and mortality, including some deliberate horror stories like Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death (1842) in which pestilence was material for nightmare rather than romance or social commentary.

Wilson's City also caught the interest of writers less distinguished than Pushkin in England. It prompted John Holland in 1821 to produce his own epic poem about the Derbyshire village of Eyam, which the local rector, William Mompesson, had isolated during the plague of 1666. The poem had notes quoting Mompesson's letters, and inspired other publications which gave the village its reputation as a site of historic and heroic deeds and romance. p. 106After the bicentenary of the epidemic in 1866, Eyam became something of a tourist trap, complete with its own invented traditions, and in its small way a local version of Marseilles. Marseilles scarcely needed invented traditions when it commemorated the centenary of its own plague in the 1820s. The publications of the 1720s were re-read, and historical records edited and published. They were nonetheless material for fiction, beginning in 1828 with Gilbert de Pixérécourt's ‘historical melodrama’ in three acts, La Peste de Marseilles, which has heroic young doctors, evil body-snatchers, and a pair of lovers at risk in a quarantined city.

The first modern novel about plague, and the first Italian novel of all, had been published in the previous year, 1827. Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed was a melodrama on a similar romantic theme, and also had an historical background, in this case the plague of Milan in 1629–30, whose description takes up a large part of the book. Like the plays of Wilson and Pixérécourt, it owes something to Defoe, and contains vignettes not far removed from the historical record, including some bearers and buriers of the dead singing ‘Long live the plague, and death to the rabble’, just like the real bearers of the dead in Salisbury back in 1627. Other historical novels of a similar kind soon followed. One of the most popular, Harrison Ainsworth's Old St Paul's (1841), about the plague and fire of London, has a coffin-maker singing a ‘song of the plague’ with a toast for his customers: ‘Drink the Plague! Drink the Plague!’

Despite their historical references and the research that lay behind them, Ainsworth's novel and some of its successors were very far from being accurate representations of plague in the 17th or earlier centuries. They reflected impressions of epidemics, whether Gothic or romantic, melodramatic or macabre, manufactured in the 19th century by the literary tastes and for the literate audience of the time. They were images as far removed from the reality as the disease was from European experience. In p. 107the 20th century, the distance grew even wider as literary fashions changed and educated readers responded to different, perhaps more demanding, kinds of fiction. Many novels about plagues and pestilences displayed little interest in history, sometimes dispensing with it altogether, and concentrated more self-consciously on what epidemics had to say about current anxieties and the human condition at the time.

The change of emphasis can be illustrated by a film, a fiction which exploited graphic as well as narrative images in a famous evocation of the Black Death, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal made in 1957. With its game of chess between Death and the Knight dominating the plot, and a final iconic dance of death driving home its message, the film might be regarded as the supreme embodiment of a Gothic view of the Middle Ages, when crusaders and peasants fought in vain against pestilence in a harsh and cruel environment. Its historical chronology is certainly confused and its image of some ill-defined medieval century one of unrelieved and unrealistic gloom. Yet Bergman set out to create a parable not a chronicle. His title refers to the seventh seal in the Book of Revelation whose breaking is followed by a ‘silence in heaven’, by the Last Judgement, and by the end of the world. Its story is a moral fable for a modern nuclear age about the impossibility of sustaining religious faith, perhaps any kind of faith, in the face of imminent disaster.

Some of the reasons for using plague in this allegorical way were explained in an essay on ‘The Theatre and the Plague’ written in 1934 by Antoine Artaud, inventor of the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ and a native of Marseilles who knew its history. He visualized plagues and theatrical performances as occasions for the exhibition of extreme forms of expression and action, and the ventilation of normally ‘dormant images’ and ‘latent disorder’. One can readily see the appeal of the extreme to some of the authors of fictions in the 19th century and the exploration of those dormant images has been much more prominent in plague literature since then. The p. 108disease has become established as a frame through which to view things other than plague itself.

Fiction and representation

There is nothing very new about the use of plague as a backdrop, creating a suitably threatening atmosphere and adding tension to a tale in order to point a moral. The plague of Athens serves that function for Thucydides. Boccaccio's description of the Black Death at the beginning of the Decameron hangs over the fictions which follow as a reminder of mutability and mortality. Plague provides an appropriate setting for an old story about drunkards finding death as well as gold under a tree in Geoffrey Chaucer's ‘Pardoner's Tale’, and for a parable about political power and social injustice in La Fontaine's 17th-century fable ‘The Animals Sick of the Plague’. While plague stories continue to have allegorical uses and moral purposes, however, the invention of the novel as a vehicle for the exploration of individual motivation and social interaction gave them greater scope to probe the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and social institutions subjected to exceptional stress.

In the past century, there has been a host of novels, and films based on novels, about epidemics, past, present, and future, all of them experimenting with stereotypical images and incidents familiar from earlier representations. One or two have become acknowledged classics of their kind, like Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) and Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939). Each of them centres on the self-perception of an individual in a personal tragedy created by epidemics – cholera in the first case, the influenza epidemic of 1918 in the second – and both present images of whole societies on the verge of dissolution. Philip Roth's Nemesis (2010) similarly deals with the personal crises of its central figure, a playground supervisor trying to do his duty to the children in his charge during a polio outbreak in 1944, and when he finally leaves, taking the ‘arrow’ of the disease with p. 109him and thereby ‘scapegoating himself’. It is a narrative about his feelings of failure and eventually despair in a world abandoned by God, and also an allegory of the Holocaust, since many of the polio victims are Jews.

The list could easily be extended, and might embrace a great diversity of fictions. Sometimes titles refer directly to plague, as with Jim Crace's novel The Pesthouse (2007), about efforts to escape pestilence and famine in a future dystopian USA, or the horror film Quarantine (2008), describing the impact of a newly discovered or manufactured virus in a single apartment block. Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof (1951) uses some of the Marseilles literature in its story about cholera in Provence in 1832, and its title, like those of Bergman and Porter, is another deliberate reference to the apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Revelation about the end of the world. A recent novel in Chinese, Snow Raven (2008) by Chi Zijian, seems to be unique in taking for its historical setting an epidemic of pneumonic plague, in Harbin in 1910–11, and has a range of characters reminiscent of some older European tales of plague and some modern stories about that and other kinds of disaster: a profiteering Japanese businessman, a Russian diva, a righteous local gentleman, and a Chinese doctor sent to ‘save’ the city.

Stories of this kind have multiple functions whose exploration would take us far away from plague, and so do images of the disease which flourish in other recent genres of popular culture, from zombie fictions to video games. All of them no doubt have a cathartic effect, raising emotional temperatures and tension, and relieving them in a process as therapeutic as Dekker hoped a reading of his plague pamphlets would be. They may evoke terror or excitement, and have something to say about ourselves, our personal and collective anxieties. If they repay the attention of students of plague, however, it is because they convey as vividly as Defoe's Journal how people were compelled to behave when plague was a real and not merely an imagined phenomenon. p. 110Images of plague can be manipulated in a variety of ways, but the best plague fictions have successfully evoked the historical character of epidemic situations.

From that point of view, Albert Camus's The Plague (1947) still stands as the pre-eminent example of the genre. Set during an imagined plague epidemic in the port of Oran in North Africa in the 1940s, it can be read as an allegory, about French resistance to Nazi oppression, or about inescapable and arbitrary evil in a world as meaningless as Bergman's. It owes much to Defoe and the published accounts of plague in Marseilles, and it explores personal dilemmas as moving as those depicted by Roth and a range of actors as various as those of Chi Zijian. Like many of its successors, it also recreates the personal and collective dilemmas which plague posed in the past and which were illustrated in the two previous chapters of this book: the hard choices which had to be faced in impossible circumstances and the ways in which the actions of authority aggravated them, not needlessly but necessarily.

Camus's narrator, Dr Rieux, finds himself a ‘prisoner of the plague’ along with everyone else when Oran is placed under quarantine and no one allowed to leave. Conventional religion begins to lose its hold, superstitions and rumours abound, and there is ‘much heavy drinking’. Long-established communal ties are shattered, and men and women compelled ‘to live, as individuals, in relative solitude’. ‘None could count on any help from his neighbour; each had to bear the load of his troubles alone.’ Rieux has his own problems. As a doctor ‘watching men dying who were meant to live’, his task was ‘no longer to cure, but to diagnose. To detect, to see, to register and then condemn.’ In his narrative, however, he seeks to take ‘the victims’ side’ and share with them ‘the only certitudes they had in common – love, exile and suffering’. ‘There was no predicament of theirs that was not his.’

The predicaments are those inevitable in plague-time and illustrated through his friends. Among them are Paneloux, p. 111a Catholic priest, energetically doing his religious duty, exposing himself to infection in hospitals and outside, until in the end even he has religious doubts about a beneficent divinity; and Cottard, a criminal obsessed with trying to escape but ‘the living image of content’ for a time, as he profits from plague by selling drink and tobacco at inflated prices. There is Richard, another physician, denying that plague is plague at the beginning of the epidemic, and Rambert, a journalist, wanting to escape to rejoin his lover in Paris, but finally understanding that everyone is engaged in a common struggle and he must stay to retain his self-respect. Closest to a hero perhaps is Grand, the municipal clerk, organizing the work of sanitary teams disinfecting houses, keeping registers of deaths and sickness, and trying and failing to get beyond the first sentence of a fiction he is composing, about a woman on a pale horse (an apocalyptic image again). For Grand, unlike some of the others, there is no point in trying to comprehend plague or find any meaning in it. It is enough to know that ‘plague is here and we’ve got to make a stand; that's obvious’.

In the end, Rieux takes a similar standpoint. He has no doubt that restrictions on movement are essential in the interest of public health: the question is not whether the measures taken are too ‘rigorous, but whether they are needful to prevent the death of half the population. All the rest is administrative action.’ At the same time, however, he intends his chronicle to ‘bear witness in favour of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise’. Defoe's narrator might have said much the same thing. Central to Camus's novel as to all histories and stories about plague is that persistent tension between the individual and the community, between private and public interests, which is created by epidemic disease itself and by the precautions that have to be taken against it.

p. 112There is also another theme common to accounts of plague, past as well as present. Many of them refer to the difficulty of creating any literary representation of plague which encompasses every aspect of it and allows the reader to comprehend the whole. Rieux confesses that he is no more successful at that than his friends who keep their own records. Parets, the Barcelona tanner recording the plague of 1651 in Barcelona, knew that there was much more to be said than his simple prose could express, and Mompesson's letters from Eyam acknowledge that he is describing something that exceeds ‘all history and example’.

A combination of history and fiction might be thought most likely to succeed, and it has been attempted. Manzoni, the pioneering Italian novelist, undertook historical research for the purpose in 1827; and John Hatcher, an eminent medieval historian, uses ‘creative reconstructions’ of character and dialogue ‘far closer to docudrama than conventional history’ in The Black Death: An Intimate History (2008). Yet the mass of historical detail wholly overwhelms much of the plot of the first; and the comparative success of the second is achieved only by avoiding plot and presenting ‘a sequence of set pieces’ which illuminate much of what the Black Death meant at the time but not, of course, the whole.

Narratives about plague can no more provide a complete image of their subject than pictures of saints or engravings of infected cities. They will always be inadequate. But we must try to draw other lessons from histories of plague before we can conclude this very short and inadequate introduction.