In 1665, the city of London did not bustle with its usual activity. Streets were uncharacteristically vacant of its citizens, the unholy plague on the minds of all. “But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy,” citizen Samuel Pepys observed.1 London residents were locked behind hundreds of shut doors, hastily detailing death records or helplessly succumbing to the plague themselves. Some declared that the disease could affect anybody, yet informed readers that it originated in poor regions of the city. Others preached religious calls to action, claiming that sins had caused God to place the plague upon them. It was a time when those destitute sought sanctuary more than ever, depending upon the charity of others in the hope of seeing another day. Early modern London linked the poor to uncleanliness, uncleanliness to sin, and sin to disease. Government-instituted laws that stemmed from such beliefs worsened poor conditions by failing to properly administer to their problem. This failure left the poor few options for survival, which allowed quacks and swindlers to doubly victimize them. Apothecaries and surgeons, themselves targets of stereotypes and exclusion, were able to challenge the hierarchy of professional medicine by providing what their college-educated counterparts failed to deliver: care. This essay examines the responses of medical practitioners to the plague, and how early modern conceptions of poverty further victimized and socially stratified London’s poor.
Muñoz, Celina, "The Plague, the Poor, and the Problem of Medicine" (2014). Western Libraries Undergraduate Research Award. 2.