Outbreaks of disease, and fear of subsequent government control are a prominent feature in modern day popular culture. Films such as Contagion, 28 Days Later and Outbreak focus upon an ingrained human fear of uncontrollable and seemingly incurable diseases that force authorities to use strict and often violent methods on a seemingly innocent infected population in a desperate attempt to maintain law and order and to protect the rest of society. But where did this fascination with uncontainable frighteningly incurable diseases start?
Undoubtedly, one of the most feared and commented upon diseases in history is the plague. Plague outbreaks occurred in approximately twenty years intervals in London during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it was not until James I ascended the throne in 1603 that there were attempts at a national level to prevent the pestilence from spreading from the urban to rural communities. As there were no known medications effective in curing the disease, the Government’s only method of combatting pestilence in the seventeenth century was through the policy of isolation. This policy allowed authorities to introduce strict regulations to prevent individuals from spreading the disease to other parts of the country. Paul Slack (1985) argues that while national and local governments worked in unison to develop stringent methods for controlling the spread of pestilence, it was the actions of local authorities that determined whether the plague would be effectively contained. Contagion (2011) shows that the policy of isolation is still used during disease outbreaks in the twenty-first century.
The Poor: Blamed and Isolated
National authorities aimed to regulate the country’s quarantine method with the introduction of statutes such as the 1605 Plague Act, which ensured that there were restrictions on the movement of the infectious. Authorities ‘shut up’ houses with the infected and their families inside to prevent the diseased from wandering or escaping to the country, thereby causing other areas of the population to be infected. They also issued a Charitable Relief, which the entire nation had to pay, to ensure that the infected did not attempt to escape their home to search for food or employment. The Act blamed the lower classes for purposely “wander[ing] abroad and thereby infect[ing] others.” Slack states that the idea that, based on class, the pestilence was discriminatory, was not uncommon in England, as shown in Yorkshire in the 1620s, where it was claimed: “no man could suspect a lady to die of the plague.” This attitude may seem pompous in modern times. However, while films about outbreaks do not commonly blame a certain class of society for the disease, it should be noted that in these fictional accounts, the President and the rich nearly always manage to escape the infected areas. This correlates with actual historical experience as the elite had the same ability to flee infected and pestilential urban towns in seventeenth century England, while the poor had to wait out the disease.
Acts of violence were encouraged during pestilence outbreaks in order to control the population. The Plague Act gave express permission for wardens to use violence, including acts of whipping, when it was deemed necessary. Duncan & Scott indicates the effectiveness of the plague regulations was demonstrated in the urban city of York, where the removal of beggars and wanderers, as well as ensuring the strict isolation of the sick, prevented the plague from spreading beyond the originally infected parishes.
Rural Communities and the Plague
The English authorities aimed to contain the epidemic by cancelling events that would attract mass crowds, by initiating prayers and fasting to encourage divine intervention, and halting goods on trade routes. However it was the degree of forewarning that the epidemic was spreading towards an area, which was fundamental in enabling parish authorities to stringently enforce local and national strategies in time to prevent the plague from entering the communities. In films, the contagion almost always bursts upon a metropolitan area with no warning and frequently stems from infected wildlife.
The rural community of Eyam was heroic and successful in their efforts to contain the outbreak in their society by using self-imposed quarantine methods. The rural communities could adhere to the nation’s strategies and statutes more effectively than the metropolitan areas because they were not faced with the practical difficulties of regulating a larger population. Eventually, strict regulations forced the national and local authorities to improve the living conditions and hygiene levels in England. This resulted in England being free from pestilence epidemics after 1666.
Impact of Plague on the Twenty-First Century
Even though the last plague outbreak occurred in 1666 in England, the plague continues to be a relevant topic today. We still sing nursery rhymes inspired by the plague, such as Ring a Ring a Roses and plague burial pits remain unbuilt on, out of fear that the disease will again break out and be almost impossible to control. The plague is remains alive in our modern psyche, as the quarantine measures started in the seventeenth century are still used during suspected epidemics in nation-states, as well as in fiction, in the twenty-first century.