Articles

350 Years After the Great Plague, Its Skeletal Reaper Remains

Title page for a collection of 'Bills of Mortality' (1665) (via Wellcome Images)
Title page for a collection of ‘Bills of Mortality’ that chronicled the Great Plague’s death counts (1665) (via Wellcome Images)

The personification of death goes back centuries, with Thanatos of ancient Greece and the pale horse rider of Revelation. Death as a skeletal grim reaper, however, was cemented as a symbol during the plagues in Europe, which stretched from the 14th to 18th centuries.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague (1665–66), the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. To coincide with the anniversary, the Guildhall Library is hosting London’s Dreadful Visitation: The Great Plague, 1665, an exhibition that features printed plague material; some of it, like the “Bills of Mortality” that counted weekly deaths, reveal the period’s macabre imagery. Archaeologists have also been excavating a burial pit as part of a new London rail link project, discovering 30 victims who were all interred on the same day. Meanwhile, the Crossrail Project shared a 360-degree video view of the in-progress study of the believed 1665 Great Plague pit. There’s some evidence that rather than an abyss of naked bodies tossed together, limbs tangled in rot, coffins were in fact still being used — in other words, some respect was still being given to the dead despite the huge death toll. Over three centuries later, the impact and history of the Great Plague are still evolving.

'Lord, have mercy on London' (1370) (via Wikimedia)
‘Lord, have mercy on London’ (1370) (via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

In Representing the Plague in Early Modern England, Rebecca Totaro wrote:

In early modern England, death was a common visitor, coming in many shapes, but however horrifying and dehumanizing they were, leprosy, smallpox, and syphilis, famine, war, and murder in plague-time became lesser manifestations of death. […] No other disease altered physical, social, religious, medical, and civic behavior and beliefs at once, generation after generation, and sometimes decade after decade, year after year.

map shared by the Guardian shows the density of burials in 1665. At the conclusion of 1666, it’s estimated that up to 100,000 people were dead from the plague — a quarter of the city’s population.

On broadsheets and illustrations, especially in media intended for the masses, the “Black Death” was often depicted as a wandering skeleton, sometimes wielding an arrow, shovel, or scythe. The vision of death or disease as an animated corpse predates the plague, yet the skeleton became a more popular visual around this time, representing the threat of an epidemic that seemed as though it could come from your friends, family, or neighbors. In the 19th century, the transmission of the plague would finally be connected with rat fleas; in 17th-century London, suspected infected people were quarantined behind closed doors, with red crosses painted on the wood. The plague mingled with the city, infecting rich and poor in a constant mortal dance. In The Black Death, Joseph Patrick Byrne writes that the “image of Death as an entity had a more standardized iconography in the West by the fourteenth century, and this evolved as the pestilence recurred. […] The massive presence of Death during outbreaks of pestilence made these messages immediate, however, and popularized the images.”

'Dance of Death' Hartman Schedel's 'Chronicle of the World' (1493) (via Wikimedia)
‘Dance of Death’ Hartman Schedel’s ‘Chronicle of the World’ (1493) (via Wikimedia)
"Runaways Fleeing from the Plague" (1630), a woodcut from 'A Looking-glasse for City and Countrey' by H. Gosson (via Wellcome Images)
“Runaways Fleeing from the Plague” (1630), a woodcut from ‘A Looking-glasse for City and Countrey’ by H. Gosson (via Wellcome Images) (click to enlarge)

One of the earliest danse macabres was painted in the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents in Paris in 1425. Now destroyed, it showed skeletons joyfully cavorting with pope, doctor, duke, and citizen alike, and the theme caught on across Europe. London, like other cities in Europe, suffered several plagues before this “Great” one in 1665; by then, the image of death as a reaper, as a skeleton stalking the living, was secure. At the same time, many illustrations were moving towards a more realistic visualization of the horror, like an etching of two women lying dead in a street, a baby still feeding at one of their breasts. Yet the skeleton remained, continuing to ramble through our art and culture over the centuries. On a broadsheet from that era, a bony figure faces the wall around London, an hourglass and arrow raised triumphantly in its hands, a coffin at its feet. Above it are the words: “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

Frontispiece of 'The Christians Refuge' (via Wellcome Images)
Frontispiece of ‘The Christians Refuge’ (via Wellcome Images)
Scenes of London during the plague of 1665 (via Wellcome Images) (click to enlarge)
Scenes of London during the plague of 1665 (via Wellcome Images) (click to enlarge)
Plague panel showing death crowned with triumphant laurels. These types of panels were placed on German houses to warn against the plague in the 17th century (via Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin)
Plague panel showing death crowned with triumphant laurels. These types of panels were placed on German houses to warn against the plague in the 17th century. (via Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin)
comments (0)