Utmost Malice of Their Stars: The 350th Anniversary of Annus Apocalypses — by Ed Simon

Is 2016 an apocalyptic year?

Annus Mirabilis, via St. John's College, University of Cambridge
Annus Mirabilis, via St. John’s College, University of Cambridge

And two dire Comets, which have scourg’d the Town

In their own Plague and Fire have breath’d their last,

Or, dimly, in their sinking sockets frown.

–John Dryden, Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666 

I saw both these stars, and, I must confess, had so much of the common notion of such things in my head, that I was apt to look upon them as the forerunners and warnings of God’s judgements.

–Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year 

The summer of 1666 had been exceptionally dry and hot. These were dangerous conditions for London, which despite its increasingly massive population was still basically a medieval walled city, composed of thousands of rickety, half-timbered wooden buildings shadowed underneath St. Paul’s (which itself would not survive the autumn). Sources seem to agree to where it started – at the bakery of a one Thomas Farriner on a Sunday night, September 2nd of that annus Mirabilis, annus, Horribilis, annus Apocalypsis. The baker and his family survived, but the maid did not, as she became the first victim of what came to be called the Great Fire of London. What started as a kitchen fire in a shop on the appropriately named Pudding Lane quickly spread to adjacent buildings. Sir Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor, was called to the scene and encouraged to demolish the closest shops and homes so as to abort the quickly spreading fire which had begun to consume this neighborhood just north of the Thames. Yet Bloodworth refused, unable to find the owners of the buildings (as these were rented hovels) and dismissing concerns that the conflagration could consume the whole city, notoriously saying that “A woman could piss it out” if firefighters were so worried about the situation becoming more dire. According to historian Roy Porter, by September 5th there would be 13,500 destroyed residences, 87 churches immolated, 44 company homes burned, as well as the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, Bridewell Palace, three gates to the city, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose steeple had collapsed in another fire a century before, and with almost a quarter of a million Londoners homeless. In language almost biblical, John Evelyn wrote that “there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation.” The official death toll was absurdly low – supposedly only six people. Yet with parts of the center of the city as hot as a crematorium – the iron locks on the gates were melted – some historians think that communities of the unrecorded poor were decimated, and that the actual toll was of many thousands of deaths. It was recorded that as survivors sifted through the debris, finding bit of broken ceramic and tile, that fractured human bones were common, having been reduced to sizes so infinitesimal that it was impossible to tell what part of the body they came from.

Painting of the Great Fire of London by an anonymous artist. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of the Great Fire of London by an anonymous artist. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Pepys rather predictably sought shelter in an alehouse south of the river, and watched as the flames consumed London as surely as they had Sodom and Gomorrah. Observing as it crept across London Bridge like some sort of insatiable living beast, Pepys recorded that the burning of the structure appeared as if “a bow with God’s arrow in it with a shining point.” Pepys was a navy man, a drinker and a lecher, and so apt not to have listened to the stern denunciations of the religious radicals who had crowded the streets of the capital (even if he had once been a supporter of Cromwell) in the days before Restoration. But some of those prophets of Interregnum had predicted this year of all years to be one when a cleansing fire would obliterate the works of man, and they had spoken in these tongues of fire, ranting from Fleet Street to the Court of St. Paul’s years before the travesty of Oak-Apple Day.

This inferno enacted God’s vengeance on that Whore of Babylon, Charles II, with his drinking and his dalliances and his pageantry and his popery. For the religious non-conformists it was as if a biblical judgement was being visited upon this English Pharaoh. For groups like the millenarian Fifth Monarchy Men, who were awaiting the Kingdom of Christ upon the end of the world, 1666 approached as an apocalyptic year, with the numerological significance of its last three numbers all but obvious. Daniel Defoe, writing some fifty six years after the events of 1666, remembered that the subjects of London were “addicted to prophecies, and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales.” These were years of vision – the English having found themselves baptized through the traumas of civil war and Puritan theocracy were predisposed to read the apocalypse in signs. Defoe described the steady business occultists and cunning men and women had in reading dreams, he writes of those who saw “a flaming sword held in a hand, coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city,” and more presciently of “heaps of dead bodies lying unburied.”

These images seemingly predicted something even more terrifying than the purging inferno, as that was not the worst thing to happen to the city of London in 1666. It was May the year before that the characteristic bubo of the plague were first observed among people living in the crowded environs of St. Giles in the Field. Dockworkers had spent days unloading cargo from Dutch ships which had brought Rattus rattus to England’s shores, the rats in turn smuggling Yersinia Pestis into the largest city in Europe (not that the authorities would have understood the epidemiological reality of the plague bacterium). Over the next year that city would be alleviated of 100,000 suffering souls, the most massive loss of humans to the bubonic plague in London since the almost mythic Black Death of the fourteenth-century. For if fire was one of the Egyptian plagues God sent to the Stuart king, then pestilence was the first. Defoe described the burning as “sudden, swift, and fiery,” whereas the earlier plague was “slow but severe, terrible, and frightful.”

The record keepers may have fudged the deaths caused by the flames, but they couldn’t obscure the fact of the bodies heaped into mass graves, more than a quarter of London escaping to the countryside to survive, where they wondered zombie-like among the woods, starving to death. Pepys exclaims, “But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ‘Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague.” With Charles and his court abandoning the capital as surely as they had been forced to during the years of revolution two decades before, London was left over for the terrified, convulsing, toxic crowd, even as the writer Edward Cotes prayed that “Neither the Physicians of our Souls or Bodies may hereafter in such great numbers forsake us.” One of the doctors who did not forsake the city was Nathaniel Hodges, who surveyed the destruction which ravaged London, writing:

Although the Soldiery retreated from the Field of Death, and encamped out of the City, the Contagion followed, and vanquish’d them; many in their Old Age, and others in their Prime, sunk under its cruelties; of the Female Sex most died; and hardly any children escaped; and it was not uncommon to see an Inheritance pass successively to three or four Heirs in as many Days; the Number of Sextons were not sufficient to bury the Dead.

Defoe, who fictionalized his childhood memories of the plague a half-century hence in his novel A Journal of the Plague Year wandered the same stricken streets as Dr. Hodges. At one point he recollects seeing a cart with sixteen or seventeen naked bodies heaped together, though “the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to anyone else.” In London during the summer of 1665 and into the fall and then the winter of 1666 the dead were democratically “huddled together into the common grave of mankind… for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together.” Note that though demographers still debate what the exact death toll was, that at the height of the epidemic there was a pit in Aldgate where more than a thousand bodies would be dumped from carts like the one Defoe saw.

1666 was supposed to be a year that the world ended, and in some ways that world did end, and another one came to replace it. From the ashes of the Great Fire a new, grand, modern city would rise; Christopher Wren would punctuate the skyline with the triumphant gilded dome of St. Paul’s, the medieval crowding of London’s past would be replaced with a glowing capital worthy of their new empire, a shockingly modern place of commerce and science, newspapers and coffee-shops, a London which shares more with the modern city than it did with the London of even a few decades before the plague and the fire. It would be an egregious historiographical error and a rhetorical fallacy to claim that the plague and fire birthed this new world – they emphatically did not. Social, cultural, economic, ideological conditions allowed for the emergence of a modern and liberal consensus; I am not practicing a type of Whig history where plague rats and a clumsy baker are the progenitors of modernity. The modern world had already been conceived, it was going to be born in one way or another. But, in the 350th anniversary of annus Apocalypsis it does behoove us to reflect on the ways in which history can crest towards particular years like breakers off the shoals of a beach, the past and future on either side looking placid by comparison.

1666 could perhaps be nothing other than an annus Apocalypsis

Some years have a built in numerological import, 1666 could perhaps be nothing other than an annus Apocalypsis no matter what happened during it, due to the infernal association built into its very numbers. Millennial years are similarly endowed with a meaning set like clockwork from when our calendar system was first conceived, with those who believe in that calendar marching towards those years with predetermined significance regardless of how history chooses to behave itself. Then there are years which have come to be a type of annus Apocalypsis not because of anything intrinsic in their distance from the first year, but rather because of the merits of their own historical importance; often revolutionary years, they are embedded in the cultural memory in such a way that to varying degrees they can function as almost single names in and of themselves: 70, 135, 325, 476, 1054, 1066, 1381, 1453, 1517, 1588, 1618, 1649, 1776, 1789, 1848, 1860, 1914, 1918, 1939, 1945, 1968, 1989, 2001, and maybe 2016?

Three and a half centuries ago apocalyptic prophets and poets alike, as well as doctors and kings, feared harbingers of destruction in that “Year of Wonders,” today we similarly scan the news and wonder if this might not be a similar year that crests as those waves upon the shore do. And, as 1666 (perhaps arbitrarily) marks a certain transition of one world shifting into a different one, many of us fear that this year may mark the beginning of the end of that very world of modernity that began roughly 350 years ago.

The populace noted and feared the emergence of two comets in the skies over Europe that many ultimately believed had foretold plague and fire. What are our comets today, how do we identify the malice of our stars? We no longer put much stock in astrological inanities and divinatory sophistries, now we comb through Foreign Policy and The Economist hoping to get a sense of what history awaits us, of what rough beast slouches towards Brussels or Washington to be born. The millenarian delusions of nationalism and fascism once again seem to be roaring forward in elections across the West. The mercury in the thermometer is inching higher and higher, year after year. If 1666 gives us any lesson it’s that the world always seems to be dying and being born anew, the question, as always, is if the world will be a better or worse one? And the answer, as always, is “awaiting further evidence.” And 1666 presents another lesson, that even after plague and fire, morning still breaks, and some of us at least are still here – a cursory type of hope, but a hope none the less. It’s possible, if not likely, that 2016 may prove to be a type of annus Apocalypsis more significant than that apocalyptic year centuries ago, but as our future history has yet to be written it remains impossible to say whether 2016 is the year that sees a new birth of illiberalism, or the year when the forces of reaction and totalitarianism are pushed back to the holes where they belong. The waves continually break on the shore, but it’s hard to read the storm clouds with any certainty until they rain, or until they move back to sea.