Samuel Pepys’s Merry Plague-Time

It could be worse. Coronavirus isn’t bubonic plague. I realize that is scant consolation, in these times of economic and social devastation, but we do know one cheering thing about previous plagues, however dreadful: people got through them. Not all people, unfortunately, but society recovered eventually—more quickly, in some cases, than anyone could have thought, when the havoc being wreaked was believed to come not from a microbe but the hand of God. Individuals are more resilient than they know. Samuel Pepys, who lived through the Great Plague of London in 1665, was by temperament a cautious man who did not take greater risks with his health than he needed. (He did undergo an excruciating operation to remove a bladder stone, which, given the dangers of surgery, could easily have killed him. But the stone, the size of a tennis ball, was itself agony. After its removal, Pepys had it preserved in a special case.) But he still managed to have quite a good time. “I have never lived so merrily . . . as I have done this plague-time,” he wrote on December 31, 1665.

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