‘Tis a speaking Sight
This week I lead the Historical Geography Reading Group in London, introducing Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Starting off by considering its species and its changing reception – history, practical advisory, moral tract, fiction, Hayden White’s meta history? – we also discussed the text’s concerns with the media state of plague-stricken London and its recording mechanisms, through Defoe’s use of the Bills of Mortality to Katherine Ellison’s idea of ‘infectious information’. We focussed on the histories of demographic record keeping which were concomitant, in England, with the plague itself – as well as various renderings of London’s vital statistics through the imagery of the body politic. We also touched on Hebrew tropes of the plague as word or text – and Defoe’s rejection of the ‘tale’ or ‘tally’ of the dead bodies, no longer exhaustibly legible according to the biblical script.
We discussed the text’s slippages in time and its link with the later Marseilles plague, the ‘remarking’ of London after the Great Fire with its two-dimensional ground plan (particularly as treated by Cynthia Wall), and the changes to parish systems and to judicial law and the penitentiary. Defoe’s own digressions and ‘divers parallel stories’, presented alongside the official proclamations and tabulated statistics, were discussed as a ‘corporate’ narrative, in line with Louis Landa’s take that with the plague ‘the real tragedy is corporate’. We also broached wider discussions about urban disorder, witnessing, and the historically ‘unspeakable’. A couple of other texts were brought along which were linked to members of the group – including Champion’s London’s dreaded visitation and Richard Barnett’s Defoe map. For more info, see the Landscape Surgery blog post, and if you’d like the reading list I compiled, get in contact!