Just like the grand old disease itself, the Great Plague of 1665 is riddled with painful, blotchy mistruths and phlegmy, boil-smattered rumours that have left it overwhelmingly disfigured, lacklustre and dispirited. We're here to clear up just a few of the myths that have hindered this well-regarded pandemic and set the bubonic (and to a lesser extent pneumonic) record straight.
Myth: The nursery rhyme 'Ring a Ring o' Roses' is about the plague.
EXPOSED: It is a popular misconception that this sinister children's dirge concerned the Great Plague. It does not. In any way. It's about roses and the rings around those roses. However, it has recently been revealed that all other children's songs are about the plague. Jack and Jill, Old Mother Hubbard, Good King Wenceslas, the theme tune to Sesame Street. All of them.
Myth: The disease was spread by rats travelling on merchant ships.
EXPOSED: For many years, black rats were blamed for introducing and spreading the disease throughout Europe. Then scientists concluded that it was actually the fleas residing in the rat's fur who were responsible for the transmission. But now experts believe it was in fact tiny horses that lived on the fleas that lived on the rats that did all the damage. No one knows where the horses came from, where they are now or how they got so small. It may have had something to do with olden times.
Myth: The 'Black Death' pandemic of the 14th Century was 'better' that the Great Plague.
EXPOSED: There was certainly a great deal of rivalry between proponents of the older 'classic' Black Death and the more modern Great Plague which was often viewed as new-fangled, overly complicated and simply not as interesting as the original version. An attempt by contemporary physicians to rebrand the Great Plague as 'Black Death 3000' and then 'Zingo!' failed to gain traction in any quarters. Eventually, even the most hardened critics came to accept that the Great Plague was at least as good, if not slightly better, than the 14th Century disease.
Myth: People thought that the strong smell of flowers or perfume would stop the disease.
EXPOSED: No, the overt use of smells was probably because everyone went to the toilet everywhere all the time. As did the animals.
Myth: It was thought that the plague was a punishment by God for past sins committed.
EXPOSED: In fact, the urchins and peasants of this historical era believed the plague was a REWARD from God, as by contracting the disease they were being brought significantly closer to Him. Many early plague victims were rubbed for luck by jealous family members and singled out during church services and fetes for their 'sterling contribution to society'.
Myth: Concerning the Great Plague, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: "I would consider it a pretty good plague. I'm not sure I would call it a Great Plague."
EXPOSED: Scholars still question whether Samuel Pepys actually existed at all and even if he did he certainly didn't have a band of merry men and live in a tree.
Myth: Plague Doctors, in their cowls, beaked-masks and 'plague poking' sticks were beloved and welcomed comic figures; the 17th Century equivalent of those people who paint themselves silver and stand on a box in the street for money.
EXPOSED: While the figure of the genial plague doctor administering laughs, sweets and advice to children willy-nilly is now firmly fixed in popular culture, there is a theory that they were not all that beloved during the height of the disease. Though it is not thought that this will affect the new series of perennial children's favourite 'Mr Bunko, the Very Funny Plague Doctor' returning to PBS this autumn.
Myth: Red crosses were painted on the doors of those affected by the disease.
EXPOSED: Historians now believe that rather than a red cross, a helpline number was painted on the doors of those affected by any of the issues raised by this pandemic. Sufferers were also encouraged to use the hashtag #GotMyBubesOn to indicate their condition.
Myth: Charles II fled London to avoid the disease and hid in that same tree that he hid in before.
EXPOSED: It has recently been confirmed that Charles II never actually left The Royal Oak, as he considered it his 'lucky tree'. All regal business was conducted within its trunk, he probably used a branch to hang his crown on and fashioned garments from the leaves. His ceremonial bark buff jerkin with foliage sash can still be seen in the collection of the British Museum.
Myth: The original title of Defoe's 'A Journal of a Plague Year' was actually 'You Won't Believe What Happened When This Supermodel Wore a Bikini to Her High School Reunion!!!!'
EXPOSED: Though Defoe is known as 'the crown prince of clickbait', bikinis were not introduced into London society until James II reached the throne. And most of Defoe's clickbait articles were about people squeezing enormous facial boils and lemurs that looked like Oliver Cromwell.
Myth: The inquiry into the causes and effects of the plague was actually longer than the plague itself.
EXPOSED: Not true. The subsequent enquiry, by Sir John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, never officially ended. It's possibly still going on somewhere even now.
Myth: The Great Fire of London wiped out the Great Plague.
EXPOSED: Confusion over this may have arisen because both events have the word 'great' in the name. But that does not indicate that they were complimentary. I mean, it's not like the 'Great Wall of China' was used to keep out 'Alexander the Great' or that Great Danes were bred to protect the progressive country rock band Great Plains. Just because one thing is 'great' it doesn't automatically attach itself to another 'great' event like some sort of limpet. The Grand Old Duke of York wasn't associated with the Grand Canyon was he? Just because they were both 'grand'? I mean, that's ridiculous. What the hell is wrong with you people?
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