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FORMS OF PRAYER AGAINST PESTILENCE.
(Concluded from p. 103.)
For the Christian Observer. We shall now conclude our notices of those solemn occasions of prayer and fasting on account of pestilence and grievous distempers, which have been from time to time appointed in our church since the period of the Reformation, but scarcely any vestige of which is now to be found, except here and there a detached copy of the forms of prayer in old church chests and chapter libraries. The obliging loan of Dr. Niblock's collection has enabled us to lay before our readers an extensive survey of these valuable documents, and the breaking out of the dreaded distemper in the metropolis since our last extracts, in our Number for February, with the devout solemnities of the late season of special prayer and fasting, will have rendered the subject doubly important and interesting.
In the year 1636 the disorder commonly entitled “ The Plague " again visited the kingdom, and swept off, it is said, in the metropolis, more than thirteen thousand persons, a very large number in the comparatively small population of London at that period. A form of prayer and order of fasting was issued on the occasion ; but we shall not copy from it, as the most important passages were taken from former services, and have been already transcribed in our pages. The “prayer for seasonable weather” is omitted. Was this because some doubt had occurred in public opinion as to weather being connected with the disorder? The expression “ the Lord's Sabbath": in former prayers is here altered to “ the Lord's day.” Such minute alte rations, which occur in these documents from time to time, might furnish curious notices of passing sentiment and feeling.
The form of prayer for 1640 is, in like manner, chiefly a reprint from earlier forms, and needs not be dwelt upon. The exhortation annexed to it was the Homily on Repentance in the Book of Homilies.
The service of 1661, the year after Charles the Second's return, is a form of prayer and fasting, not immediately under the actual presence of any destructive visitation, but “ for the averting those sicknesses and diseases, that dearth and scarcity, which justly may be feared from the late immoderate rain and waters.” It would appear that the weather changed while the form was in preparation ; for to it is annexed " a thanksgiving also for the blessed change of weather, and the begging the continuance of it to us for our comfort." We copy one of the prayers as a specimen, but there is not any thing particularly remarkable in the service.
“O most gracious God, who in the multitude of those fears which were apon us by reason of the late immoderate rain and showers, wast pleased at last to clear up the heavens, and give us hopes of plenty yet to crown the earth, we bless and praise thy glorious Name, humbly acknowledging, that as our sins most justly deserved thy wrath and indignation to be poured out upon us, and for our sakes upon the earth, not only in dearth and scarcity, but all other calamities; so it is thy mercy only, and not our deservings, that thou hast again comforted and refreshed us. For which we humbly yield thee all thanks and glory, beseeching thee, that by our transgressions we may not anew enkindle thy displeasure to dash our hopes in pieces, and recal thy mercies from us. Grant this, O merciful Father, for Jesus Christ his sake, our only Lord and Saviour. Amen.”
We arrive now at the form of prayer issued in July, 1665, in conse. quence of the Great Plague, most justly and emphatically so called, which swept off in London ninety thousand persons, besides its ravages in other parts of the kingdom. A few particulars respecting this awful visitation
may not unaptly accompany these notices. We fear copying from De Foe's romance; for though it contains many things highly probable, it contains nothing that we know to be true, except as we can ascertain it to be so from other quarters. De Foe was the most wonderful master that ever lived of the art of writing plausible fictions. His Robinson Crusoe is not more strikingly graphic than his account of the Plague; and it has about the same measure of fact as its basis ; the same quantity that enters into one of Shakespear's historical plays or Sir Walter Scott's novels. There was Alexander Selkirk, a ship-wrecked sailor in the one instance, and there was a fearful visitation of pestilence in the other; but the dressing up of the whole story, the incidents, the dialogues, the wonderfully natural reflections, are De Foe's. So remarkable is the genius displayed in this narrative of the Plague, that Dr. Mead actually quoted the book as authentic history; just as Lord Chatham was deceived with another of De Foe's romances, the Memoirs of a Cavalier, which he long considered a true story, and recommended as the best narrative extant of the civil wars; and he was much vexed when he found that his favourite book was a fiction. The wonderful genius that invented the incomparable tale of Mrs. Veal's Ghost, to puff off Drelincourt on Death, knew how to make the most extraordinary story appear probable; and in the narrative of the plague there was no want of room for the sportings of an inventive fancy. It is scarcely possible in reading the tale, not to believe that we are perusing the autobiographical narrative of the saddler of Whitechapel. We seem to hear the awful bell, and the thrilling cry“Bring out your dead;" we see the dead-cart silently rolling over the streets overgrown with grass, and carrying its promiscuous heaps of lifeless humanity to be shot like a load of rubbish into a common tomb. The most strange and extravagant incidents became credible in De Foe's relation. Many of the chief facts he doubtless gathered from the reminiscences of the tales which he heard in his childhood, and the publications of the day; so that when he sat down nearly sixty years after ; namely, in 1722, in consequence of the painful interest excited by the then recent plague at Marseilles, to write a book on the subject, he had ample materials for his prolific genius to work upon, and to dress up after his own fashion. The same year was published the work lately reprinted by Mr. Scott, entitled “Preparations for the Plague, as well for Soul as Body,” which we cannot but think has strong marks of De Foe in it; and he was just the man to make two books out of one topic, and to sell each anonymously to the publishers. His life abounds in such odd circumstances. The first edition of his work in 1722, was entitled “A Journal of the Plague Year, &c.” This title was altered in the second edition, 1754, after his death, to “The History of the Great Plague in London, &c.” as it stands in subsequent editions. The amender shews, even in the title page, how much easier it is to alter De Foe's style than to improve it. Thus he changes “ Written by a citizen, who continued all the while in London,” to “a citizen who lived the whole time in London." The word “lived” is poor and tame, and means only that the man was in London during the “great visitation " (as De Foe calls it); but "continued” indicates much more—it intimates that others were gone—it supposes something remarkable of misfortune or perseverance—it raises our wonder at the man's determination, and our alarm for his safety, and leads us to wish to hear his whole narrative, and what befel him.
Sir Walter Scott says, that had not De Foe earned what literary men call “ immortality” by his Crusoe, he would have done so by his romance of the Plague; which leads us to digress just to ask, whether sound morality allows of thus dressing up fiction like fact, so as actually to intend to palm the one on the world for the other. We suggest the inquiry, because of late the practice has become so common, that in many of the tales of the present day, it is impossible to know whether the writer is describing fact or fiction. In the volumes called "Annuals,” there are narratives which the uninitiated reader takes for passages of veracious history, but which are as purely fictitious as Mrs. Veal's Ghost. Sir Walter Scott has encouraged the practice; and with all due respect to his genius, we must greatly lament that he has done so. Let fiction be fiction, and let truth be truth. The very argument which we have so often heard in favour of studying Sir Walter Scott's novels, is that they are a vast body of history; graphic exhibitions of past ages; vivid delineations of remarkable characters, and so forth; whereas the highly-gifted author would be the first to laugh at this pretension, except where he means expressly to confine himself to actual fact. Has he not himself acknowledged, since he threw off his mask, that there are but “ a few grains of truth in a mass of empty fiction ?” that with regard to the various localities which have been so confidently dwelt upon as valuable topographical memoirs, “ he had no purpose of describing any particular spot ; ” nay that “the scraps of poetry which have been in most cases tacked to the beginning of chapters in these novels, are sometimes quoted either from reading or from memory, but, in the general case, are pure invention. I found it too troublesome to turn to the collection of the British Poets to discover apposite mottos, and, in the situation of the theatrical mechanist, who, when the white paper which represented his shower of snow was exhausted, continued the storm by snowing brown, I drew on my memory as long as I could, and when that failed, eked it out with invention. I believe that, in some cases, where actual names are affixed to the supposed quotations, it would be to little purpose to seek them in the works of the authors referred to."
We cannot say that we admire the morality of this proceeding, any more than Sir Walter Scott's declaration, that he always considered himself at liberty to deny the authorship of the Waverley Novels when impertinently questioned respecting them, as he had no alternative but either to say what was false, or to disclose his secret. De Foe seems to have acted upon the same principle; and our view is, that it was a very unsound
No man is deceived by an allegory, such as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; or even by a tale like Robinson Crusoe; but to disguise plausible fiction as truth, intending to cause the reader to mistake the one for the other, is, to our minds, not consistent with Christian honesty. How often have we heard De Foe's fabrications respecting the plague, quoted as statistical facts. The remarks of the supposed citizen are imagined to be the result of experience ; what he recommends is considered infallible ; and his medical advice is more credulously listened to than that of his admirer, Dr. Mead. To a downright lover of truth, it is tantalizing to read such a mixture of fact and invention without the possibility of unweaving the entangled skein. Take, for instance, the following passage, the former part of which evidently describes the historical fact of the arts of impostors, and the credulity of their victims, and is an anticipatory exemplification of what is passing at this moment in our own metropolis ; but the four particular exemplifications of the gentlewomen and physicians are most probably fictitious, though scores of such knavish practices doubtless prevailed. There is nothing in these four illustrations which is improbable, quite the contrary; but so there is nothing improbable in a hundred of the other stories; and this is exactly what we complain of, that we cannot tell which part is true, and which false.
“ But even those wholesome reflections, which rightly managed, would have most happily led the people to fall upon their knees, make confession of their sins, and look up to their merciful Saviour for pardon, imploring his compassion on them in
such a time of their distress; by which we might have become as a second Nineveh, had a quite contrary extreme in the common people, who, ignorant and stupid in their reflections, as they were brutishly wicked and thoughtless before, were now led by their fright to extremes of folly; and as I have said before, that they ran to conjurors and witches and all sorts of deceivers, to know what should become of them; who fed their fears, and kept them always alarmed and awake, on purpose to delude them, and pick their pockets : so they were as mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practising old woman for medicines and remedies, storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called; that they not only spent their money, but even poisoned themselves beforehand, for fear of the poison of the infection, and prepared their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it. On the other hand, it is incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors' bills and papers of ignorant fellows quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which were generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.--INFALLIBLE - preventive pills against the plague,-NEVER-FAILING preservatives against the infections-SOVEREIGN cordials against the corruption of the air,—EXACT regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection,— Antipestilential pills,—INCOMPARABLE drink against the plague, never found out before,—An UNIVERSAL remedy for the plague,- The ONLY TRUE plague water,—The ROYAL ANTIDOTE against all kinds of infection; and such a number more that I cannot reckon up, and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.
* Others set up bills to summon people to their lodgings for directions and advice in the case of infection : these had specious titles also, such as these :“ An eminent high Dutch physician, newly come over from Holland, where he
resided during all the time of the great plague, last year, in Amsterdam, and
cured multitudes of people that actually had the plague upon them. “ An Italian gentlewoman, just arrived from Naples, having a choice secret to
prevent infection, which she found out by her great experience, and did wonderful
cures with it in the late plague there, wherein there died 20,000 in one day. “ An ancient gentlewoman having practised with great success in the late plague in
this city, anno 1636, gives her advice only to the female sex. To be spoke
with, &c. “ An experienced physician, who has long studied the doctrine of antidotes against
all sorts of poison and infection has, after forty years' practice, arrived to such skill as may, with God's blessing, direct persons how to prevent their being
touched by any cont ous distemper whatsoever. He directs the poor gratis. “ I take notice of these by way of specimen : I could give you two or three dozen of the like, and yet have abundance left behind. It is sufficient from these to apprise any one of the humour of those times; and how a set of thieves and pick-pockets not only robbed and cheated the poor people of their money, but poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations ; some with mercury, and some with other things as bad, perfectly remote from the thing pretended to; and rather hurtful than serviceable to the body in case an infection followed.”
Again, in the following striking, affecting, and graphic passage, is it not distressing not to be able to know exactly whether every declaration in it is literally true, and which part is only the artist's vivid colouring ?
“ The poor people were to be pitied in one particular thing, in which they had little or no relief, and which I desire to mention with a serious awe and reflection, which, perhaps, every one that reads this may not relish; namely, that whereas death now began not, as we may say, to hover over every one's head only, but to look into their houses and chambers, and stare in their faces: though there might be some stupidity, and dulness of the mind; and there was so, a great deal ; yet there was a great deal of just alarm, sounded in the very inmost soul, if I may so say of others : many consciences were awakened; many hard hearts melted into tears; many a penitent confession was made of crimes long concealed: it would have wounded the soul of any Christian to have heard the dying groans of many a despairing creature ; and none durst come near to comfort them: many a robbery, many a murder, was then confessed aloud, and nobody surviving to record the accounts of it. People might be heard even into the streets as we passed along, calling upon God for mercy, through Jesus Christ, and saying, I have been a thief, I have been an adulterer, I have been a murderer, and the like; and none durst stop to make the least inquiry into such things, or to administer comfort to the poor creatures, that in the anguish both of soul and body thus cried out. Some of the ministers did visit the sick at first, and for a little while, but it was not to be done ; it would have been present death to have gone into some houses : the very buryers of the dead, who were the most hardened creatures in town, were sometimes beaten back, and so terrified, that they durst not go into houses where the whole families were swept away together."
Let a simple-minded child read such a passage as the following, and then witness his look of astonishment when you tell him that you will not undertake to say that the case of the supposed “ family without the bars," &c. is precisely a fact, but that it illustrates De Foe's idea of what the plague was, and that it only means that scenes something of this sort actually occurred. In the matter of contagion, remedies, &c. in which De Foe's book has been often appealed to, it is useless as an authority, since the supposed facts quoted to bear upon such points are perhaps fictitious.
“ As to the suddenness of people's dying at this time, more than before, there were innumerable instances of it, and I could name several in my neighbourhood; one family without the bars, and not far from me, were all seemingly well on the Monday, being ten in family: that evening one maid and one apprentice were taken ill, and died the next morning, when the other apprentice and two children were touched, whereof one died the same evening, and the other two on Wednesday; in a word, by Saturday at noon, the master, mistress, four children, and four servants, were all gone, and the house left entirely empty, except an ancient woman, who came in to take charge of the goods for the master of the family's brother, who lived not far off, and who had not been sick.
“ Many houses were then left desolate, all the people being carried away dead, and especially in an alley farther on the same side, beyond the bars, going in at the sign of Moses and Aaron; there were several houses together, which (they said) had not one person left alive in them, and some that died last in several of those houses, were left a little too long before they were fetched out to be buried; the reason of which was not, as some have written very untruly, that the living were not sufficient to bury the dead; but that the mortality was so great in the yard or alley, that there was nobody left to give notice to the buriers or sextons, that there were any dead bodies there to be buried."
The following statement respecting the return of some Non-conformist ministers is a fact, as well as the anxiety of the people to attend Divine worship; but when we read it in the pages of De Foe, it requires extraneous confirmation, otherwise it is no more to be believed than “ poor Poll," and "Man Friday."
“ As it brought the people into public company, so it was surprising how it brought them to crowd into the churches; they inquired no more into who they sat near to, or far from, what offensive smells they met with, or what condition the people seemed to be in, but looking upon themselves all as so many dead corpses, they came to the churches without the least caution, and crowded together as if their lives were of no consequence, compared to the work which they came about there : indeed, the zeal which they shewed in coming, and the earnestness and affection they shewed in their attention to what they heard, made it manifest what a value people would all put upon the worship of God, if they thought every day they attended at the church that it would be their last.
“ Nor was it without other strange effects, for it took away all manner of prejudice at, or scruple about, the person whom they found in the pulpit when they came to the churches. It cannot be doubted, but that many of the ministers of the parish churches were cut off among others, in so common and dreadful a calamity;
and others had not courage enough to stand it, but removed into the country as they found means for escape ; as then some parish churches were quite vacant and forsaken, the people made no scruple of desiring such dissenters as had been a few years before deprived of their livings, by virtue of the act of parliament called the Act of Uniformity, to preach in the churches, nor did the church ministers in that case make any difficulty of accepting their assistance; so that many of those whom they called silenced ministers, had their mouths opened on this occasion, and preached publicly to the people.
“ Here we may observe, and I hope it will not be amiss to take notice of it, that a near view of death would soon reconcile men of good principles one to another; and that it is chiefly owing to our easy situation in life, and our putting these things far from us, that our breaches are fomented, ill-blood continued, prejudices, breach of charity, and of Christian union so much kept and so far carried on among us as it is: another plague year would reconcile all these differences, a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes, than those which we looked on things with before ; as the people who had been used to join with the church, were reconciled at this time with the admitting the dissenters to preach to them; so the dissenters, who with an uncommon prejudice, bad broken off from the communion of the Church of England, were now content to come to their parish