Here we go with Part Four of our brand new Tale for Our Time - our Corona-curfew caper of Daniel Defoe's account of old-school contagion, A Journal of the Plague Year. In tonight's episode, we glimpse another example of life in the London of 1665 that may ring familiar to our own age:
One mischief always introduces another. These terrors and apprehensions of the people led them into a thousand weak, foolish, and wicked things, which they wanted not a sort of people really wicked to encourage them to: and this was running about to fortune-tellers, cunning-men, and astrologers to know their fortune, or, as it is vulgarly expressed, to have their fortunes told them, their nativities calculated, and the like; and this folly presently made the town swarm with a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the black art, as they called it, and I know not what; nay, to a thousand worse dealings with the devil than they were really guilty of. And this trade grew so open and so generally practised that it became common to have signs and inscriptions set up at doors: 'Here lives a fortune-teller', 'Here lives an astrologer', 'Here you may have your nativity calculated', and the like; and Friar Bacon's brazen-head, which was the usual sign of these people's dwellings, was to be seen almost in every street, or else the sign of Mother Shipton, or of Merlin's head, and the like.
Roger Bacon's brazen head was a primitive automaton that could supposedly answer correctly any question put to it. So, if you asked it whether the plague was a-comin', it would reply, "Yes." Several of our readers are, to put it mildly, skeptical as to whether tanking the global economy in order to slow the spread of Covid-19 is worth it. With regard to the alliance between the media and its parade of experts, persons of such persuasion might be sympathetic to this next passage:
One mischief was, that if the poor people asked these mock astrologers whether there would be a plague or no, they all agreed in general to answer 'Yes', for that kept up their trade. And had the people not been kept in a fright about that, the wizards would presently have been rendered useless, and their craft had been at an end. But they always talked to them of such-and-such influences of the stars, of the conjunctions of such-and-such planets, which must necessarily bring sickness and distempers, and consequently the plague. And some had the assurance to tell them the plague was begun already, which was too true, though they that said so knew nothing of the matter.
Thank you for your kind comments about this selection for this wretched season. Simon Croft, a First Month Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club, writes from a London locked down far more than in Defoe's day:
Not so surprising a coincidence given where most people's attention is currently directed, but I had just begun to read the same book a couple of days ago. Now I can put it aside and listen to Mark reading it, while I get on with the long-term task of 'de-cluttering' my stuff; the fact that I am fast running out of excuses for deferring this is, for my wife, the one silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud. Thanks again, Mark, not least for the introduction. (I was fortunate enough to see Alex Kingston and Ralph Fiennes when both were students at RADA, its then Vanbrugh Theatre Club promising 'tomorrow's stars today'. Happier times.)
Alex Kingston is a fine actress, Simon, and was an excellent Moll Flanders. Happier times, indeed. When the lights go on again all over the world (to quote Dame Vera), I hope to see her on stage once more.
Tales for Our Time is now well into its third year. So, if you've a friend who might be partial to our classic fiction outings, we have a special Gift Membership that, aside from audio yarns, also includes video poetry, live music and more. And I'll be doing a live-performance Tale for Our Time at sea on this year's Mark Steyn Cruise - assuming any of us survive the next six months.
Please join me tomorrow evening for Part Five of A Journal of the Plague Year.