The Plague of 1578

Part of the Instructions to Harrietsham Churchwardens to Combat the Plague [P173/7/1]

A document of 1578 from the parish archives of Harrietsham giving instructions for combatting the plague [P173/7/1] makes an interesting comparison with regulations in the year of Covid-19. It takes the form of a proclamation to churchwardens by commissioners acting for Queen Elizabeth I that must have been sent out to many parishes, though Harrietsham is the only parish in Kent that we know to have preserved its copy (and indeed we have not traced a copy beyond the county). It refers to a book of orders and medicinal remedies, printed on the Queen’s instruction, which the churchwardens must acquire and keep for reference in the parish church, and of which they must enforce observance. The British Library holds copies of a pamphlet corresponding to this description, but apparently in no edition earlier than 1592.
The unenviable task of inspecting the bodies of the dead and determining the cause of death would fall to ‘two honest women of good yeeres’ chosen by the churchwardens and wisest parishioners. Though without medical qualifications for this duty, they would receive between them (from the deceased’s assets if possible) a shilling each time they identified a victim of plague, and fourpence for fatalities otherwise diagnosed. The plague victims should be buried as far as possible from inhabited homes, in graves at least 6 feet deep.
Justices of the peace should be immediately informed of a house harbouring the plague or suspected of it. A white withy should be fastened to the exterior of houses and displayed for 40 days after a plague death. Every person venturing outside from such houses must display for the same period some black lace if wearing a white hat, cap or kerchief, or white lace on black headgear. Those who refused to comply with these orders should be referred to the commissioners for punishment.
The year 1578 is not noted for a widespread outbreak of plague, such as ‘the sweat’ of summer 1551, or the influenza in 1558 that had devastated the ranks of Queen Mary’s elderly Catholic clergy. The date these instructions were issued, 29 December, suggests the 1578 outbreak was a pneumonic or airborne virus rather than a bubonic plague which spread in humid weather. Sporadic epidemics could hit rural areas at almost any time: probably local recurrences of earlier, more widespread, viruses – and, if so, in a pattern we might now heed. Contemporaries might have attributed them to the wrath of God, but the fact that some parishes might be decimated by them, while neighbouring parishes might escape entirely, suggests that strategies of ‘self-isolating’ and ‘local lockdowns’ were well understood and deployed.
Our present measures for ‘self-isolating’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘testing and tracing’ may differ in detail, but in so far as the Harrietsham churchwardens were required to implement strategies for combatting a virus when no vaccine was available, their situation was the same.

Article by Mark Ballard, Archive Service Officer reproduced from the Maidstone Library & Archive Centre Autumn newsletter sent to Harrietsham History Society.