Defoe, Covid-19, and resilience of law and society
Historical novels offer a place to outreach for other legal systems, providing laboratories to study and understand law and society. There is especial value in revisiting historical novels that depict law and society, especially in these days of Covid-19. Such is the case of the novel by Daniel Defoe, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year (hereinafter, the Journal), published in 1722. The law is omnipresent in the Journal. Looking at the Journal reveals that resilience is a characteristic of law and society when facing extreme challenges, such as Covid-19 or the 1665 bubonic plague. After all, law and society have an impressive ability to adapt to change.
Daniel Defoe was a prolific author, being Robinson Crusoe his most popular work today. In the Journal, he describes the life during the Great Plague that affected London in 1665. The bubonic plague of which he writes, had killed a quarter of London’s population, and was followed by the devastating fire of 1666. In Defoe’s words, a “fire, which consumed what the plague could not touch.” Defoe transports readers to an event that marked the life in London during the early modern period. Law is omnipresent in the accounts he presents. Parallels can be drawn between law and society at the time of the Journal and today.
Mobility was restricted at the time of the plague and with Covid-19. In Defoe’s words, “self-preservation, indeed, appeared here to be the first law.” Passes and certificates were required to circulate and organize meetings. Several jurisdictions today are issuing passes for people to circulate. Defoe states that crowds gathered “to get passes and certificates of health for such as travelled abroad, for without these there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road.” Justices of the peace closed infested houses and guard was imposed. He adds that there “were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up; and as the people shut up or imprisoned so were guilty of no crime, only shut up because miserable, it was really the more intolerable to them.”
Criminality decreased during the first weeks of the plague, and then slowly returned to the prior rates. Similar situation is experienced with Covid-19, since in some jurisdictions criminality decreased during the first months of the pandemic. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Defoe mentions in the Journal that “any should have hearts so hardened in the midst of such a calamity as to rob and steal, yet certain it is that all sorts of villainies, and even levities and debaucheries, were then practised.” Caregivers entered the houses they had to guard; other people stole from the dead, putting their own lives at risk. There was illegal practice of medicine. The Lord Mayor of London appointed doctors for the poor and ordered the College of Physicians to publish instructions about affordable medicine. In Defoe’s words “this, indeed, was one of the most charitable and judicious things that could be done at that time.”
An ad hoc regulatory framework was developed during the plague and today with Covid-19. Legislation is being drafted at full speed at EU, national, and provincial levels. Some cities have their own regulations, since Covid-19 moves at a different pace in different parts of the globe. Defoe indicates that the Lord Mayor of London issued an ordinance at the beginning, in July 1665. That legislation regulated essential aspects that related with the plague and that can be clustered in four groups: (i) treatment of infected people, (ii) conduct of first responders, (iii) isolation of infected houses, and (iv) means to secure street maintenance. Members of the local administration had to meet weekly to agree on how these orders should be properly implemented. Drawing parallels, it is evident that legislatures are active these days when dealing with Covid-19.
Vulnerability invites for a final reflection on the plague and the society where the law unfolds. The Journal highlights that the Great Plague affected the most vulnerable groups. That is the case also today. It is palpable that vulnerable groups are especially affected by Covid-19. Defoe mentions that the elderly were left helpless and he stresses that the plague affected the poor in a terrifying and violent manner.
The Journal is a historical novel that describes the devastating months of the Great Plague of 1665. It alerts of the value of law and literature, and it enables readers to better understand law and society by looking at the past through the lens of a historical novel. London was able to move on, and even recuperate from the Great Fire that followed one year later. Law and society adapted to the needs of the new context. Everything tends to evolve! Society will overcome, and Covid-19 will be something of the past.
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Agustín Parise (Buenos Aires, Argentina) is Associate Professor of Law and Chair of the Faculty Council at the Faculty of Law of Maastricht University. He received his degrees of LL.B. (abogado) and LL.D. (doctor en derecho) at Universidad de Buenos Aires (Argentina), where he was Lecturer in Legal History during 2001-2005. He received his degree of LL.M.
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