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See How the Plague Swept Through London

New research shows that during mass burials, bodies were given more respect than previously thought

An 1885 illustration shows bodies being thrown into a pit during the Great Plague of 1655. Now, new research is turning this image on its head. (Heritage Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Summer 1665 was a bleak time in London. All around the city, plague-riddled residents threw the bodies of their dead loved ones into huge mass graves, hastily discarding their naked corpses lest they, too, fall victim to its effects. Or did they? Not quite, reports The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy — in fact, new research in London’s plague pits shows that people treated the dead much more humanely than previously thought. 

New archaeological research has revealed that, despite mass burials, plague victims were actually buried in coffins and aligned in “the traditional Christian east-west position wherever possible,” reports Kennedy. Though Kennedy writes that historical accounts do depict people being dragged to mass burial pits naked in horse carts and other conveyances, the burial grounds seem to have been more orderly and humane than previously thought.

Now, after excavating 4,000 skeletons, archaeologists are revising their assessment of a chaotic and dark time in London’s history. According to this BBC primer on the plague, up to 7,000 deaths a week spread throughout London as doctors, hampered by unsanitary and primitive conditions, stood by powerless. Eventually, winter put a stop to the epidemic. 

But how did the plague spread through London? The Guardian has an interactive feature showing plague burials by week during the summer of 1665. The plague seems to have spread from west to east as summer heat caused flea-riddled rodents to thrive. All in all, writes The Guardian, 68,594 plague deaths were recorded — but in reality, the disease’s reach was likely much wider. 

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