The Great Plague ravaged London, and other places, in 1665/6, and as with all major events generated its own set of beliefs and customs at the time, and also reverberating ever since. We are fortunate to have in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), a 'fictionalized' account of life in London in 1665, numerous examples of the folklore of the time. Indeed, Defoe proves to be an excellent observer of the folkloric, including, amongst other things, portents, preventa-tive charms, herbal remedies, and omens. In the early stages of the plague, people's fears drove them to 'running about to fortune-tellers, cunning-men and astrologers to know their fortune' (p. 47), and he gives details of some of the charms used - 'papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly the word Abracadabra, formed in a triangle or pyramid ...' (pp. 51-3). Other preventatives were herbal, including garlic, rue, tobacco, and vinegar. Defoe was also one of the first writers to identify what we now term *contemporary legends (p. 102).
   The Great Plague lives on, in various ways, in English folklore. At Eyam, Derbyshire, since 1905, the last Sunday in August has been Plague Sunday. This commemorates the heroic part played by the village people when the disease broke out in their midst. By maintaining a self-imposed quarantine neighbouring communities were spared, but 259 of Eyam's 350 inhabitants died (Kightly, 1986: 189; Palmer, 1991: 122). In addition, several places in England claim to have a Plague Stone, the distinguishing mark of which is an indentation which served as a receptacle for vinegar in which money could be placed by non-locals doing business with a quarantined village. Correspondence in N&Q 159 (1930) identifies existing examples and gives numerous references. In modern times, the plague is often cited as the origin of saying 'bless you' when someone *sneezes, and also as the basis for the children's game *Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses. Neither has any evidence to support it. In local lore, the presence of a 'plague-pit' is often postulated as the possible cause for hauntings or to explain unused pieces of land.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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