Last night we ‘met’ Samuel Pepys (the original blogger!), whose detailed diaries today give us amazing insights into life in 17th century London – including the city’s last great plague epidemic in 1665, and of course, the Great Fire of London the following year.
2015 marks 350 years since the Black Death last stalked our streets, and to mark the occasion, Tales of Plague was celebrating in style, with a ‘Pepys Party’ in the evocatively-named ‘Hung, Drawn, and Quartered’ pub, a stone’s throw from the Tower of London.
Here, after being welcomed through the door by Elizabeth Pepys (wife of Sam), we were given a helping of port and cheese by Nell Gwynne – another of the 17th century’s more colourful characters, who rose from selling oranges at the Theatre Royal to performing on its stage, after making a few royal connections of her own as the latest mistress of Charles II.
As we made our way to our seats, we were intercepted by the great diarist himself, resplendent in ringletted wig, and eager to read us his entry for the day, recording the most recent deaths from the Plague. The scene was set.
Throughout the evening we encountered a couple of other characters, including Cedric, a spivvy apothecary trying to hawk his foolproof Plague remedies (female dragon blood, he claimed), and an enigmatic Plague doctor complete with terrifying beaked mask (the cone held dried herbs, which folks believed would help protect them from the disease, then thought to be spread by bad smells), and a rather less intimidating rat glove puppet.
The night’s entertainment centred on Nell Gwynne, who sang bawdy songs about some of her conquests, encouraging us to join in the choruses, and exhorting the audience to partake of the free port and cheese, which she assured us would help if, in this time of Plague, we started to sneeze. Welcome news for Emmatwin, who’s currently battling a cold (that’s what she gets for petting the rat puppet – she was warned!).
Pepys also treated us to another diary reading – we wish there had been more of these, they’re such vivid windows on his time. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in London while Plague was ravaging the population.
That said,the reaction of certain tabloid papers to the recent ebola epidemic might give us a clue to the fear that people would have felt, especially in days before modern medicine, when their best guess was that the Plague was a punishment because they had somehow angered God.
Imagine being afraid of your neighbours, of walking in the street – or perhaps people just carried on with their lives as best they could?
Last night was an entertaining inspiration to ponder on this – a combination of riotous fun and thought-provoking ideas in the company of a charismatic cast of characters – and we do love a singalong.
We head that Tales of Plague also does a regular walking tour exploring this chapter of London’s past. We’ll have to check it out sometime soon!