During 16th and 17th-century plague outbreaks, mass relocation on part of the rich provoked such controversy that fleeing one’s place of residence earned itself a popular term: flightby Maya Gordon / July 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
Dominic Cummings’s escape to the country during lockdown was a particularly deplorable move, but his case is not an isolated one. From the epicentres of the UK’s coronavirus crisis, hundreds fled the contagion of the city for the calm of the country. North Devon MP Selaine Saxby relayed reports of urban getaways sneaking into Devon “under the cover of darkness.” Even the (now former) Scottish chief medical officer couldn’t resist two minibreaks to Fife, an hour outside of her Edinburgh residence, despite plastering TV screens advising people to stay home.
Fleeing the city during epidemics is no new phenomenon, nor is incredulity towards the exodus of city people to the countryside. During 16th and 17th-century plague outbreaks, mass relocation provoked such controversy that fleeing one’s place of residence earned itself a popular term: flight.
Images from plague broadsheets—quasi-newspapers detailing the disease’s spread and mortality rate—depict well-dressed citizens escaping London. Death personified reigns over those trapped within the city’s walls, while fleeing citizens are met by the pikes of angry countrymen barring them entry. The exodus of wealthy citizens left well-off London streets desolate. According to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year, “Whole rows of houses in some places were shut close up, the inhabitants all fled…” The “wealthiest” people and those “unencumbered with trades and business” departed, whilst “the rest, the generality stayed, and seemed to abide the worst.” The priest Simon Patrick recorded how only “the ordinary sort of people” remained in Covent Garden, all the “gentry…being gone.”
Flight was a hotly contested topic. Supporters considered it a necessary measure to curtail urban infection rates. Its critics, however, fervently remarked on the evident inequality. After all, only the wealthy could flee. Meanwhile the poor endured the urban hotspots of contagion where cramped and unhygienic living quarters spread disease like wildfire. As Bishop Hooper of Gloucester and Worcester observed, “the poorer sort of people that have no friends nor place to flee unto” could not escape.
The wealth disparity between fleers and remainers provoked debates over the social and moral responsibility of citizens. By fleeing, wealthy people neglected their duties of neighbourliness and charity—much of which rested on their shoulders or, more accurately,…