Fintan O’Toole: ‘The withering god of fever swoops on us’

Artists have always sought to find meaning in pandemics, plagues and mass infections

Nicolas Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod in the Louvre in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images/DeAgostini

Nicolas Poussin’s The Plague of Ashdod in the Louvre in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images/DeAgostini

“The warm weather has brought sweating sickness to London, and the city is emptying. A few have gone down – and many more are imagining they have it, complaining of headaches and pains in their limbs. The gossip in the shops is all about pills and infusions, and friars in the streets are doing a lucrative trade in holy medals.

“This plague came to us in the year 1485, with the armies that brought us the first Henry Tudor. Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon.”

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