The City of London as a Body16 minute read

Ackroyd (2000) in London the Biography, employed the metaphor of London as a body and expressed it in different ways. In this essay, I will draw on the description of London as a body ‘out of all Shape’, ‘racked with fever, chocked by ashes’ mentioned in the book to describe how the city of London can be compared to as a body that faces and responds to external threats and internal decay, through examples of immigrants, plague and fire. I will then argue how these events evinces a confluence of time within London (the entire city as the ‘particular space’), and how the imagination of London as a body is loaded with power dynamics. I will contend how London is not just an object (‘body’) where these pathologies make their way in and out but an active subject that exerts power over its inhabitants to control and regulate.

External Threat

In the book Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power and Knowledge, Claeson et al. (1996) employed and explored the metaphor of body to describe a neighbourhood and nation state. The body is wrapped by its skin to protect its interior from external threats. The skin acts as a boundary. Those who cross the skin carry risks of damage. Also, a body is sick when threatened by ‘foreign organisms’ and hence fights back through immune system, just as a nation-state goes to war when threatened.

We may extend such metaphor to London. If London is a body then its skin marks the difference between the inside and outside world. Outsiders attempting to cross the skin can be seen as alien objects with potential threat. The immune system may act upon these foreigners if they are found pathological. Now, I will use the examples of black Africans and Jews in London to illustrate how they have been regarded as external irritation by the body and hence reacted upon.

Elizabeth I and the black Africans

Since the transatlantic slave trade, there had been a continuous presence of black Africans in London. Many were coerced to come as slave, while some other enjoyed a slightly higher status working for the crown. For instance, both Queen Elizabeth I and King Henry IV had some black musicians to entertain them in courts (Boyce Davies 2008).

These foreigners were tolerated, if not accepted, in the society until their growing population coincided with increasing poverty in London. After the breakdown of feudal system, the ruling class was increasingly concerned with the disorder within the society. The situation was exacerbated by the poor harvest that led to hunger in the 1590s (Slack 1988). It was at this time that Queen Elizabeth I ordered to expel the black population. She claimed to be ‘highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and blackamoor’ and used religious reasons such that blacks were not Christians (‘most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel’) to justification her act (Tudor Royal Proclamations 1601). However, the validity of the reasons for expulsion – poverty and religion – was doubted. There were records of black baptisms and poverty of white was serious. Elizabeth I was simply scapegoating the black population as causes of social problems.

If London is to be seen as a body, the Queen’s act to expel black population from the city and country can be seen as the body’s response to external threats. The black population is foreign, and according to the Queen, is responsible for the sickness of the body. Therefore the body must react and get rid of these pathological foreigners. However, historian Wolvin (1973) said that the actions were unsuccessful as the ‘Blacks had become too securely lodged at various social levels of English society to be displaced and repatriated’. Just as a body is unable to cope with pathologies at times, a city may not control its immigrants. Yet are the immigrants really external ‘threats’, or are they just scapegoats for poor social conditions? Power is involved when distinguishing the insiders and outsiders, which will be discussed later.

Jewish presence in London

During the reign of Henry II, the Jews were in good relations with the King and the people. Jews were given certain privileges. For example, the chief Rabbi of London was granted special rights to move around the country freely without paying tax (Jacobs 1901). Henry II treasured the mobility of Jews which could be used for his service. Many Jews were involved in the business of money lending. Such activity were despised by many Protestants, yet necessary to the economy. The already disdained Jews were hence the major providers of the money lending service. This made them even more unpopular (Hume 1983).

In later years, the new King Richard I was not fond of the Jews. He prohibited the Jews from appearing at his coronation. A few Jews disobeyed this command, hoping to present gifts for the King during the ceremony. During the chaotic event, some thought the king ordered to massacre all Jews and Londoners persecuted the Jews with fervent. Jews were killed and their houses burnt down. This massacre of Jews in London took place in 1189 (Hume 1983).

Persecution of Jews in London continued. In 1276, over 300 Jews were hanged in the Tower of London. The Edict of Expulsion was issued in 1290. Centuries later, Jews were once again welcomed back. Regulations against Jewish political participation slowly lifted (Jacobs 1901). However, anti-Semitic sentiments were still present: the (in)famous Battle of Cable Street was sparked off by a march by the British Union Fascist who targeted at the Jews (Barling 2011) and in 2014, people painted swastika graffiti outside the Jubilee primary school in London (De Peyer 2014).

There are changes and continuities in the Jewish presence and antisemitism sentiments in the UK and especially London. The degree of tolerance London has towards the Jews increased over time. Yet although there is no more discriminatory law against Jews in place today, the anti-Semitic feelings prevailed. It is as if the body of London, after all the years, still cannot ingest the Jews, hence will have to react, through social exclusion, to marginalise the presence of such group.

Internal Decay

A healthy body is not only free from external threats but also from internal decay. London does not seem a healthy body. Thackeray once commented that ‘it seemed as if London were his disease’ (Ackroyd 2000: 201). The social problems, tragic events and fear were all its symptoms. No wonder Daniel Defoe (1969) described London as a body ‘out of shape’. I will now move on to describe the Great Plague and Great Fire in London which took place in 1664-1666, and comment on how these events reflect the inner decay of the body and how after sickness, London may regain its strength.

Great Plague of London, 1664-66

London was not unfamiliar to diseases. The Earl of Shaftesbury described London as the ‘city of plague’ (Ackroyd 2000). It was hit severely by the Black Death in 1348, having 40% of its population killed. Plague was a prevalent throughout the 17th century. The Great Plague of London that started in the winter of 1664, and lasted until 1666, claiming 100,000 lives, was a nightmare to many (Porter 1999).

Although unknown at that time, the plague was indeed carried by black rats. The cold winter in 1664 and early 1665 delayed the spread of the disease. Yet by summertime the death toll increased significantly, with the London Bill of Mortality reporting 2,020 deaths due to plague in July 1665 and up to 7,000 by September. The death toll steadied in 1666 (Ackroyd 2000).

Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1969) and Samuel Pepys’ Diary (1971) both provided vivid depiction of the Plague. Defoe portrayed London as a sick and suffering body, and Ackroyd in London, the Biography, further questioned whether ‘the whole sick body of London is an emanation of its citizens, or whether the inhabitants are an emanation of the city’ (Ackroyd 2000: 206).

London at that time was not a pleasant environment. There are rich areas like Covent Garden. But the rest of London was characterised by filth, crowdedness, lack of hygiene… The dirty environment favoured the breeding of rats and spreading of plague. The sickness of the city caused the death of its people.

Yet Defoe (1969) raised another perspective. Defoe commented that it was the practice of trade and commerce of Londoners that led to their death and the city’s. Londoners needed to go to markets and buy their daily necessities, which resulted in death ‘at the very market’. Also, the ‘strange temper of people’ that resorted to witchcraft and sorcery during those desperate times has led to their own ‘destruction’, according to Defoe.

Another powerful image of the Great Plague presented by Defoe was that of an urban prison. Doors were shut. People were confined. Public gatherings banned. The stopping of all activities in London seemed the natural response of a sick body. Yet this also can be seen as a form of social control, which I will discuss later.

The Great Fire, 1666

London is no stranger to fire, as it is to plagues. London has seen numerous incidences of fires. For instance, fires as far back as AD60 have destroyed a large part of London. The Guildhall, Houses of Parliament and London Bridge have all been destroyed in fires. It therefore should not be surprised that fire is a recurring motif in art and literary works on London (Ackroyd 2000).

The Great Fire lasted for 4 days, from 2nd to 5th September, 1666. It burnt down over 10,000 houses and affected over 80,000 Londoners. It spread to most parts of the city of London. Its coincidence with the end period of the Great Plague led superstitious people to see this as a punishment by God. Yet these incidents enlightened some like Christopher Wren and John Evelyn to seek for scientific explanation and practical preventions to such events. The Royal Society established in the early 1660s set itself out to find ‘objective’ causes to the fire. New city plans were drawn to radically change the city. Although the city still kept most of its old face, there were noticeable changes. Public squares proliferated. Houses now are made by bricks instead of woods. Streets are wider and more hygienic. It was expressed through poetry that the ‘rebellious Humours, the horrid Scariledges and gingling Extravagances’ can be eliminated in the new city (Aubin 1943; Ackroyd 2000). London as a body, after the trial of the plague and fire, was rebuilding itself into a ‘healthier being’.

Not only did the face of the city changed but also its composition of people. In order to prevent a rebellion in London, Charles II urged the homeless to leave London and provided compensation. People haunted by the Great fire voluntarily left. On the other hand, hawkers and traders, buildings and bricklayers moved into the city to participate in the rebuilding of houses and trade activities. The city has dramatically changed, for better or for worse.

City as a body

A confluence of time

We have seen from the above how London as a body has constantly faced external threats and internal decay. On one hand, these conditions are always changing. There are different groups of immigrants coming in and out of the city, for different reasons, at different times. The government’s response is different too: from intolerance of Jews and Africans to opening up of borders after joining the EU to reverting to stricter border control nowadays. On the other hand, there are immutable elements to all these events. The division of ‘foreigners’ and ‘locals’, ‘internal’ and ‘external’ is always present. People from outside are always blamed for economic destitute and social problem in the city. They are threats that the government always seeks to regulate. In the ever changing landscape of London we see a timeless flow of immigrants and attitudes of Londoners. There are of course changes but many things remain unchanged, unchallenged. Van Houtum and Pijpers (2007) described the EU as a fortified city which is impenetrable by outsiders, while those inside enjoy ‘strawberry fields forever’. Similarly, London as a body is always strengthening its skin, with steel and stone, to harden the line between insiders and outsiders, in the name of protection for Londoners. With the mentality of viewing outsiders as threat to health of the body, all immigrants from different time will only converge into the timeless group of risk to London. It is only when London can start viewing its incomers as natural exchange of body and the world that this enduring dehumanizing confluence of immigrants may be changed.

Fire and plague in 1665-1666 has brought London to despair. All the past achievements were brought to ashes. People and buildings are effaced. Yet it is also the ashes that a phoenix arises out of. The city has acquired new shapes: safer houses, wider roads, bigger squares. Those years can be seen as a watershed of London history. London is a body of palimpsests that history is erased and new things get written on.

However, conditions of internal decay remain. Social and health problems persist. Homelessness is still prevalent; people are still susceptible to natural hazards like to recent storm in North London; gentrification destroys livelihoods of many. Wren during the rebuilding of London after the fire claimed that he ‘builds for eternity’ (Ackroyd 2000). Yet is he building for eternity, or is the city just moving towards another fatal blast? It is only in the next convergence of time, perhaps through another traumatic event, that we may finally determine the answer.

A form of power control

Viewing London as a body that embodies the confluence of time is a romantic vision. Yet we must not ignore the inconvenient reality that London is also a subject that exercises control over his inhabitants. Power is exerted through the labelling of certain groups and social controls.

Immigrants in London are labelled as threats and blamed for social problems. Yet in reality, no one is innately a threat – one is only made, through discursive power, to be a threat (Foucault 1970). The taken-for-granted claims that immigrants are here only for social benefits show that incomers are always the vulnerable group, awaiting the sentence by London. The city as body, through establishing boundaries, has successfully labelled immigrants as outsiders.

The fire and plague also disproportionately affected the poor within the society. The rodent that carried the plague was mostly found in the impoverished areas where rubbish and waste were everywhere. The rich people, like King Charles II, could leave the city. The death toll was suspected to be much higher, as many poor’s deaths were not recorded (Douglas 1992; Pepys 1971). Similarly, the official death toll of the London Fire was 6. But many suspect the number to be much higher, mainly out of the unrecorded death of poor people and prisoners (Ackroyd 2000).

The city is not just an object where exchange with the outside world and internal chaos take place. It is also a subject, a ‘protagonist’, that directs the outcome of these events (Ackroyd 2000). It can privilege the rich and write off the existence of the poor. It can choose who bears the burden and blame for social inequalities. City as a body does not only embody a harmonious confluence of time but also a cruel judgement upon different people.

Moreover, different forms of social control were used to exert power. The royalty used orders and legislations, laymen used exclusion, to control and marginalise the immigrants. According to Foucault (1977) in Discipline and Punish, the plague time measures were closely linked to the increased surveillance in society we observe today.

Foucault (1975) argued the plague time control in France opened up possibilities for the state to regulate the health of its citizens through surveillance and prevention. People were required to stay at home and report their health status. These gave rise to the centralized state control of people. Similar measures were used in London. Defoe (1969) recalled how the city was like an urban prison where people were confined. They were required to put up red crosses outside the houses of infected people too. These measures influenced later the mentality of government in handling public heath – no longer through exclusion of unhealthy people but the inclusion of the whole population under the banner of health. The city progresses to become a discipline society. It could be argued that the public health policies today have their roots in the plague time (Armstrong 1993; Scambler 2014). Similar examples include the replacement of superstition by science, the advocacy of statistics and planning of city after the Great Fire were apparatus of state increase regulatory power. Here we can see how the city as a body is unceasingly organizing and reorganizing itself, and assuming greater control of power over time. There is a confluence of time as well as an extension of power control.


In this essay, I have picked up events in London history that could fit in the metaphor of London as a body and describe how a confluence of time and power dynamics can be seen in these external threats and internal decay to the body. There is no easy conclusion to whether these changes are good and bad as value judgements are influenced much by power relations. Bringing in power dynamics into the picture reminds us that we can never over romanticized events in London as the poetic confluence of time, but have to view things through critical lenses. Imagining London as a living body that is susceptible to and reacting towards pathologies is only one way of seeing the city. But no matter how we see London, we have to always bear in mind that London is never a passive object that awaits catastrophes but a protagonist that takes control of the state of its own body through the passage of time.


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