Medieval village self-quarantined for 14 months to prevent spread of the plague

Eyam is a picture-perfect English village of less than a thousand people in the Derbyshire Dales. Through a series of happenstance events, Eyam, in 1665, was one of the pioneers in the concept of self-quarantine and social distancing.

That summer a flea-infested bolt of cloth arrived at the local tailor shop. Within a week, people started dying of the plague. Of course, they didn’t know the cause of the Black Death. All they knew was that the blood in the body seemed to congeal, the lymph glands (the buboes) swelled and turned dark blue. Death, from what we know as bubonic plague, soon followed.

The Eyam village green (complete with the old stocks used to punish villagers) and the church in the background. Now a village of less than 1,000 people, it has existed since Roman times and proved the effectiveness of self-quarantine and social distancing during an outbreak of the plague in 1660s.

They blamed everything from swamp vapors to impure living. But they did know that being physically close to anyone ill with the plague often caused infection.
Eyam dates back to Roman times – more than 2,000 years ago – and still exists today, mostly because of two clergymen. The Rev. William Mompesson and the Rev. Thomas Stanley led the local church and when the villages turned to them for answers, the reverends decided to quarantine them from the rest of the world.

Other regulations included what we would now call social distancing. People were to have as little contact with each other as possible. Families were to bury their own dead, on their own land if possible. Church services, considered essential, were held outdoors in Cucklett Delph, a nearby natural amphitheater, allowing people to stay separated.

Self-quarantine, the village leaders reasoned, would prevent the spread of the disease to outside areas. According to history, a few residents of Eyam resisted and left, although it isn’t recorded whether they spread the plague beyond the village boundaries.

The quarantine lasted 14 months. Out of the 350 or so villagers, 83 survived. The Eyam church lists the names of 273 people who died.

Numerous stories and myths have grown up around the quarantine. One tells of a young woman of Eyam who was in love with a young man from the next village. They would meet on opposite sides of a field and shout out their love for each other. In the story, at least, the young man dies of the plague, while his lover lived on and remained a spinster until her death many years later.

Another more probable story concerns the way Eyam villagers bought goods from the outside. They would leave a note with their “shopping list” at a boundary stone on the edge of the village. The money would be in a bowl of vinegar which, they believed, would “sterilize” the coins. Brave merchants would then leave the supplies for the villagers to pick up.

The old children’s nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” is about the plague, which ravaged Europe many times during the Middle Ages. One of the lines, “A pocket full of posey,” refers to the idea that keeping fresh flowers and herbs nearby would ward off the disease. Of course, “We all fall down” is what so often happened to infected people.

I became familiar with Eyam in the mid-1980s when I led walking tours in the Peaks District National Park area. After hearing local guides many times over, I started giving my own tours of the village, graveyard and local sites. While many of my guests were familiar with the polio epidemics and quarantine of the late 1940s and early 1950s, no one could really comprehend the magnitude of an entire village – even as small as Eyam – isolating itself for more than a year. Part of the wonder was the self-sacrifice of the villagers in their quest to contain the infection and keep it from spreading.

The plaque outside the ‘Plague Cottage’ in Eyam, England. The plague started in the village when a bundle of flea-infested cloth arrived in 1665. George Viccars, an employee of cottage owner Mary Hadfield, was the first to die of the disease. The villagers self-quarantined themselves for 14 months to keep the disease from spreading to the surrounding countryside.

Over the years, there have been numerous poems, books, movies, operas and plays about Eyam. One of the best (and most recent) books is “Year of Wonders” by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. Historical fiction, it tells the story of a housemaid, quarantined in Eyam, who becomes romantically involved with the married Rev. Mompesson while helping to heal the people around her. Available on Amazon in the United States, the book is so popular in the United Kingdom that some bookstores have sold out.

True history also records the unlikely people who seemed to have had an immunity to the plague. One woman buried her husband and seven children but survived herself. The local grave digger handled many diseased bodies and did not succumb.

As we contemplate our newly-cleaned garages, immaculate closets and just-trimmed hedges – we have to do something useful with all of this enforced down time – we need to remember that in the history of the world, pandemics are not new events. The infamous Black Death in the 1300s killed as many as 200 million people. We also must remember that, clever as we humans are, nature still keeps surprising us. And just as Eyam withstood the plague some 400 years ago by social distancing and self-quarantine, we Villagers have to stay the course.

It’s boring, tiresome and inconvenient, but in cases like this, emulating the villagers of Eyam could be the best plan in the long run.

John W Prince is a writer and Villager. For more information visit www.HallardPress.com. If you know of someone with a good Story, contact John at John@GoMyStory.com.

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